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



3 thoughts on “Examining the field of character education”

  1. A really thought provoking read – from my own teaching experience I agree with the notion of character or character traits developing through being experienced rather than taught; almost goes without saying – but something that we as teachers probably need reminding of. In general, character education at school is still ‘taught’ to an extent through RME and Health and Wellbeing (Mental, Emotional and Social) but is also’ experienced’ through the Life and Ethos of the school. Philosophy and Global Citizenship, if facilitated/delivered with depth and integrity can perhaps go some way to developing character?
    I think teachers have a vital role in character development (if as you say, it actually exists) through ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. The influence and effect of the daily interactions individual teachers have with their pupils and general ethos/vibe or ‘character!’ of the classroom can’t be underestimated. The ‘Children learn what they live’ poem which used to be on the walls of GP surgeries, etc. springs to mind. Also, the idea that traditional character development is about producing ‘characters’ who will conform to the norms of society and not challenge those in any way, those phrases we hear in childhood such as ‘sit nice’ ‘be good’ ‘be careful’ ‘be polite’.
    From my recent experience and interest in aiming to nurture active and empowered citizens as opposed to simply responsible ones; there is much anecdotal evidence that fits with your column of alternative character development. Children who are given the opportunity to participate actively and meaningfully in their communities/wider society, challenge norms and think critically have been able to show themselves at their best and develop identity and self…similar to character? this has been particularly true of children who had previously demonstrated ‘negative behaviour’ and, as your column of alternative character education tenets states ‘negative behaviour is largely fuelled by injustice, stress, alienation and social inequality’. Inside the classroom at least, teachers (with social justice as a driving force) can positively address these issues. This could easily lead in to the whole raising attainment issue so will leave it there! A bit of a ramble sorry, looking forward to reading the report after summer,


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