On teaching character

There are some traits we would like to encourage in children. I am very sceptical about the trend in schools to instil ‘character’. I’ll try and explain why.

Take one less desirable character trait – greed. If we know a person who is greedy for food do we expect that trait to be evident in other areas? They may be gluttonous but does that make them avaricious? If not greedy for money are they more likely to be needy, ‘greedy’ for affection?

Let’s think about a more desirable trait – love. Should we teach kids to ‘love’ learning by encouraging them to love in other areas? Does increased care for friends transfer to love of geography?

I hope my point is clear. I think that in the same way generic ‘skills’ are not as transferable as we think, neither are generic character traits. We have a tendency to assume a trait can transfer between contexts just because in our language we have a general word that can be used in different contexts. How much do we know about whether ‘resilience’ means the same thing in different contexts?

I have often wondered about how well we can build character because I teach at a public school which places enormous stress on the importance of sport in developing character. My gut feeling is that playing sport every day is a ‘good thing’. However, I can’t count how many times I have been astonished to hear of the skills and character displayed by a child on the sports pitch that I see no sign of in the classroom. Ability to work as part of a team learnt in sport does not seem to mean they will play their part in class group work.

It is clearly incorrect to state that generic skills or character traits DON’T EVER transfer to other contexts. However, they don’t necessarily transfer as READILY as we like to presume and it depends on how CLOSE or similar the two contexts are. For example I presume an accomplished horse rider:
Might use their skills to learn to ride a camel quicker than the average
But might not be much quicker to learn to ride a surf board!

If you’ve read Matthew Syed’s ‘Bounce’ you might remember him describing that as a champion at table tennis he expected to be able to use his fabulous reaction skills to return very fast tennis serves. He found out that apparently the same skill, returning service, was based on much more context specific knowledge than one would assume. In fact ‘quick reaction time’ was not a generic transferable skill after all.

I think character traits are, like skills, not as generic and transferable as is blithely assumed by schools setting up policies to inculcate good character. Politicians are promising to prioritise character development but I think all these efforts are doomed to fail because no one seems to be asking whether apparent development of character in one context can transfer to another.

I suspect the answer is ‘not readily’.


7 thoughts on “On teaching character

  1. Yes and no to some of this. Having played more tennis than I care to remember to a reasonable level (decent county junior), returning fast serves comes down to predicting where the ball is going on based on the ball toss and subtle cues in the server’s body motion. Obviously Syed won’t have that, coming from table tennis, but reaction time does count, and had he more practice in lawn tennis he’d probably be much better than the average person (who had had similar practice) in returning fast serves.

    A lot of stuff is talked about the importance of sport in developing character. I think not enough attention is played to differentiating between sports. Golf and tennis are incredibly mentally demanding sports because there is no team to back you up and cushion failure; if you lose, you alone are responsible. Losing hurts. There’s no other word. It’s viciously, horrible painful to sweat your heart out for hours, over and over again, and come away with nothing, and there’s no one else to blame other than yourself. Once I used to cry after losing intense matches. Then I didn’t any more. Eventually you become inured to failure. It’s just a part of life. I am not sure that team sports succeed half so well in getting this message across.

    For the most part, character traits are inherent qualities of the person anyway, as a large behavior genetic literature shows (e.g http://www.vipbg.vcu.edu/Articles/jpersonality-altruism-1986.pdf). So there are excellent reasons think that taking character education too seriously is probably a very bad idea, particularly if it takes curriculum time away from academic learning, which is the one thing we know we can teach! Sport is great for health and fitness anyway – it doesn’t need to improve character to be worth it.

    Incidentally, from what the kids I tutor tell me, the explicit teaching of character in their version of PSHE is something they absolutely despise and think is a complete joke. Any teacher who does take it seriously is held in contempt.

  2. Loved this post please keep writing. I would love to read more about character. maybe you could write about how you are teaching and what types of things you personally are doing. 🙂

    1. Thank you that is kind. The truth is I am not consciously trying to do anything because I don’t think time devoted to speculative approaches to developing character is well spent. That is not to say I don’t think anything a good teacher does will develop character, I’m sure some things do. However, I think it is safer to view character development as a byproduct than an aim in education. If you aim for more you might just be wasting lots of time that could be used doing what I know I can do- help children learn some history and politics!
      I also wrote this:
      This post is related and is a favourite of mine:
      http://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/2013/11/24/mindset-and-the-cult-of-personality-adjustment/ and this:

  3. I think you are right on this. I also think the same issue comes up with attempts to teach social skills. It’s amazing how people always think one set of social skills, usually a mix of extrovert behaviour and superficial charm, is appropriate in all situations.

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