Can we all be positive?



[Executive Summary: Neil McLennan will share the rationale and learning gained from a wide-ranging exploration of character and values in Scottish education. A national conference was held on Character, Culture and Values in 2015 and from there a subsequent ‘Pathway Project’ Group was designed to work out a coherent plan of action. This led to a shift in thinking from ‘traditional’ forms of character education to a broader construction of ‘character development.’ The approach to making change has similarly taken a new approach.]

Today I travel to Dallas, a city wrenched by the atrocities there of over a week ago. Whoever would have thought that within ten days another such atrocity would occur. Horrific events are occurring the world over. Many of you will recall a recent blog post which was the paper I delivered at the UK Thinker of the Year awards on “Can we bring an end of…

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Examining the field of character education

For over three years now I have been examining the field of ‘character education’ by engaging in dialogue with people (generally educators, academics and young people) and conducting my own research in the form of literature review and conceptual analysis. During this time I curated an international conference in Glasgow designed to explore the idea, I completed a Masters dissertation entitled ‘What is the Purpose of Character Education?’, I have since convened a working group who are looking to take some of the resulting ideas forward, and I am in the process of applying for PhD funding to support that process.

I wanted to write a brief summary of the conclusions I have reached so far, and introduce what I think should happen next regarding the theme of ‘character’ in education circles, partly to communicate to colleagues where I sit in all of this but also to challenge myself to get it down ‘on paper’!

(For more information with links to relevant articles and papers you can read a summary of my research using this link – it is a paper I presented at the Glasgow International Congress of School Effectiveness and Improvement in January 2016).

Broadly speaking, I am not in favour of ‘traditional’ character education. There are other versions in existence but ‘traditional’ is the most common. It tends to focus on the inculcation of prescribed ‘virtues’ of good character such as honesty, humility and gratitude. This might sound at first like a completely reasonable thing to try and do – but my main concerns relate to how it is done (efficacy) and why it is done (ideology).

In terms of efficacy, the evidence base for character education is sketchy at best, but the existing research shows that attempts to enhance character virtues achieve little or no outcomes for children and young people, with some evidence pointing to detrimental impacts.

I don’t think that character virtues necessarily need to be ‘taught’ as part of mandatory formal education – and any decision to do so should not be taken lightly. I would suggest instead that many positive qualities emerge naturally if the conditions are right. For example, I don’t think that children necessarily need to be ‘taught’ kindness at school – instead I think it is far more important that they experience kindness – and that when they do, they are infinitely more likely to reciprocate. This means that the quality of relationships is the key consideration, not the behaviours or ‘virtues’ of individual children. I would advocate that we should not necessarily seek to artificially ‘correct’ the behaviours of children. We should start instead by ensuring that the environment in which they are growing up and learning is positive and supportive. It is interesting and telling that Paul Tough’s latest book on the subject of character – Helping Children Succeed – seems to corroborate this view.

Additionally, I don’t think that character actually exists as a real and observable part of the human condition. To me, it is just an idea: a way of thinking about and organising concepts. This distinction is important, as one of the fundamental claims of the traditional character education movement is that character is real and that it can be observed and shaped through schooling. My understanding of basic psychology is that human behaviour is a product of genetics, psychological ‘schema’, past experiences and current circumstances, and that we generally think and act in response to our emotions. There is no biological stage called ‘character’ that determines emotions and guides conduct – this seems to be a scientific non-starter. This point seems to be missed entirely when the question of ‘can character be taught?’ is posed. Can something be ‘taught’ if nobody really knows what ‘it’ is, or if ‘it’ doesn’t actually exist in the first place?

I think we can teach ‘about’ character quite successfully (by exploring the philosophical ideas of Aristotle and others, for example) but as far ‘teaching’ character is concerned – sorry, no.

The biggest concern I have with character education however is that it is commonly used as a Trojan Horse for neoconservative ideology. The ‘character’ narrative is generally couched in terms that few people would disagree with, focusing as it does on respect, honesty and the like. However, when the surface is scratched, some of the deeply philosophical starting points for character education are revealed.

