Character isn’t something to be taught only in PSHE. You bring it to every task, and every task offers opportunities to develop it. It isn’t fixed or something that will materialise on its own. If we’re serious about teaching character, it needs to be integrated into every element of schools and teaching.
The following five steps evolve from something we pay lip service to with the odd inspirational poster, to something that schools can gift pupils alongside their test results.
To prepare the ground a little, you need to create a common vocabulary across the school. You also need to help pupils learn why a focus on character development will help them achieve their goals.
Character can be introduced by reverse-engineering children’s role models. A footballer is a good mixture of teamwork, communication skills, grit, creativity, courage, concentration and risk-taking. An author… Well, you get the gist.
Once pupils have a common list of characteristics that contribute to success, the next step is for them to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. Children may self-audit to identify areas they need to focus on, or identify strengths in peers and others (including you). It is essential that pupils learn that their current weaknesses are not to be shied away from; instead, they can be improved by taking every opportunity in the school day to rehearse these skills.
Do students think they’re poor at concentration? What’s the longest they’ve ever dedicated to a computer game? Explore occasions where students have applied a helpful character trait and encourage them to practise this in the current academic situation. While children can’t spend all day playing football, school provides plenty of opportunities to develop character traits that in future may be recombined in a wide range of contexts. The main outcomes at this stage are for pupils to develop a common vocabulary, a growth mindset and a sense that they are masters of their own personality.
The secret to building these characteristics over time is to be explicit about which combination of traits is needed to achieve different tasks. It’s also about helping to orientate pupils towards being the best version of themselves in a variety of situations.
The simplest method is to draw attention to three or four characteristics from the common pool that are required to achieve the lesson objective. Then focus attention on encouraging pupils to exhibit these characteristics, for example, through comments in class, written feedback, self-evaluation or peer assessment. If success in today’s science lesson requires collaboration, curiosity, teamwork and listening skills, is that what you’re doing right now? If not, practise.
In the longer term, the goal would be for students to identify for themselves how they need to be in order to achieve. Some primary schools write individual characteristics on pebbles and pupils learn to select the appropriate traits for the task ahead. This orientates them towards knowing how to be in order to succeed. It also links to meta-cognition, which is a highly effective means of helping pupils to progress.
The shared pool of characteristics can also be used to have fun with starters that get students in the right frame of mind for the task ahead. Going to need good concentration? Why not play a concentration game for a couple of minutes to tune up that skill in anticipation of the task ahead. If you can do it when it’s a game…
Be open with pupils about the character traits you use daily and those that you continue to develop. Try to find opportunities to role-model the full range of traits.
Integrating character development is as simple as being explicit in communicating how pupils need to be and what you see them do.
Pupils are quick to work out which aspects of their performance really matter to the school. Literacy and numeracy dominate primary school timetables, reports and parents’ evenings. For students to know that you have high expectations of their progress in character development, it has to permeate every aspect of feedback. More discussion of the “characteristics for success” during a lesson and in written feedback is a start.
It’s possible to give encouraging, but stretching, targets for pupils to develop their independence, creativity and listening skills, just as they know their next steps academically.
Character development can also be given greater prominence at parents’ evenings and on reports – not as a bolt-on but as a central element in how pupils are doing and what they need to work on to make progress. Awards in assembly, notes home, merits – these can all tie back to the school’s agreed common pool of helpful personality traits.
Parents might reinforce – or undermine – the school’s character-growth messages, so it’s vital to get them on board and sharing in the common vocabulary. A meeting with parents to look at how they can support the work of the school would be a start, but look for other ways to signal to parents the relevance of character-talk with their children.
Homework tasks can be opportunities to rehearse character traits and have loads of fun, such as teamwork (football), creativity (paper planes), confidence (giving a performance) and perseverance (completing a hard level of a game online). Have fun at team meetings inventing starters and homework tasks to meet the school’s character-development goals.
Make it part of the culture
Look at ways in which to reflect the school’s focus on character in the wider culture. The school could tweet regular examples of pupils’ activities that connect back to core characteristics, such as:
l “Curiosity: today our pupils are investigating outdoors”; or
l “Resilience: our netball team is showing this by playing in the pouring rain.”
Some schools have taken to displaying former pupils’ achievements along corridors as a means of inspiring current students. These pictures could include a few key characteristics that have helped them to become successful.
Celebrate the achievements of staff in assemblies. This is an opportunity for staff to communicate how their achievements were built on the back of rehearsing core character traits.
Where do we see areas of the school focused on curiosity, imagination, risk-taking or passion for learning? Look for ways in which the characteristics can be evidenced in planning, as well as in the decor and routines of the school.
Steve Harris is a freelance consultant working with Public Health in Leicestershire to integrate resilience and character development into routine practice in the authority’s schools