Can character be taught?

Yesterday I took part in a panel discussion at the “Character v Knowledge” event organised by the East London Science School and  The Education Foundation.  Below is the transcript of my brief opening talk:

If Ignatius Loyola did say the famous Jesuit maxim, ‘Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man’, I don’t think it was an idle boast but I am sceptical that many of the schools that claim to change character, to psychologically engineer our children’s attributes, are achieving anything of the sort.

Character, in this context seems to mean a jumbled mix of values, virtues, skills and attributes. If the goal of character education is to inculcate virtues, for their own sake, then why are successful programmes judged through improved exam results? Doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily make one successful, it is an end in itself. In practice, the rhetoric of character education seems more instrumentalist than virtuous, a training in skills that provide the means to achieve exam success and other personal gains.

Character is a skill according to many keen promoters of character education but if so then why is the problem of transfer largely ignored? Take being a ‘loving person’. The fact I am loving with my children doesn’t necessarily mean I will show love to my neighbour and certainly not that I will love studying geography. We use one word ‘loving’ but it means different things in different contexts. How much more transferable between domains are the ‘skills’ we have named curiosity and resilience?

My school’s rugby sevens team has just won the national trophy. Despite the character traits their many hours of training must have inculcated why is it that I can only guess which students in my classes were in the team through their muscular bulk, not their approach to cooperative work? If sport does inculcate useful attributes it seems transfer isn’t easy or guaranteed.

Such questions should be enough to give pause for thought – even without considering how unsuccessful large scale attempts at character education have been to date. In East Germany from 1958 – 1976 the full power of the state got behind the inculcation of a ‘socialist personality’ with attributes such as ‘mutual help and comradely cooperation’. There is some hubris in believing you can engineer a better society. Our own government’s attempts have been no more successful. Look at the dismal impact of PHSEE lessons, and the failure of SEAL.

Hope springs eternal and over the last few years many schools, influenced by Dweck, have opted for exhortation with general maxims or providing helpful prompts when task setting. They hope that reasoning with students will encourage them to apply suggested principles. Schools seem less willing to allow children to actually live with the consequences of failure or to compel children to behave in ways that could one day become good habits. Sure, efforts that have a narrow enough focus, for example on persuading children to work harder in school, should have some positive impact but has character changed?

Increasing self-esteem was the last big thing but we now know that often our efforts did more harm than good. What if too much perseverance stops people behaving pragmatically, thinking of clever short cuts? What if significant perseverance is learnt through serious failure? What if our unskilled attempts at amateur cognitive therapy go wrong?

It is possible to mould values and change children’s habits over the span of their childhood in reaction to the myriad of situations that arise naturally, through a judicious mix of exhortation, example and crucially compulsion also. That is what traditional parenting and schooling does and all we really know will work until such time as we can realistically claim to have a formula for creating good character. To quote Roger Scruton, “…wisdom is seldom contained in a single head, and is more likely to be enshrined in customs that have stood the test of time than in schemes of radicals and activists.”



King Solomon’s judgement

As a child I was bemused by the apparent wisdom of King Solomon. You may be familiar with the story. Two mothers from the same household came to the king both claiming that a baby was theirs and that the other mother’s baby had been accidentally smothered. Solomon called for a sword and proposed to cut the baby in half to resolve the conflict over whose baby it was. At this point the real mother agreed to relinquish the baby, preferring it to live, even if it was no longer her own. So far, so sensible. It was the other woman’s attitude that never made sense to me. Her jealousy meant she preferred to prevent the other mother keeping the child, even if that led to the death of the baby and so she agreed to Solomon’s proposal.  But how could anyone agree to the destruction of something as precious as a baby? Surely the woman must have been aware that such a disregard for the child’s well being would give her away?

A recent twitter discussion made me reappraise my childhood dismissal of Solomon’s judgement. If you are not regularly on ‘teacher twitter’ you may not be aware that no holiday is complete without a phonics spat. The phonics screening check was the topic of discussion. This check in year one is strongly supported by advocates of Systematic Synthetic Phonics and condemned by opponents as pointless and harmful. I think the reason discussions become so heated is because everyone involved really cares about getting the teaching of reading right. What is most interesting is that both sides claim to really value giving children a knowledge of phonics and decoding (sounding out) as a means to decode words, whether as the exclusive strategy or one of a number of possible approaches. So phonics decoding is my metaphorical baby, both sides claiming to love it but how will they respond to Solomon’s test of their commitment?

