What is Character?
There are many schools of thought on this but let’s not get too bogged down with stuff like Aristotelian Virtue Ethics!
For the sake of argument let’s say that character refers to our dispositions to think, feel, and act in ways which reflect our values, virtues, capabilities and strengths. Evidence suggests that while there are genetics at play, character is largely ‘caught’ through experience and role modelling. It also suggests that parents, family and teachers are the primary educators of character for children and young people.
Watch the Science of Character video on our homepage for more details – Character Scotland
Can we educate for character?
Yes, but it shouldn’t be taught in a top-down, didactic, ‘transmitting knowledge’ style of teaching, or in a way which simply tells children and young people who they should be. Character can be effectively taught using open and exploratory dialogue e.g. giving young people opportunities to focus on their own character and that of others and asking them ‘what do you think?’. Character Education as Critical Pedagogy perhaps?
In 1998, UNESCO offered a set of aims for schooling world-wide:
Learning to know – Learning to do – Learning to live together – Learning to be
Character is relevant in all of the areas above. Arguably we are getting quite good at teaching for knowledge, doing and living together (tongue firmly in cheek). But what about teaching how to be? This is where character can really come into its own.
How can character be taught?
Let’s focus on a maths lesson as an example.
- Stop teaching maths for a moment and start teaching people. Instead of teaching pupils how to DO maths, teach them how to BE a mathematician. How would you do that? Perhaps you might start by exploring the relationship between maths and curiosity. A discussion starter could be something like the following:
Maths and science are manifestations of curiosity: a quest to figure things out. Discuss.
- Discuss role models – Try focussing on Einstein. Show a clip about his life story and ask pupils which character qualities he demonstrated: his sense of curiosity, creativity, imagination, determination etc. Better yet – ask the pupils to choose their own mathematician, learn about his/her life and get a sense of the person’s character qualities.
- Discuss quotations – for example:
“Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.”
- Discuss self-awareness and perceptions – ask pupils in groups to discuss who is the most curious person in this group? Or the most creative? Or the least creative for that matter? What are our perceptions of ourselves and others and what do they tell us? What is the character of the group as a whole? Can a group have a character?
- Bring the language of character into your professional practice – one tool you can use is to complete the VIA Survey (www.character-scotland.org.uk/resources/via-survey) and learn the VIA Classification of Character Strengths. It takes 15 minutes and it’s free. Once you’ve done that you can become a “character strengths spotter”. When you spot a pupil demonstrating a particular strength, tell them about it. Name the character quality they have shown and ask them if they agree or if they see it differently. Ask them if they can see a link between the creative thing they just did and “that lesson on Einstein 6 months ago”.
- Encourage your pupils to talk about character – they can do the VIA Survey too – there is a Youth version depending on what they prefer. Pepper your lessons with references to character using the common language you and your pupils now share. Encourage your pupils to become ‘strengths spotters’ for each other.
Other examples for different subjects might be teaching empathy during a history lesson, teaching scepticism in modern studies or politics (showing some liberal bias here…), teaching determination and focus during PE etc. The general point is that you can explicitly link disposition with learning by bringing the concept of character to the forefront of thinking and practice in your classroom.
Before you know it, you will realise that in fact you teach character all day and you always have.
What do you think about this post?
Let me know by leaving a comment or you can contact me directly by using the form below.
Gary Walsh – Character Scotland
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