Character education is a crucial component of a good education. A large research study of good repute looked for the character traits that correlate most highly with success in life; success in its broadest sense in terms of relationships, well-being and achievements as well as the easily measured financial aspects. The study identified the top twenty-four traits. Twenty-four is too many to remember for most people, however, so at SGS we have looked at the top few and summarised them into five headings:
- Enthusiasm: approaching activities or tasks with optimism, energy and excitement.
- Grit: persevering with things when they are difficult and picking yourself up after set-backs.
- Curiosity: being interested in things for their own sake and noticing patterns and anomalies and asking great questions.
- Community Ethos: being grateful, being interested in the achievements of others and in serving others.
- Social Intelligence: being aware of the feelings and motivations of others and using these insights to cooperate and to navigate social situations.
I have talked about these character strengths in assembly this week, particularly enthusiasm or zest; the phrase ‘not apathy but zest’ has already become familiar enough to SGS pupils that it provokes a smile every time I use it! The ‘amazon’ logo with the ‘a to z arrow’ is another reminder of this phrase. Posters displaying the five character strengths are all around the school as an encouragement to the pupils to display the strengths and, crucially, to grow in them.
SGS places, and has always placed, great emphasis on developing ‘character’, often expressed as the desire to turn out well-rounded people. In the words of part of the school’s aims, ‘ensure, as far as possible, that pupils are equipped to face the challenges and demands of life beyond school, becoming active and responsible citizens’. Here are five points about character education, many drawn from the excellent Character Lab website.
Firstly, it is perfectly possible to achieve both excellent examination results and produce well-rounded students; there is no dichotomy between high academic standards and character education and in fact people with enthusiasm and grit tend to secure better examination grades for obvious reasons.
Secondly, character education cannot be taught through explicitly focused lessons. Timetabling innovations which schedule a lesson on grit for 14 year olds followed by a double lesson of Maths are doomed to failure, although the latter might well help students to learn grit as well as curiosity. What would one do in a ‘grit’ lesson?
Thirdly, developing character requires students to feel part of a community and to have a wide range of opportunities. Real communities always strengthen honesty, integrity and dignity as individuals absorb the collective values which are regularly and systematically articulated. Participating in sports teams, musical ensembles, drama productions, Duke of Edinburgh expeditions and so on all encourage grit and social intelligence. Charitable fund raising and volunteering promote community spirit. Assemblies provide opportunities for shared experience and reflection, engendering some sense of social intelligence as well as stimulating gratitude and hope and infecting many with enthusiasm.
Fourthly, developing character requires pupils to have excellent relationships with skilled teachers: at SGS the Form Tutors actively encourage pupils to be involved with appropriate activities that will build particular character strengths in the individual. A shy pupil may be encouraged to try some debating or public speaking to develop confidence and social intelligence. Equally, a brash peer who finds it difficult to recognise the contribution of others may be helped to participate in a choir and experience the power of collective endeavour, leading to greater social intelligence. In some year groups we ask pupils to rate themselves in each of the five character strengths and think about how they may address their weaknesses. Repeating the exercise a year later is a powerful way for the pupils to judge their own progress and take responsibility for their personal growth.
Fifthly, SGS has a curriculum that deliberately includes topics and opportunities to develop curiosity. Each subject area covers the standard National Curriculum material but departments also have time to tackle extra material chosen to engage interest and create wonder. Higher up the school the Extended Project Qualification allows Sixth Form students to achieve accreditation for completing a curiosity-driven research project. SGS also runs a huge number of trips and visits to stimulate curiosity and inspire interest.
I am much encouraged that the days of schools being judged solely on examination results now seem very much to be numbered. Great schools have always been about preparing students for life and not just for GCSE.