Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Character education – an assassination

The Department of Education has announced funding and awards (£5 million) for the teaching of ‘character’ in schools. I thought I had seen it all when it comes to education’s obsession with ‘C’ words – creativity, collaboration, community, contructivism, coding etc. but this is a ‘cracker’. The tendency for education to take an abstract noun (usually a C-word) then, not by providing evidence or research, but simply repeating it ad nauseam, is now a well established practice.

Well, according to the DfE, it is; perseverance, resilience, grit, confidence, optimism, motivation, drive, ambition, neighbourliness, community spirit, tolerance, respect, honesty, integrity, dignity, conscientiousness, curiosity and focus. One mighty sentence that only a saint or Greek hero could satisfy, so wide a set of qualities that you may as well just say – let’s teach ‘human nature’. There is no common agreement, certainly no evidence-based research, to define, never mind show, what character education should be. The very foundation of character education fails at this first hurdle – the definition of ‘character’. It's everything therefore it's nothing. 
What lies, barely beneath the surface, are the poking out bones of moral and religious instruction. Whenever you hear the word ‘character’ think of these other ‘c’ words - compliant, conventional, conformist. It’s barely disguised moral education. Let’s explore this further. In the UK there seems to have been two different origins for this current bandwagon, one theoretical, the other political. The two feed off each other.

Character and theory
There’s usually a villain of the piece and in this case it’s Kohlberg (arguably Piaget). Now I’ve been critical about Piaget elsewhere, if you are interested, and the bottom line is that none of his research and findings has survived scrutiny. So let’s look at his ‘moral equivalent’ Kohlberg. His six stages of moral development were highly influential and teachers were encouraged to use teaching tactics appropriate to these stages. Subsequent research showed that the stages were wrong, so wrong that the very idea of the Kohlberg framework had to be seriously adjusted. However, the adjustments proved so extreme that the framework had to be abandoned in favour of other possible approaches, especially the work of Elliot Turiel who saw that the development process was also massively fuelled by social convention. There was an amusing interlude when Carol Gillighan took a huge gender swipe at Kohlberg in her book "In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development" (1982). She made the reasonable point that his research had only involved males and that Kohlberg was simply reinforcing stereotypical male character traits. She had a point but simply replaced Kohlberg with another set of character traits around a morality of care. It had all gone to pot. Since then, the work of Judith Harris has really put this stuff to bed, as peer-pressure rose to the surface as a primary driver, something the school environment, unfotunately, does all too well, and often badly.

Character and politics
My own view is that the deep, political roots of character education really lie in conservative worries about cultural and moral decline. Every older generation has its views that the world is going to the dogs (or mongrels) and that we must bring back some golden age of high character (usually theirs) to tame this new, feral, non-conformist generation.
In the US the character education movement is often pushed by conservative and religious sources that see the creep of liberal values as equivalent to moral decline. The religious lobby, in particular, has been successful in pushing this agenda. The most recent Federal example was G. W. Bush, who saw it as the sun in the centre of his education reform solar-system, and at the state level, it is often an ever-present lobby force with evolutionary theory always in its gun sights.
In the UK we have an entirely different, and hugely influential, stream of thought that comes originally from Thomas Arnold and the public school system. Let’s call it the ‘playing fields of Eton’ complex, but anyone who has experience in the UK system knows exactly what this is. With a hugely disproportionate number of politicians and civil servants coming from a public-school background, this tradition is stronger in the UK than almost any other comparable nation. There is constant pressure to see the state system as dysfunctional and if we could only take some of the magic dust from the private schools and scatter it down upon the teachers in the state system, all would be well. With its all too casual attitude towards pederasty, lack of experience in dealing with students with serious social issues, its filtering out of SEN students and relatively well-funded context, I’m not convinced that teachers in the state system have anything to learn from this tiny layer of elitism, that all too obviously produces condescending politicians with character and values at odds with the population. Astonishingly, this view has also been adopted by Tristram Hunt, the current Shadow Education Minister for the Labour Party, himself public school educated. See more here.

Character as a subject
The DfE talks of “the teaching of character as a separate subject”. Really? There is no evidence for this at all. In fact there is plenty of evidence to show that this has no effect whatsoever. The teaching of character and values, if they can be ‘taught’ at all, is a bold claim.
Let’s start with the big one, certainly the one with the biggest title, ‘Efficacy of Schoolwide Programs to Promote Social and Character Development and Reduce Problem Behavior in Elementary School Children’ a report from the Social and Character Development Research Program (2010). It looked at seven SACD programs and 20 student and school outcomes, all on social and character development and concluded that school-based character education programs produce no measurable improvements in student behaviour or academic performance. This was an astonishing result from a large and well designed piece of research. In fact there are no peer-reviewed studies that support the idea that character teaching has a positive, measurable effect.

Character and curriculum
The DfE also talk about integration into the curriculum and wider aspects of a school. But what makes education think that teachers either have more character or know enough about character or have the slightest idea about how it is taught? Are teachers really any more equipped than parents or anyone else in terms of its possession and the ability to pass it on? It is not a criticism of teachers to say - I think not.

Character and extra-curricular
If we’re talking about extra-curricular activities, such as sport and music and outward facing activities, such as community work and volunteering, and the DfE does, then, in my experience, schools are weak on this and that the more recent trend, in Scotland for example, of having ‘Activity co-ordinators’ with links out to professional sports clubs and other organisations is the way to go. This means you have continuity across the long holiday periods and a sustainable path when they leave school. Both of my sons have had high-level sports and musical careers that orginated outside of school and carried on long after they left school. If character development is to be found, there is a strong argument for saying it is more likely to be found outside of the school walls.

Character as conformity
Character and conformity are easily confused. Far from shaping ‘character’ in schools, we should be doing the opposite and encouraging students to question these norms and become autonomous learners, able to distinguish between moral inculcation, based on assumed social norms, from more open tolerant approaches to education. It is by no means clear that the character traits of teachers is the right model or that teachers know what character traits are and how to teach them. Education should be opening young minds up not closing them down. One man's character trait is another man's nightmare - and I use the word 'man' deliberately here.

Character and schools
Character education has been a feature of many totalitarian, religious and repressive systems, as character is moulded to match particular ideologies. In the US this is often a route for conservative, religious education. In China, the Confucian system, strongly character driven, pushes students towards a highly conformist, non-critical form of rote learning. In Islamic states a strictly conformist and literal form of the Koran is used to shape character. Private schools with a narrow socio-economic group is likely to promote character in terms of that group's values. In truth, unless a school system is truly secular (and arguably even then) character education tends to reflect the cultural norms of that school. In the UK, with the rise of faith schools, this has already caused considerable problems.

When a politician such as Cameron, Osborne, Gove, Morgan or Hunt talk about ‘character’, my heart sinks. It’s like Jimmy Saville taking a line on sex education – he’s an expert of sorts, just the wrong sort. Politicians love to meddle in educational practice, in a way they would never in say, medical practice. That’s because they think of themselves as ideals and whatever ‘they’ experienced in education must be good for the rest of us. This explains their obvious disengagement from the voters and blindness when it comes to judgments on the role of character in education, even the world at large. Let’s put this rather odd ‘C-word’ back where it came from, in the files marked ‘bad theory’, ‘old-school thinking’ and ‘political conceit’.

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