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The Importance of Character

“Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words. Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions. Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits. Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character. Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.” Ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu.


I recently attended ‘The Vision, Values and Character Conference’, led by Dr Phil Cummins. He purported that the explicit teaching of ‘character’ is absolutely critical in our schools and if we were better at doing this, then the global outcomes of our pupils would be significantly enhanced. I could not agree more. Loyalty, integrity, good humour, perseverance and optimism are all qualities that will go a long way in allowing an individual to meet the challenges of life in its widest possible sense. The development of an explicit, well considered and progressive curriculum of character is surely therefore something that we should place close to the centre of our educational framework. However, more often than not, it is a well appreciated by-product of everything else we do in school: matches, drama, art, history, woodwork, rewards and sanctions, mealtimes and so on. In the post-covid reality that schools are now facing I also believe there is a character deficit that our pupils are struggling to fill - on a wider anecdotal level, it would appear resilience and determination have taken a hit, thanks to the various lockdowns. This is certainly something we are seeing reflected in pupil attitudinal data from GL Assessment.

“Character is the reason why we do school; it’s the work of a school.” Dr Cummins

Having interviewed people for various different roles at school and industry, it genuinely is not a person’s qualification that often gets them the job, unless the qualifications are a defining necessity of a given role. No, it’s not the ‘A’ at GCSE mathematics that we seek out as employers; it is someone’s character. Are they hardworking? Do they have integrity? Do they work as part of a team effectively? Are they independent thinkers? Can I trust this person? I suspect in the world of tomorrow, this emphasis upon ‘good character’ may be more important than ever. If this is the case, why aren’t schools taking this more seriously and actively developing this distinctive aspect of education? It’s a school’s job to educate the people we need for the future. As we stand on the precipice of a global ecological crisis, I suspect we will need people who bring new thinking to the table and can innovate in a morally consistent manner. Dr Cummins certainly believed this and stressed the need for meaningful and authentic values, which could transform and sustain change for life. He stressed the importance of giving service to others and to build relationships. People are at the very centre of all of this, and that cannot be a negative thing.

“Taking the big step forward and up to meet the challenges of a 21st century education requires us to go beyond the transmission of content. We need to help people to grow, to transform from who they are now into what they might become: to become the best versions of themselves.” Dr Cummins

When we explored these concepts on the day of the conference, not many disagreed with these truisms. However, very few of us had the magic recipe of what this education might look like. Indeed, just arriving at a definition of what ‘character’ truly is was tricky. But we generally came to the conclusion that character is how we live our lives; it’s how we apply our adaptive expertise and self-efficacy to put our purpose into effect in all that we do to succeed in our world. Dr Cummins talked about civic character, the character of belonging. Character that allows us to perform and fulfil our potential. Finally, moral character, which allows us to do the good and right thing.

However, what we all consider to be ‘good character’ is not clear or well defined. As part of his research into this, Dr Cummins noted that most teachers can relate their practice to their sense of purpose when prompted; implicitly, these purposes all relate to a combination of civic, performance and moral character. However, very few draw explicit connections to character. What he did conclude as part of his research, is that expert character educators are strongly rational; they most often refer to the relational connection of a character apprenticeship with students as the richest pathway for their transformative impact as educators for character.

So, what, according to Dr Cummins, does a good school ‘do’? Well this was less clear and there was no magic bullet. Nevertheless, he did offer a few challenges to those assembled:

  • Examine what character education means, in depth. Consult the whole community.

  • Educate for character thoroughly so that it is ‘caught, taught and sought’.

  • Measure the student outcomes, programs and the whole character of learning across the school.

  • Consider the extent to which conformity overrides personalisation.

  • To what extent do we truly connect our schools to life and the world beyond school.

  • What is the true relevance of our school to contemporary society? Are we simply replicating hierarchy or are we trying to create contemporary competency/fluency?

  • What currently matters in our schools? What should matter? What can we do to reach further? 

When I returned to Mowden the first thing I did was share the information from my conference with all staff and asked for those who were interested in developing this aspect of the curriculum to let me know. Several staff stepped forward and expressed a desire to be part of developing this curriculum. The second thing I did was to consult with a number of pupils and I asked them what they consider to be character elements that we should be explicitly teaching. The next step will be to consult with the staff, parents and industry leaders to see what they believe we should be teaching in our classrooms in terms of character. This will lead to the creation of a ‘graduate profile’, replete with outcomes - what do we hope the model Mowdenian will look like in terms of character when they leave to move to their next phase of education? Those assembled, generally agreed on some outcomes that we feel would be desired: 

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Once we have defined these consultative elements, we can then move on and consider what the curriculum might look like and how it will be implemented and assessed. This is a huge task and must be personal to every school. As such, this will be a long process of small scale developments, which will eventually grow into other areas. At the moment, I have no fixed idea what the character curriculum will look like at Mowden. However, what I will be doing is embarking upon a dialogue and deciding what matters to us. Can we reach a true consensus around ethos? We will then look to actively promote robust character standards and educate the pupils with reference to tangible outcomes . . . whatever this looks like. I’ll then look to measure and assess it. To help us with this, we will be working in partnership with ACE (The Association for Character Education) and they will be coming to Mowden in September 2023 to deliver training to all staff. The ultimate goal will be to achieve their full accreditation status and become a hub in the North East for training and excellence. This process is estimated to take 3 years.

I think the key is to do something active, and not just hope the traditional curriculum will build the character you hope to develop. A deliberate, targeted and intentional focus on character education will have a significantly positive impact. 

What Dr Cummins imparted really resonated with me, as I truly believe that it is our character that defines our destiny to a greater extent. The choices an individual makes determines their future, and the purpose of developing good character is the ability to make good choices. Character allows us to flourish as individuals, and as a wider society. This is why the development of character, as well as achieving academic attainment, should be the purpose of education.

James Hadfield, Deputy Head, Mowden Hall School

Useful links:

https://character-education.org.uk/

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/904333/Character_Education_Framework_Guidance.pdf