Essentially, the subtext is that an individual is ultimately responsible for their own outcomes in life regardless of their social circumstances, that any ‘negative’ behaviour is a failure of character as opposed to a result at least in part of social injustice, stress, alienation or inequality, and that we should seek to improve ourselves against some single external measure of ‘good character’ as opposed to creating an environment where a diverse range of ‘characters’ can flourish. It is a movement that stands accused of assuming deference to authority, seeking to perpetuate the status quo, promoting individualism, seeking to develop a compliant and industrious workforce as opposed to enhancing the human condition, and furthering the aims of a neoliberal worldview.

I would not argue that neoconservative ideology should be ‘banned’ – even though I am fundamentally opposed to it – but I am arguing that it should be explicitly named and recognised for what it is instead of masquerading as a holistic and enlightened approach to education, which is how a lot of people see character education.

The table below illustrates some of the tenets of ‘traditional’ character education as I see it and it also offers some alternative ways of thinking that I am currently working on with the help of some dedicated colleagues in Scotland.

The alternative is referred to here as ‘character development’ – I will write another piece soon to explore that in full – and the group I am working with is currently planning to release a report on this after the summer.

Until then, thanks for reading!

Traditional ‘Character Education’ ‘Character Development’
What kind of people does the world need? What kind of world do people need?
Starts with the child Starts with the environment
Self-improvement Self-empowerment
Character is about ‘virtue’ e.g. humility, gratitude, honesty Character is about ‘ethos’ e.g. solidarity, cohesion, social justice
Focuses on the individual Multiple contexts: individual, relational, social
Children need to be ‘taught’ kindness Children need to ‘experience’ kindness
Character is a real, observable part of the human condition that can be taught Character is just an idea: a way of thinking about and organising concepts
It is an explicit part of formal education It is an implicit part of lifelong learning including home, formal, informal and community settings
People need fixing The system needs fixing
Suggests ‘persevering against the odds’ Suggests ‘changing the odds’
Addressing a decline in moral standards Reform of a failing social & economic system
Top-down deficit model Bottom-up empowerment model
Aspiring towards a singular definition of ‘good character’ Aspiring towards the empowerment of a plural and diverse range of ‘characters’
Negative behaviour means lack of character. ‘Good character’ does not occur naturally: it must be explicitly taught Negative behaviour is largely fuelled by injustice, stress, alienation and social inequality
Conservative ideology Liberal ideology


On value and values

Agent of History

Hi there,

I’ve decided to produce a Soundcloud podcast of each blog I write. If you’re like me, you enjoy listening to things as much as reading them. I also spend a lot of time cooking and cleaning, so it’s a great way to learn new stuff while I do my housework. I’m hoping that the podcast will attract more people to engage with my blogposts.

Let me know what you think. Read/Listen on!



On Value and Values

I’ve recently revisited a wonderful group exercise called ‘Draw a Fire’ that invites people to explore the values they hold most dear. I ran it with all three of the community learning groups I currently help to run: Oxford Democracy-Builders, My Life My Choice, and Hodge Hill. All three groups are very different and, indeed, each group itself is made up of people from different backgrounds and perspectives. Yet,

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A Curriculum for Equity: Part 1

Chris, Croissants & Oysters

I attended the rather excellent SELMAS 2015 conference in November. You can read a summary of the event as it happened here. In this post I would like to offer some reflections I have had since it took place, and to provide some context for a concept that came from the event: a Curriculum for Equity.

[Having just read that the OECD Review of Scottish Education is calling for a rename of CfE and has in fact proposed “Curriculum for Excellence and Equity”, this has suddenly become a lot more relevant!]

The SELMAS conference took place in The Caves, Edinburgh, one of the homes of the famous 18th century Oyster Club that entertained the literati of the time including Adam Smith, David Hume, James Hutton and Benjamin Franklin (men only, of course). Oyster Club meetings took place weekly and discussions ranged from the arts, sciences and economics.

