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’.