Adversity alone doesn’t build character, but teachers can

8 Apr 2020, 9:00

Schools provide much more than academic learning, and home education shouldn’t mean students miss out on the important aspect of character development, writes Rachael Hunter

With the announcement of school closures came a raft of online materials to support parents with home learning. Three weeks on, schools are already settling into providing students with work, support and feedback virtually. However, while most of it is focused on academic content, this rare break from the hamster wheel of attainment, progress, exams and pressure is a unique opportunity to broaden our view of learning.

A lot of concern has already been voiced about the impact that this disruption may have on young people’s mental health. While maintaining a sense of normality and stability is vital to shielding them from stress and anxiety, schools have an important part to play in going further than that. Character education can be a somewhat nebulous term, and it has long been a secondary concern for schools. Yet, as we face this unprecedented period of virtual learning, it is all the more important that we ask ourselves how we can support our children to think about the type of people they are and would like to become, and how we can teach them to develop the character strengths that will help them flourish as individuals and as a society.

Giving children space to reflect on and talk about virtues is key

The University of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues defines character education as “all the explicit and implicit educational activities that help young people to develop positive, personal character strengths.”  There is no definitive list of these virtues but examples include honesty, courage, resilience and compassion. In this time of crisis, we are more dependent on these pro-social attributes than ever.

The good news is that these strengths – though we may have predispositions to them – are educable. We can all become more honest, more generous and more compassionate. The bad news is that, unlike learning our times tables, there are few tried and tested programmes or formulae.

In normal circumstances, character education is happening all of the time at school – for example through extra-curricular activities and assemblies about resilience and inspirational figures. Most of the time, as teachers and leaders, we try to model the virtues we want to see in children too. But even in normal circumstances, the implicit and unplanned nature of the character development involved in these activities can limit their effectiveness. And the transfer from classroom to digital means many of these activities have stopped happening altogether.

The fact that teachers are still there for their students, still providing work for them to do, still making phone calls home, still valuing academic learning goes a long way to modelling values of care and commitment. However, the daily interactions pupils have with staff and peers are impossible to replicate. Furthermore, although only a small part of young people’s school lives, the absence of tutor periods, assemblies and citizenship and PSHE lessons could leave a bigger gap than assumed. The nature of online teaching in a society defined by isolation means that teachers, subjects and departments are working more autonomously than ever.

There are ways for schools to ensure that, despite the many limitations they face, character development remains on the agenda. We know that giving children a common language of character and virtues helps them articulate their development. Explicitly naming the virtues that children are using and developing in the activities they are doing is another great way to focus on character development. And giving children space to reflect on and talk about virtues is key. There is no blueprint or one-size-fits-all approach but consistently drawing attention to character helps to foreground its importance.

If there is an opportunity to emerge from our current crisis as a more resilient, compassionate and generous people, then home learning is key, but it must go beyond its initial incarnation as academic content delivery. Making space for young people to process the disruption they are living through and their part in living history is more than an act of generosity (though it is that too), it is an investment in their resilience and their capacity to return to their studies and social lives when schools re-open. And we will all benefit from that.

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