The issue of building character in schools is near-ubiquitous in government messaging, educational blogging and senior leadership team meetings across the country. In short, character education is, apparently, key to preparing young people for life in modern Britain.
Both education secretary Nicky Morgan, and her Labour shadow Tristram Hunt are very keen to see schools take on this responsibility – but despite their warm words have failed to explain or communicate what they mean.
Further, as their direct involvement on such a sensitive – and important – subject could prove dangerous, I would argue that such a subject should be left to schools to get their heads around – and then act. But how?
The first area of character that is often spoken about is ‘grit’. US-based Tiger Mother-turned-teacher-turned-psychologist Angela Duckworth argues about the importance of grit/resilience/being self-efficacious in a recent TED talk. She argues that the ability to push oneself through adversity is the necessity to success within education. Sadly, like the UK government, she doesn’t really know how to build this in young people – but correctly identifies that it is important nonetheless.
Grit, to my understanding, is the ability to see failure as a learning opportunity and to grab the "failure bull" by the horns. Is grit something that schools could measure and define? I’m uncertain.
One possible solution could be to concentrate on competencies. Competencies are easier to measure and build. For example, if grit is a synonym of resilience, then teachers can build resilience through setting challenging tasks in PE or maths, or offer programmes such as the Duke of Edinburgh in their school. It’s dangerous to make character a measure as a benchmark if it cannot be defined, and so breaking it down into competencies such as resilience can allow a school to be creative with their provision for young people.
In my opinion, this competency-building can be nurtured if schools embrace the language used by Carol Dweck. Dweck, for those of you in the dark, laments the "fixed mindset" attitudes of young people, who believe their intelligence is permanent. Instead she promotes the idea of a "growth mindset" in young people, who enjoy challenging their ability. In short, schools need to ensure that teachers are praising students on effort rather than ability, so as not to constrain the latter.
A growth mindset is a character trait – that character being the drive to succeed. Teachers can educate students through the power of growth mindset language and therefore build character in young people that will make them ready for life outside of the school gates. The objective is for students to not be bogged down with bettering individual tasks but the insatiable need to better oneself.
Alongside building such a mentality, schools must focus on the creative arts – something I can truly attest to. And I don’t mean writing depressive poetry in bathrooms.
Drama, design and music – to name a few – allow students to explore the right side of their brain, communicate with others, and build friendships, confidence and appreciation for culture. This list alone screams character. Schools need to ensure that all of their young people are involved in the arts in some capacity – whether it be a dance performance, building furniture or joining the choir. Provision must be in place for students to discover a skill and a passion, and doing so will build the character that Morgan and Hunt seem to want. Through this collaborative learning, and excitement for a new endeavour, students will form friendships, be kind to each other and support each other’s growth. For me, that is character.
The narrative that bothers me is that ability to define character. It would be dangerous for successive governments to redefine character and so I don’t think we should allow the current one to do so presently.
Instead we should look to the fantastic teachers around the country praising effort, encouraging teamwork in lessons and developing kind, loyal individuals in pastoral settings. We should focus on nurturing inquisitive minds, opening eyes and ears to cultural capital and building competencies through extra-curricular opportunities and a challenging curriculum.
If we focus on that, our students will be prepared for life in modern Britain. And have bundles of character besides.