On twitter recently someone who claims to support phonics complained about the need to ‘learn’ the practice non words set home. (In the check children are told these are made up words and they are used to check a child really can ‘sound out’ and hasn’t just memorised enough words in the check as wholes. Non words have been a standard part of tests conducted for many years by educational psychologists to detect reading problems in children.) I had never before heard of children being asked to learn non words as wholes. It is pointless because the non words used change each year. It also displays an ignorance of how you might improve children’s performance in the check. You can get better by practicing ‘sounding out’ words with growing confidence. I tweeted back that:

“Learning non words will not help you pass the phonics check at all. Total waste of time.”

To which she replied:

“I know that – it’s using whole word techniques for decoding but the system is rotten.”

One reply to the original tweeter said that:

“it’s bad practice but high stakes-ness means inevitable.”

I cannot begin to comprehend how anyone that believes it is useful for children to be able to decode text by ‘sounding out’ could describe this approach as just ‘bad practice’ and then in the next line suggest it is the pressure of having a check which is the problem, not incompetence.

1. Why is there desperation to get enough kids passing the check? Over 600 schools had 95% or more children pass the check, including schools with pupils drawn from areas with high levels of deprivation/ high FSM.

2. If so few of the children in your class are likely to pass that you opt for desperate measures the children must be relying on ‘other methods’ such as guessing from first letters, pictures or context and not even likely to resort to ‘sounding out’ when other methods fail. In other words they have not been taught to use phonics as even a regular, let alone primary or exclusive, method to decode words. It is actually statutory for phonic decoding to be THE method used for decoding.

3. Anyone that thinks learning non words will help must be ignorant of why it is a waste of time which shows ignorance of even basic understanding of phonics teaching. Lots of schools don’t prioritise ‘sounding out’ when their children read books and so their pupils use guessing strategies. Most at least of these schools realise that lots of sounding out practice is the way forward in the run up to the check.

Rather than condemning the check for adding pressure anyone that wants children to use decoding (even as one strategy among others) would surely be relieved that the check has highlighted any failure to teach confident phonic decoding or even appreciate it is the solution to passing the check.

I have used these tweets as examples but the attitudes they show are very common. If you in any way value the teaching of phonics such practices would horrify you and you could not possibly be satisfied with your own children being taught using any methods that mean they cannot use phonic decoding with confidence to read. It seems that here we have another version of king Solomon’s test. If anyone promotes reading strategies that, by their nature, mean children are unlikely to develop confident phonic decoding skills, they simply are NOT supporters of phonic decoding.

I have often wondered how teachers can so openly show that they do not teach in ways that will lead to children confidently decoding with phonics and yet still claim to value it. I think Solomon was onto something. Perhaps people really do hide their lack of real concern for things they claim to value in plain sight. Really that lack of value is shown by all schools that encourage ‘mixed methods’. To learn and confidently use phonic decoding requires systematic practice which is not provided by the books used in most schools. We all know perfectly well that the majority of children faced with the option of guessing with books specifically written to encourage this, or a slightly more laborious approach of sounding out will opt for the former. To decode with phonics eyes must scan left to right through each whole word. With ‘mixed methods’ eyes jump around looking for cues to guess from. The two approaches are not even compatible. Children that are thrown by the words in the check will also be unable to use phonic decoding to read unfamiliar words in their reading books. You cannot get young children (or anyone) to use two different strategies as habit, simultaneously. Generally either they guess from cues or they read through the word. If they are in the habit of reading by guessing (mixed methods), they will have very limited practice of sounding out and are significantly less likely to do so confidently when reading books.

When the evidence for the importance of phonics became too overwhelming to ignore many teachers had a strong ideological commitment to other methods or had always used them. It made sense to tack on some token phonics to your usual whole word approaches. The screening check picks up where this is happening and so I am not surprised it is so vehemently opposed by some who claim support phonics.

Update 5/4/15 Although the material in the original version of this post was all in the public domain I have again edited this post, on request, to protect privacy.