Teaching character

by therealityofschool

In January 2014 the DfE announced prizes for schools which had good ideas about ‘ways of teaching character’. I have been the head of schools that purported to teach character – large, famous boarding schools as well as large urban day schools. With the Secretary of State telling us that her ‘priority’ is to teach resilience, grit etc, now is a good moment to comment on this.

1 Forget about teaching the theory. My generation had endless lectures at school about the damage to our lungs caused by smoking but none of it worked. Teenagers don’t respond to theory. What they do respond to is encouragement and compulsion, especially teenage boys. The most effective measure to cut smoking has been to make it illegal to smoke in public places. Similarly, the most effective way to make boys work hard is to force them to work hard – by threatening them, if necessary, with punishments which outweigh the pain of hard work. But once they have learnt that hard work pays off (which they do) then the penny drops.

I have spent much of my life trying to make lazy boys work. Here are some of the methods I used:

1.1 stick – if you do not work you will receive a detention
1.2 stick – if you do not achieve these grades in your GCSEs you will be asked to leave
1.3 stick – if you do not achieve good effort grades from your teachers you will be prevented from taking additional weekends at home
1.4 stick – all pupils will receive an effort grade from every teacher every three weeks and the laziest boys in each year group will see the Headmaster
1.5 stick – if you do not improve you will be transferred from your boarding house to a small house for lazy boys where you can be closely monitored
1.6 carrot – those who work hardest will be allowed first choice of their study bedroom
1.7 carrot – those who work hardest will be given restaurant vouchers to spend in the evening
1.8 carrot – the House with the best effort grades will be identified in a public league table of House effort
1.9 if all else fails – you will have an hour a week with the ‘get-them-working’ tutor who will analyse the problem and help you find solutions.

Another example: good manners. It is all very well suggesting that pupils write a thank-you letter after a school trip but lazy students never take the hint. But if you force them to write the letter, ie get it checked by a teacher who then posts it, they learn how to do it, it seems less painful than they imagined, they will have more confidence next time, they are more likely to do it unbidden.

Another example: being organised. If they are to be successful, pupils need to bring the right books to the right lessons, they need to do homework on time, they need to bring the completed homework to the right lesson, they need to keep their files in good order. All these things can be taught to the disorganised pupil, lesson by lesson, teacher by teacher, insisting on the highest standards, using sticks and carrots.

Schools can talk about the theory – the marshmallow experiment, Matthew Syed’s Bounce, Carol Dweck’s growth mindset……but this is not the same as actually trying out the form of behaviour you believe in. Try something, fail, try again, succeed – prove you can do it.

2 So what this suggests it that it is necessary for the pupils themselves to model the behaviour you are trying to teach. Once they have (been impelled) to try it for themselves, attitudes change. They can see for themselves that hard work is not as painful as they thought and it produces results. They can see that a thank-you letter produces a great response from the teacher being thanked.

3 Never forget the opportunity cost. If you spend time teaching character or citizenship or British values or PSHE – then something else has to be cut. Parents and politicians are always quick to suggest that schools solve the problems of society by ‘teaching it’ but never, ever say what should be cut to make room. So if there is little point in teaching the theory and there is a big opportunity cost in doing so, then perhaps it is better to teach character through normal school activities – lessons, sport, drama etc.

4 Schools are less important than parents and peer group. Resilience and grit are something some children have in their DNA. If your peer group is rude or lazy, you are more likely to be rude and lazy. So schools have to try and establish an ethos based on the character traits they wish to develop.

When Michael Wilshaw required his pupils at Mossbourne to chant at the beginning of every lesson “I aspire to maintain an inquiring mind, a calm disposition and an attentive ear so that in this class and in all classes I can fulfil my true potential” he did not assume that his pupils would automatically believe this. He reckoned that over time, if they said it often enough, the penny might drop.

But of course not all his pupils maintained an inquiring mind. In the battle against DNA, poor parenting or a bad peer group, schools will sometimes lose.

5 What about sport? Sport is a big thing in many independent schools and it certainly is a way of teaching character traits – resilience in the face of bad weather or defeat by the opposition, working as a team, practice pays off.

But sport is no better than many other activities – such as putting on a play, organising a school society, taking part in a reading and speaking competition, doing community service, success in the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme.

Two of my pupils have recently rowed across the Atlantic. Did my school teach them the character traits necessary to achieve such a thing? I cannot say. But from somewhere they picked up the confidence and level of organisation and readiness to take risks and understanding of the need to prepare.

6 Perhaps talking about ‘teaching character’ is the wrong way of putting it. Often what one is doing is putting in place expectations and opportunities which allow pupils to learn, from the school and from their own experience, that certain forms of behaviour are both possible and worthwhile.