Nicky Morgan was Education Secretary in the UK between 2014 and 2016. A core facet of her approach was the concepts of grit, resilience and character. As part of her role, she visited numerous schools across the country, identifying fantastic examples and novel approaches towards ‘character education’. Taught not Caught brings together some of these fantastic examples, along with pointers on how schools and organisations interested in the character education approach can get started.
This is a great introduction to the concepts of character education, signposting some considerations and resources that may be of use to schools commencing their “character education” journey.
Why character education?
The book begins by outlining the rationale behind a character-led approach. She states that the UK education system is only doing half the job it needs to in preparing young people for the 21st century. My annotations at this point revealed that a lot of the skills and character traits required to succeed in the 21st century are those that have stood the test of time. The traits mentioned would not be out of place in 20AD, 200AD or 2020AD.
The more people we have with well-formed characters, the stronger and more values-driven our society will be
In order to prepare for a changing world (and the 21st century seems to be changing at a pace far greater to that of previous generations), we must develop the character that enable our young people to thrive. This foundation will provide them with the tools to succeed no matter the climate. Strong character can withstand the harshest of inclement weather.
Schools should prepare for the test of life, rather than simply a life of tests
A lot has been said and written regarding the preoccupation of our education system with exams. The reality is more nuanced, but certainly there’s a responsibility on society (not just teachers) to provide our young people with the tools to thrive in the world. School provides a gilt-edged opportunity to build this character, and exams must represent only a small fraction of what schools set out to do. In practice, this agenda is driven by pressures from above. In order to have a more holistic approach, policy makers must create space in the curriculum, not necessarily to teach “character” as a subject, but to enable educators to spend the time to explore how character impacts each and every situation.
Gaining “knowledge” requires teaching. Developing character requires coaching and is far more reactive. You can plan what you are going to teach, but character requirements arise as a result of the situations learners encounter. Space is therefore required for teachers to take the time to explore these situations and help learners identify the areas they can work upon and how to do that.
This book argues that helping students to develop the skills to choose between vice and virtue should not be left to chance but should be deliberately and explicitly taught
How does character education develop character?
The book’s title alludes to two methods young people can acquire character; it can either be “taught”, i.e. explicitly delivered through planned sessions, or “caught” via observation of the behaviours of those around them. Both methods play a part. Morgan advocates staff training as a fundamental part in embedding a character education approach. This training helps staff understand the impact of their own behaviour and character on those around them. This modelled behaviour enables young people to “catch” good character by osmosis.
The book states one of the first activities a school or college should undertake when implementing a character education approach is to identify the vocabulary of character you are to use in your organisation. This helps with both the “taught” and “caught” aspects of character acquisition.
When describing a session held by ReachOut, a Manchester-based charity, Morgans identifies: –
The session talked about character traits all the time, because of this, learners picked up the character language and used terms such as self-control and staying power without hesitation.
The upshot of the character education approach in this instance was increased attainment and confidence. The core attributes ReachOut develops are Self-Control, Staying Power, Fairness and Good Judgement. These traits apply to all situations and are the core of good academic performance. Staying power is especially important. If teachers think about their best students and describe them, the chances are they’ll mention of their character. Staying power is likely to feature heavily in any such description.
Character education and social mobility
Chapter 2 of the book looks at why character education might play a role in the disparity between affluent young people and the rest. Social mobility can be dramatically improved by helping young people with their character development. The chapter outlines the thinking that formed much government policy during Morgan’s time as Education Secretary. She highlights the disproportionate representation of private education in top jobs in the UK, and prescribes a rigorous academic approach, coupled with numerous opportunities for character development, as a means of bridging the gap between privilege and the rest.
My belief though, is that we’ll fail to really turbocharge the social mobility which can be provided by education if we do not offer all pupils both a knowledge-rich, academically rigorous curriculum and the building of social capital.
Morgan then highlights examples of organisations who have begun to develop character education frameworks as a means of generating higher standards and aspiration. She introduces us to Sergeant Redrop, an ex-Royal Marine who is a PE teacher and mentor at Gordano School. Sergeant Redrop’s interventions are military-style, including personal training, mountain climbing, visiting cadet forces and activities to increase self-discipline. These interventions have improved behaviour, attendance and academic outcomes.
