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.”




4 thoughts on “Can character be taught?

  1. Thanks, Heather. I enjoyed your talk – indeed the ideas of the whole day are to be savoured over the coming weeks. The issue of the definition of ‘character’ in the schooling sense (to take Michael Fordham’s point on board) is crucial, if schools are actually to operate ‘on’ a character level, as political and media messages would have us believe…but if we are not to, if, in state schools, we are left to choose our own focus, then does the definition really matter anyway? I’m also thinking of Katie Ashford’s point about the huge number of positive attributes that might be listed, criterion referenced, assessed and reported on (please, NO). It would be never-ending. Too much publicity for decontextualised character programmes could cause this to happen, and let’s hope Ofsted doesn’t start praising these programmes in a way that leads to the inevitable “Schools should..” declarations.

    My view would be that “schools should” focus on what “schools should” be doing best: using teachers’ subject expertise to deliver solid learning. There is an argument, though, for pastoral systems to take a role. (I’m not going into the realm of extra-curricular activities here, as I think this is a different dimension of the issue.) From the form tutor upwards, we develop relationships based on expectations and reinforcement..we shape behaviour, discourage and, if need be, punish the undesirable impulses. In my view, as the grown ups, this is key. Every day conversations shape ‘character’ if a school is taking its social, as well as academic, responsibilities seriously.

    My school operates around a number of key ‘catch phrases’, one of which is “Would it do for your child?”. We believe that the teacher and tutor role, on the corridors, in the classrooms, at break, on the field at lunch, even in the shops in the town, means setting boundaries and expecting the best of the students, just as we would with our own children. Quite a few staff do have children in the school, and have had in the past – I teach my own son – it’s in everybody’s interests to make sure the teaching of knowledge and ‘character’ in the broadest sense is as strong as possible and that ‘transference’ isn’t an issue because each is integral to the other rather than being on parallel tracks.


  2. It’s refreshing to see your emphasis in training habits. This is developing what C S Lewis refers to as the ‘chest’ in ‘The Abolition of Man’. He points out there that no amount of reasoning will enable someone to do something, even if they recognise that they should, without thorough training.

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