Restoring character to its rightful place

27th June 2014 at 01:00
Mindfulness has been dismissed as modish claptrap by many, yet resilience and virtue were pillars of learning in ancient times

It has been refreshing to read recent pieces in these pages laying siege to various education fads. In a profession that can be more trend-conscious than an East London hipster, such scepticism and a demand for evidence are welcome.

We all know the appalling damage that has been wreaked on schools by progressive teaching philosophies, neologisms with a scant evidence base that have dominated British education and led us to be the only Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development country where the literacy of 16- to 24-year-olds is no better than those aged 55-64.

The bar for widespread innovation in teaching practice ought to be set high, and changes should be based as far as possible on scientifically verified research. It is for that reason that Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, was wrong to dismiss the potential of mindfulness - and with it, implicitly, character education as a whole - to improve pupils' academic performance and well-being ("Mindfulness is a fad, not a revolution", Comment, 18 April). For a start, Furedi fails to furnish us with any evidence of his claims that mindfulness is happy claptrap.

Others are more thorough. Interventions such as the Penn Resiliency Programme have been shown to have positive effects on well-being and standards. And I am involved with the Developing Healthy Minds in Teenagers project, a randomised controlled trial of more than 30 schools that will establish the impact of a set of programmes, including mindfulness, on academic and mental health outcomes. There is no toolkit yet on how to close the performance gap among disadvantaged pupils, but the evidence base of effective practice is growing.

To be sure, there is plenty of hokum in this field. In her wonderful, acerbic book Smile or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich takes on the extremes of the positive thinking movement, castigating the appalling absence of humanity or scientific rigour among those who believe that positive thinking is a panacea for any illness or problem, no matter how serious. She powerfully records the despair of cancer sufferers, whose bogus gurus blame the progress of their illness on insufficiently positive mental attitudes.

I take her critique very seriously, and anyone promoting the potential of character education or positive psychology in education needs to be extremely careful about the extent of their claims. Genes, upbringing and environment are powerful influences on how our lives will turn out. But the idea that our paths are not totally predestined or tied to circumstance, that positive change is possible through education, is an ancient one.

The classical conception of education begins with the Greeks, Aristotle in particular, and in it the purpose of schooling is twofold: to introduce young people to the best that has been known and thought, to use Matthew Arnold's phrase, and to prepare them with the strength of character to live a good life.

As Clare Jarmy eloquently argued in TESS last week ("Aiming to please", Feature, 20 June), this conception has been a feature of Western civilisation for millennia. While she traces its decline to the Enlightenment, I believe the real turning point was the emergence of postmodernism. The post-war crisis of adult authority and the growth of moral relativism shunted out of classroom practice the idea that schools should develop a range of virtues in children. A similar and parallel calamity happened to the teaching of knowledge in schools. But just as the extreme social liberalism of the 1960s and 70s is fading, we should not be surprised that educating for character is making a comeback. Indeed, parents are crying out for it: polling by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues has shown that 87 per cent of them want schools to educate for academic excellence and character development.

This argument would be confined to the ivory towers of university education departments if modern science were not reinforcing the wisdom of the ancients. Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has shown that character strengths, sometimes called non-cognitive traits, are skill-like and can be positively influenced with the right instruction. Alongside James Arthur, director of the Jubilee Centre and professor of education and civic engagement, I have summarised the many benefits brought by the purposeful development of these virtues.

`Character plus academics'

Character is not fixed, the leopard can change her spots and we can all become better versions of ourselves. This is a profoundly optimistic view of human potential and matches the aspirations that many teachers have for their pupils.

Aha, say some critics, this may all be true but we know your real purpose: you want to dilute the focus on standards with this wishy-washy stuff. To answer that, look at the evolution of the Kipp (Knowledge Is Power Program) group of charter schools in the US, whose story is told by Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed. A group of schools formed to get poor, mainly black, urban children into college, Kipp found that its no-excuses academic approach was phenomenally successful at getting children into university - up to 10 times the local average - but not great at keeping them there.

Looking back at its data, Kipp found that the best predictor of college graduation was not grades, but the ability to stick to tasks. This led it to the door of the University of Pennsylvania, and Angela Duckworth in particular. Duckworth pioneered the understanding and measurement of "grit" in young people, and has shown that this quality - perseverance in the pursuit of long-term goals - is a better predictor of success than IQ. She helped Kipp to develop its character growth report card, and Kipp co-founder Dave Levin now talks of "character plus academics" as the twin strands of education's DNA. My charity, Floreat Education, is taking the same approach, aiming to develop both virtue and knowledge in primary school children.

Far from being a fad, developing young people's character virtues, of which mindfulness is a small but important part, is as old as the hills. The traditional purpose of moral education - giving children the practical wisdom to make good decisions for their own benefit and the benefit of others - has been given new impetus by the cognitive sciences. It is Furedi and his fellow critics, not the advocates of character education, who are the historical anomalies, the freewheeling faddists of a fading era. The question is not why we should educate for character, but how can we not?

James O'Shaughnessy was head of the Downing Street policy unit during 2010-11 and is director of Mayforth Consulting

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