Better teachers, who can have a substantial effect on student success in later life, are disproportionately found in upper-income, high performance schools.
I question the direction of logic for this statement, as well as the basis of evidence. How do you measure a better-performing teachers? Are better teachers created as a result of better students, or better students created as a result of better teachers? There are thousands of committed, highly skilled teachers in schools where academic outcome isn’t nearly as high. The context is different, as are the measures of success. For example, a tough, inner city school may deem success to be getting the learners to attend, let alone achieve any sort of exam result. Comparing teachers from Eton to those of an inner-city school is like comparing apples with oranges. Their goals are completely different.
The chapter on Social Mobility presents more questions than answers. The antidote Nicky Morgan offers is a better education coupled with strong, character-based values. Performance at school is not that simplistic. Environment plays a huge role. If you are surrounded by a highly aspirational peer group, you’re likely to want to perform yourself. The reason private schools succeed is the environment of aspiration. Each student wants to succeed, driving their peers on. If you’re in an environment where studying is not “cool”, it’s difficult to raise your head above the parapet and work hard. It’s easy to say that teachers should, therefore, be bastions of aspiration. The curriculum is packed enough as it is without also having to drag the horse to water kicking and screaming. Whilst attendees of private schools are likely to pat themselves on the back and cite that their education was just better, I’d contend that home life, access to resources, an aspirational peer group and parental engagement are much stronger influences.
However, I digress.
Are you reflecting?
Many of those working in the field of mental health and character education subscribe to the need for people to develop time for self-reflection.
Reflection plays a crucial role in developing character. Looking back on what happened, judging your response, and planning a path for improved responses in the future forge and improve character. Educators must create space for reflection (easier said than done, with a jam-packed, content-rich curriculum). The book highlights the example of a science teacher who stopped her lesson for 5 minutes for learners to reflect on their goals and approach. I can almost hear teachers gulp with providing “dead” time in their lesson, but the book states this example produced an improvement in lesson quality.
Reflection, especially in an era where we must be lifelong learners, is a fundamental, if difficult skill. Encouraging this approach at school will pay dividends in the long run.
Grit and the Growth Mindset in character education
The book then steers towards discussing elements of “growth mindset”. A growth mindset is where individuals believe hard work, determination and “grit” are the main components of progress. People with a fixed mindset believe that ability is an inherent, fixed quality that cannot improve: you are either good at maths or not. People with a growth mindset believe that hard work and perseverance can improve their lot in life. For example, you might not be able to do differential calculus yet, but with hard work and determination, you’ll figure it out.
Growth mindset and character education go hand in hand. People with character naturally believe that they can improve with hard work. The book draws upon a student survey conducted at Gordano School. The school found that high achievers were high achievers because they wanted to be. They had determination to succeed. As a result, the school developed policies to instil this mentality across the student body. Initiatives such as the “Taxonomy of Effort” highlighted how learner effort contributes to overall success and leaves learners certain of whether their approach is going to lead to success or not. The school also has a digital Learner Profile to reflect upon personal development.
The school outlines stages of reflection as a learner moves through the school. For example, in year 7, the focus is on your mindset, whereas in year 13, reflection shifts to personal qualities and employability. The school also offers numerous “character development” opportunities, such as going on a residential visit or taking part in work experience.
Your teachers: Paragons of Character
Adult role models play a crucial role in embedding a character education approach in any organisation. The book highlights the importance of CPD, and developing a culture of adult “character exemplars”.
For really successful character development, the lead has to come from the top of the school.
Some tips the book offers on this front include:
- Be visible champions of character education
- Help teachers understand that the greatest influence on student character development is their own character.
- Ensure that all teachers are adequately trained to critically reflect on and convey character education to their pupils
- Initially take the leadership role in the development of a character centred mission statement and ensure this is regularly reviewed.
If we want character education to be embedded within our curriculum and practised in our schools, then it needs to be included in teacher training and explicitly developed and recognised in the assessment of trainee teachers.
The book states that some examples of how we can begin to embed character education into the classroom include: –
- Through school behaviour sanctions
- Through rewards
- Through the curriculum offered and the school’s approach to pedagogy
- Through teacher behaviour and modelling of character traits
- By exploring character in the context of the curriculum
Explicit recording of character is another way of specifically targeting character development work and is likely to be monitored and checked by all staff.
