There was a time in education when you could not have a conversation without someone mentioning “character”, “grit” or “resilience”.
Consultants jumped on these “soft skills” as a chance to sell solutions to schools. Politicians jumped on them as a solution to a rise in mental health issues among young people (former education secretary Nicky Morgan even wrote a book on character). And teachers embraced the movement in the hope that it could make a real difference in their classrooms. It was a movement that even had its own edu-celebrities, such as academic Carol Dweck (of “growth mindset” fame) and journalists such as Paul Tough (who wrote How Children Succeed: grit, curiosity and the hidden power of character).
But then the focus seemed to shift. The backlash against the likes of Dweck began, unfavourable studies were published questioning the evidence behind the research that propped character education up and the politicians lost interest. Morgan’s character education grant scheme was scrapped by her replacement, Justine Greening, for example.
Character education still has a presence: there are countless programmes and websites promoting the value of teaching character; there is a dedicated subject association – ACE (the Association for Character Education) – and there is even an MA in character education, offered by the University of Birmingham. But the buzz has gone out of it and been replaced with a high degree of scepticism among many teachers and commentators.
So where does that leave character education now?
Angela Duckworth is a good person to ask. Her book Grit: the power of passion and perseverance remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 20 weeks after it was released in May 2016, and the Christopher H Browne distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania became the go-to spokesperson for the entire movement.
Has the partial fall of “grit” (and character) in education left her more circumspect about talking up the importance of these traits? Not at all.
“Grit is the combination of passion and perseverance for long-term goals,” Duckworth explains. “It’s the common denominator among high achievers.”
She was not surprised that the character movement took off as dramatically as it did. The resonance of grit within the teaching community makes sense to Duckworth, who was herself a teacher of maths and science before retraining in psychology.
“I think in part [the popularity of character education] is because many of us have the intuition that it can’t just be raw talent that makes someone successful; that, in fact, doing something important – no matter what it is that you choose to do – requires sustained effort,” she says.
Duckworth is still convinced of the importance of grit, but her more recent work tells her that this is just one of a set of traits that students would benefit from developing and which, taken together, add up to what she calls “character”. And although she understands why many educators have embraced the movement, she says that ongoing, rigorous – and impartial – research still needs to happen in this area.
She founded her non-profit organisation, Character Lab, six years ago with the purpose of advancing the “science and practice of character development”. Through Character Lab, Duckworth has built up an extensive network of schools, which she collaborates with to run studies that will help to build a more robust foundation to inform work around character.
In January, Character Lab conducted its very first large-scale experiment, with 14,000 high school students participating at random in a variety of different activities designed to develop character.
“This enables us to see if any of the activities were helpful, and which of the activities were more helpful than others,” says Duckworth.
The team is waiting to receive the results from all the schools that participated, so it has not yet analysed the full data.
“But I will say, ‘It is science,’” says Duckworth. “So, unlike someone who is just looking for their programme to be proven to be effective, for us it’s really a question of whether anything that was designed was effective and it’s the first step in a very long journey, I think, to introduce the idea of data and innovation and experimentation into education: the scientific method and thinking about things rigorously and in some ways dispassionately – like, the data are what the data are – if the programme doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”
‘Strengths of heart’
Her early research has already helped her to understand more about what character is. “For me, character includes strengths like grit and self-control ... but also extends to empathy and compassion, kindness, generosity, gratitude – so strengths that I would call strengths of heart, because they are really about you relating in positive ways to other people,” she explains.
In addition to these “strengths of heart”, she identifies two other groups that make up character: “strengths of will” – which include grit and self-control – and “strengths of mind”. “Those are strengths like curiosity and creativity, intellectual humility; those strengths that enable you to have a really free and fertile life of the mind,” Duckworth explains. “And I think that all of these strengths are important for kids to develop.”
One study in particular has led Duckworth to believe that there is a “usefulness and a validity” to approaching character as this “three-part taxonomy” of strengths.
“We gave questionnaires to hundreds of teenagers and their teachers, and for a long list of behaviours we had them say whether this was something they did or they didn’t do,” she says. “And we find that there are these three clusters, these three groupings of character strength, that resemble each other within the group more than across the group. That is to say that when a kid has grit they are more likely to have self-control, not perfectly, but there’s just on average a trend. And then it’s likely if you are, for example, grateful, you’re also someone who has, for example, social intelligence.
“So this grouping of heart, mind and will come out in data, and that’s one of the studies that really motivates our work because it says to us that, if you’re a teacher or a headmaster or a parent, you in a way have a three-item checklist. Are my kids developing in these three important domains? If they’re only developing in one, or even two, maybe there’s some attention that needs to be given to what is lacking.”
As for what teachers should be doing to help pupils to develop in these three domains, that is something that Duckworth is still trying to figure out. Like many others, she is not yet convinced about how far character can be “taught”.
“There is some debate about whether you can teach these [strengths] or whether, in fact, you have them or you don’t. Or maybe somewhere in between, people say you can pick them up, but you can’t be taught them in the way you can be taught tennis or calculus,” she says.
Nevertheless, as noted above, she has been trialling specific activities and interventions as part of the study that she started in January and does have some suggestions that teachers can try.
“My feeling is that some amount of learning is in reading [about] these things, talking about them, really explicit and intentional things that parents and teachers can do, but a lot of it is modelling and that is implicit,” she says.
The way teachers interact with students is important, Duckworth adds. When a student makes a mistake, for instance, how the teacher delivers feedback about that “can very dramatically determine whether your student says to themselves afterwards in some way, shape or form: ‘I’m a learner, this is part of learning.’ Or, ‘I’m stupid. I’m not a maths person. This isn’t for me.’”
“How do you frame that feedback? Do you frame it as, ‘Oh gosh, this is terrible. You have a real problem here’? Or do you frame it as, ‘Failure is a necessary part of learning; let’s look at exactly what you got wrong. Let’s actually, one by one, think about why you said what you did and what we’re going to do differently next time,’” she says.
Ultimately, though, Duckworth stresses that we don’t have all the answers about character just yet. And she is convinced that the only way to move things forwards is for teachers and scientists to work more closely in partnership, conducting experiments together – rather than researchers studying what goes on in the classroom “from afar”.
What she hopes for is that through this process we can begin to build more knowledge about character education and create interventions – and teachers – that can have an impact in this area of learning (the implication here is that you might want to look again at any interventions you think may already do this, or that claim to).
The ultimate aim, she says, is to have “psychologically wise” professionals.
“By that, I mean adults who really understand the way motivation and attention and interest and habits, grit, empathy – the way these things really work as a child is developing and insofar as they do understand better, based on science, how development works, that they’re doing a better job of raising kids to develop these character strengths of heart, mind and will. That’s the dream,” Duckworth says.
Helen Amass is deputy commissioning editor at Tes. She tweets @Helen_Amass