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The problem with character education

Kat Arney questions whether we really know what character education is – and if ‘character’ is even something that can be taught

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Kat Arney questions whether we really know what character education is – and if ‘character’ is even something that can be taught

Ever since Nicky Morgan, the former secretary of state for education, put forward the idea that children might not be able to meet the higher expectations of more rigourous academic tests due to a lack of "character", there has been an obsession with character education.

The Department for Education threw money at the idea: millions of pounds was provided in grants for schools to develop character projects. It set up awards for schools which tackled character education particularly well. It touted the work of "character" heavyweights like Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth.

As might be expected, schools quickly fell in line and rushed to adopt the new approaches.

But no one seemed to stop and ask whether it was even possible to “teach” character at all.


Stanford University professor Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth’s book Grit and journalist Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed have all topped the bestseller lists and become the semi-official canon of character education.

The fact that all three have publicly urged caution around the use of their work as a “manual” has largely not curtailed the books’ usage in prescriptive ways in schools. Dweck, in particular, has lamented the misinterpretation of her work.

“A lot of educators think I’ll give a lesson on growth mindset and that will be it, rather than embodying it in their teaching and infiltrating it through the whole culture of the classroom,” she explains.

But it’s not just the fact that the calls for caution from the prophets of the character creed have largely fallen on deaf ears, both on the frontline and in political circles, that is worrying.

It’s also that what we now have in the UK is a large-scale adoption of the theory of the necessity of character development without much hard evidence to back up any of the preferred routes to making that happen in schools.

No ‘golden solution’

Duckworth, Dweck and the rest do have some good evidence that their theories work in practice. But as they say themselves, this doesn’t mean that their books should be used as lesson plans or that they’re the golden solution to teaching character in schools.

We seem to be in the odd situation where schools are racing to adopt new ideas while the researchers who are painstakingly piecing together the evidence to support these trendy interventions are struggling to catch up. This gap is something that greatly concerns Dweck.

“It’s very positive that people are working on this when it’s so needed,” she says. “The one reason we are working so hard is that we don’t want these concepts to be distorted and then found to be ineffective in their distorted form. The ideas I’m putting forward have more evidence behind them than any educational concepts have ever had, but there’s always a danger that they’ll be distorted and misused and found to be ineffective, and then they’ll be discarded and the next fad will come along.”

Duckworth is also cautious of labelling character education as either a fad or a fully fledged fact. “I hope it isn’t just a fad,” she says, optimistically. “Fads come from false expectations and an impatience for easy, quick solutions. I don’t think figuring out how to cultivate character in our children will be easy or quick. On the contrary, it will likely be difficult and progress may be uneven. But will we make progress? If we grown-ups can do this work while exemplifying character, yes, I think we’ll make progress.”

Dr Kat Arney is a science author, broadcaster and co-presenter of the BBC Radio 5Live Science show

This is an edited version of a feature in the 16 September issue of TES. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. The magazine is also available in all good newsagents.

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