This is a question of “what gets measured gets managed”. Grades are so alluring as they measure your progress. They inform students how well they’re doing and demonstrate to teachers if they are doing a good job or not (which can be debated). By creating measures and progress metrics around character education, we demonstrate progress to both learners and staff, making character education more tangible. Kloodle assists with this process.
Adult role models are not confined to the classroom. The book advocates strong involvement of the parent community. Schools must share the language of character with all stakeholders, communicating the aims of its character education policy, as well as celebrate achievements and progress made to this end across the organisation.
That is why it is vital to involve parents and the wider community in identifying the values and virtues to be instilled in the first place.
Character and Employability
The book then goes on to highlight the important role character plays in the employability of young people. The line between character and “soft” skills is a blurry one, and the terms can be used interchangeably. Morgan acknowledges that education is not all about getting people ready for world of work, but about gathering knowledge of the world we live in.
But unless a person is born with a trust fund, the fact is most of us have to get a job and plan our careers and working lives.
Soft skills and character are essential to success in the workplace. A character education approach ensures these skills and traits are placed front and centre, enabling young people to identify these skills within themselves and articulate how they possess these skills effectively to a potential employment.
One of Whitehall’s favourite mantras is “What gets assessed gets done”
Assessing the impact of character education
The book then steers towards asking how we go about assessing character education. If we are to invest significant time towards a character education approach, will it pay dividends? The only way to ensure this is to create provisions for assessment.
The risk with designing an assessment system for character education is it can lead to perverse behaviour and unintended consequences.
Morgan advocates recording these activities, which is something we at Kloodle can help with: –
It seems to be helpful for each pupil to keep a record of activities which have helped them to demonstrate character traits and their personal values. This might apply equally to teachers as part of their CPD. And it is also important to report on each pupil at the end of the term or year contains a section or summary report on their character development. One way of approaching this would be to enable pupils to record the activities they undertake which are deemed to give them the character traits the school wants them to develop.
If you agree with the above approach but are struggling to implement, you should definitely get in touch! If you have a booklet that does this job, we’ll help you save some money on printing, as well as ensure their record is never lost and is kept for life!
What’s the purpose?
The Jubilee Centre states there are 3 purposes for evaluating character education: –
- To see how your school culture and ethos contributes to character education
- Evaluate the effectiveness of your character education
- Record self-reflection by students themselves
(We can help you with these three points).
The purpose of a self-evaluation exercise is to form a character “picture”
Extra-curricular activity is crucial
Extra-curricular provision also has massive impact on character development. In fact, the new Common Inspection Framework’s research basis states that participation in the life of the school is the most effective intervention for prevention of poor mental health outcomes. Feeling like you belong to a community is crucial, especially for young people where they’re experiencing important changes to their social development. A strong enrichment programme is vital.
Between 1997 and 2012, the extra curricular gap between rich and poor nearly doubled from 15% to 27%, while the comparable gap for 12-17 rose from 19% to 29%.
The earlier argument concerning social mobility, I believe, is predicated on this statistic. From experience, affluent schools’ huge differentiator is the richness of enrichment on offer, the opportunities to develop networks with alumni and peers alike, and work experience opportunities. More on this in another blog.
How to get started
Towards the end of the book, Nicky Morgan highlights the main steps in taking a character education approach.
- Identify the key values and traits
- Prioritise character development at school leadership level
- Develop role models amongst the staff body, parent community and wider stakeholders
- Invest in staff training to assist character development amongst staff
- Create a mechanism for recognising achievement
- Encourage self reflection by students on their character development
- Create a strong extra-curricular provision
- Make the values and traits you identify highly visible and embedded everywhere
The book is a fantastic primer on character education and from someone who worked at the highest political level in the industry, seeing what was good and bad in education. If you’re looking for a highly detailed treatise on how to implement a character education approach, this book probably isn’t it, but it does provide you with the main, relevant arguments for pursuing such an approach, as well as a broad overview of the points you must consider to ensure it is a success.
The book is choc-full of examples of good practice, as well as references for further reading. If you are completely new to character education, the book serves as a solid introduction. It will send you down the rabbit hole of research, forming ideas as well as providing new directions for your thinking.