I found myself being struck, unusually for me, by a rather cynical thought: that it must have been easy for such people to gather, eat oysters and drink wine, and occasionally express powerful sentiments concerned with the blight of inequity and injustice – I imagined this as indulging in a kind of ‘underground hypocrisy’. I wondered whether I was about to indulge in such hypocrisy myself in the Caves, expressing roughly the same concerns as these moral philosophers from the past (though perhaps not so eloquently), the only difference being that instead of oysters, we were gorging on the frankly enormous croissants* provided by the venue when we arrived.

This is probably quite unfair and overly guilt-ridden of me. However, there is some truth in it. It is too easy to console our own consciences by articulating well-meaning concerns for those in need, while not admitting to ourselves that we are, all of us, complicit in the very inequity we claim to want to tackle.

Chris Kilkenny (@KilkennyChris), one of the most engaging speakers I have heard in a long time, laid bare that hypocrisy for us all to hear and feel. If you haven’t heard his presentation before, in which he describes his experiences of living in poverty and articulates the deficiencies of our system for supporting people in circumstances such as his, you can see a previous version of it here introduced by the inimitable David Cameron. Please find a quiet corner sometime and watch it:

(Thanks to @dgilmour for sharing this clip)

All of the speakers at the SELMAS conference were excellent and I don’t want to attempt to summarise their various inputs here.

I wish to focus instead on something that was mentioned during the event, as I think it neatly summarised one of the main challenges with relation to equity in Scottish education.

“In our school, we don’t talk about deprivation”

This was a well-meaning comment made by a headteacher during the event. The reasons given for this approach were positive and laudable: the school focusses on achievement and standards in an effort to secure a positive and sustainable destination for all its pupils. It is part of a genuine effort to ensure that deprivation does not define the pupils’ potential.

Despite that, the comment troubled me to the extent that it remained an uncomfortable source of opacity for the remainder of the day and since. It left me with many questions. If teachers in schools don’t talk about deprivation, how do they make a professional commitment to social justice? Aren’t they simply denying themselves and their pupils the opportunity to talk about the sources of injustice? How could they be certain that they are not seeing and responding to the pupils “hiding in plain sight” as Chris Kilkenny described? If pupils can’t talk about deprivation in school, where CAN they talk about it? If we focus relentlessly on achievement and standards, are we not succumbing to the terrors (or indeed the charms) of performativity at the expense of more socially pertinent values?

It should also be said of course that some schools not only talk about deprivation but do inspiring things do tackle its effects. See this as an example from St Eunan’s Primary School in Clydebank.

If we are to make any headway in terms of equity in our system, we cannot afford to ignore the root causes of inequity, which largely come down to our collective failure to curb the existence of poverty. If we cannot demonstrate equity at the outset of the learning journey for children, it will be almost impossible to demonstrate it at the end of their school journey (a wise comment I read recently from @GilchristGeorge), perhaps apart from hailing the occasional outlier who rises above it against all the odds in the style of the classic neoliberal success story.

Aspiring to a tale of ‘Rags-to-Riches’ is not a way to achieve equity. Not only is it a fool’s errand, it levels the responsibility of ending poverty on the shoulders of its victims. The message here is “you live in poverty and you need to work your way free of it”.

Basil Bernstein is often mis-quoted as having said that “education cannot compensate for society“. These words are clearly not true: education can change the world, of course it can. While it is not up to schools alone to rid Scotland of poverty, I would argue that it is a responsibility of schools and indeed all of us to identify what we can do in aid of that goal, and to get very, very energetic about it. Focusing on standards of achievement is an important part of what schools can do, but it isn’t the only contribution schools can make.

Talking openly about poverty, its effects, and how it could be undone would be a fine start.

In Part 2 of this blog, I will explore a half-baked idea that has been in my mind for a while now that might just help to get this dialogue going. The SELMAS conference speakers and delegates enabled me to articulate the idea in a way I couldn’t have done otherwise.

