Does ‘character education’ actually benefit our students?
Just days before her new book, ‘Taught not Caught: Educating for 21st Century Character’ is due to hit the shelves, former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan stated last week that she “would like her book to be a gentle reminder to the DfE of the importance of character education, both in schools and in ITT programs”.
The latest buzzword?
Character education is defined by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, as the ‘explicit and implicit educational activities that help young people develop positive personal strengths called virtues’.
From my perspective, character education is ultimately about facilitating the growth of all students into the best version of themselves. It is about student’s understanding that their worth, their value and most importantly their potential, extend far beyond any academic grade or computer generated target. It is about students discovering what they care about and what they stand for. It is about developing those skills and qualities which will enable every student, to act as their greatest selves in times of success and adversity.
On a personal level for students, knowing who they are and how they matter gives them a greater level of confidence and self-worth. They are their own leaders, their own driving force, fuel, and their own champions. This increased empowerment and fulfilment results in happier, more inspired and ambitious individuals, with improved well-being and mental health – two of the greatest barriers to success and flourishing among millennials.
On a social level, such individuals are more empathetic, tolerant, understanding and patient with others, resulting in greater community cohesion through healthier, more fulfilling personal and professional relationships.
On a societal level, empowered, ambitious, grateful individuals give back to the world. They understand that true fulfilment goes beyond personal gains, and are more likely to want to share their talents and wealth, in whatever forms they take, with others for the betterment of humanity.
It is not a new concept
I do not believe character education is something new, I believe it is already happening in our schools, and has been for as long as there have been teachers who value the development of the whole child, rather than just their academic ability. In saying this I do believe that, as a result of our unbalanced education system, character development has ceased to be as great a priority as it could and should be. In particular non-academic and enrichment activities through which many elements of character are learned and developed have been side-lined as a result of pressures to maximise on results.
An education system which increasingly pores over and prioritises targets, test scores and data, does so at the expense of student’s personal development, mental health and enrichment.
In pursuing this single-minded obsession with subject attainment we risk overlooking and dismissing those attributes which are invaluable to individual and societal flourishing; empathy, honesty, generosity, gratitude, resilience and kindness to name just a few. As we all know, grades and scores alone do not prepare students for the world beyond school. Nor do they give them any meaningful or clear idea of their value or role within it. In contrast, an education system which would practically allow the dedication of time and resources to recognising, nurturing and celebrating the character of young people has the power to be truly transformative.
Prioritising character is not a barrier to success or attainment, but a requirement for it.There must be a shift in priorities and perspectives when it comes to defining what we mean by a quality and valuable education. To quote Sir Ken Robinson: ‘human resources, like natural resources, are often buried deep’. Robinson argues that it is our “job to go looking for them and create the kinds of circumstances where they can present themselves”.
I believe the same is true for human character.
If we fail to produce an environment in which students can develop and excel both academically and holistically, we are failing them, and when we fail these students we fail society and deny a multitude of gifts and qualities that were neither nurtured, nor prioritised.
These attributes cannot not be quantified on a spreadsheet.