It is an idea for a people’s movement called A Curriculum for Equity: a vehicle for sharing and facilitating interdisciplinary practice, projects and dialogue aimed at achieving equity in Scotland, such as the project mentioned above at St Eunan’s Primary.

The curriculumforequity site will be a community-based Open Educational Resource. This means that is freely accessible, openly licensed and the content on the site comes from its own community. I would love it to generate its own momentum and really take off as a grass-roots movement involving pupils, teachers, parents, supportive organisations and whole communities.

Please look out for information about how to get involved in Part 2.

*By the way – just as I was about to leave the Caves, a staff member there encouraged me to take some of the left-over croissants away. There were about 30 or so sitting on a tray. I asked her if it is possible to bring the leftovers to a shelter in Edinburgh’s city centre or to a foodbank (a quick search indicates that there are five Trussell Trust foodbanks operating within 4 miles of the Caves). She said that they are not allowed to do that themselves because of food hygiene policies. She was clearly upset about that. I asked her to put them all in a bag and I said I would do my best.

I left the Caves and spoke to a homeless man on the Royal Mile. I explained the situation and I asked him where the nearest shelter was. I had never done anything like that before and I felt like a desperate fool speaking to him. He was very kind and pointed me in the direction of the Salvation Army Hostel on Cowgate. I walked down St Mary’s Street and dropped the bag off at the centre. While the staff there seemed really pleased that their guests for the evening would have a nice treat for breakfast, I still haven’t shaken off that feeling of being a hypocrite.

Good deeds won’t end poverty. This will only be achieved by critiquing and actively challenging its very existence.

An account of the SELMAS annual conference from Jayne Horsburgh –


Equity and Aspiration in Education; The Caves, Edinburgh

Reflecting on the conference I was struck by one particular issue raised by Carol Craig, Chief Executive of the Centre for Confidence and Well-being and author of ‘The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence’. After the last few months of witnessing the unfolding of the refugee crisis in Europe, 13 November saw two opposite and equally momentous events unfolding. At almost the same time as Scotland welcomed the first group of refugees from Syria and offered a hand of friendship and opportunity, the people of Paris were subjected to a horrific attack on their liberty. I considered how the values of equity and aspiration are reflected in completely opposite ways in these events and Carol Craig raised this very issue in her keynote address.

Carol spoke of the way in which the balance of equality and equity in society equate to citizens’ general sense of self-esteem. She explained to the conference how research indicates that, as…

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People and Power

For the last ten years I have been working with pupils, teachers and parents in schools across Scotland and the UK. I have been lucky enough to work with over 400 schools in that time, navigating themes such as motivation and confidence, personal development, protection from and awareness of forms of abuse, and laterally, character and values. On reflection, I suppose my continuing vocation has been to search for ways in which to understand what it means to be a person, what it means to learn and develop, and what enables or hinders us on that journey.

My current work focusses on the themes of character development, values and relationships. I curated the Character Scotland conference which took place in June 2015. While doing that I also completed a part-time MSc at University of Glasgow. My dissertation title was ‘What is the Purpose of Character Education?’, and my conclusions might surprise you.

I have chosen the title of this blog site to reflect the perspective I have arrived at, which is that in all of the work I have done over the years, the pivotal issues roughly come down to three main areas: people, power and the relationships between the two.

The ‘people’ bit is about who we are, how we feel, think and act, and how we relate to one another. The ‘power’ bit is about who has it, what form it takes, how it travels, how it is exercised and what its effects are. The relationship between the two is about agency, empowerment, structural forces and contexts.

I plan to use this site mainly to generate some dialogue about a variety of issues along these lines and to explore how they play out in educational policy, practice and research.

I am not expecting to arrive at many clear-cut answers (in fact I will do my best not to!), but I hope to stumble across some powerful questions along the way, with the help of anybody who chooses to get involved.

So please feel free to leave your comments, suggestions or questions.