virtue insight

conversations on character

Global Values, Human Rights and Character Education

We now know more than ever about what makes humans flourish. This has been driven by dramatic advances in genetics, psychological research, neurobiology, behavioral economics and a number of other disciplines in the past three decades. As New York Times columnist David Brooks suggests this “intellectual revolution” exposes the superficiality of public current policy debate. It is also potentially as profound as the enlightenment in terms of influencing transition in the way we organise our societies. In many ways, Brooks concludes that this “intellectual revolution” does not actually teach us much new, it just confirms what Aristotle claimed about the building blocks of human flourishing

But even so, it provides compelling new evidence for someone like me who advocates with governments for improved human rights outcomes for children, particularly for building education & child protection systems & youth policies that promote flourishing and mitigate adversity. In addition to fulfilling the immediate human rights of the child, there is now a robust investment case that any government’s child development strategy is as important as its fiscal or economic policy for long-term prosperity. Development of character, sometimes described as social & emotional or non-cognitive skills, is now central to any informed child development policy.

Children develop character through experience from the day they are born. Interactions with parents and in kindergartens and schools shape that character-most intensively in the first five years of life, but also through middle childhood and adolescence. This is important because we now know that character traits, such as perseverance, optimism or integrity, are perhaps as important as IQ in determining success and wellbeing throughout the life-cycle and including what that person will contribute to his or her society.  We have also learnt that such skills are teachable, throughout the life cycle of the child. Children will learn character regardless of the teacher or parent having a strategy for teaching. The type of character traits they learn will determine the type of life they lead and thus the quality of the societies in which we live.

We also now know that the prevalence of childhood adversity, growing in dysfunctional families where addiction or alcoholism, violence or neglect are present, is much greater than previously supposed. Growing up in a dysfunctional family has a neurobiological impact of chronic stress on the fragile development of the child and leaves lasting scars that result in much worse life outcomes. In adolescence, such children are much more likely to make negative and irreversible life-changing decisions. Often the only hope such children have is the intervention of a family member, social worker or teacher who can help the child to harness inner strength and character to make better choices, build self-esteem, resilience & a path to recovery.

In the Sustainable Development Goals, the member states of the United Nations agreed universal pre-school, better early childhood development and tackling violence are global priorities. Not just because of the human right imperative of ensuring the best interest of every child, but also because the evidence of the past decades has clearly shown such investments yield the best return in promoting long term prosperity and wellbeing of our societies and our planet.

Character education provides a methodological framework for communities including teachers, families and children to learn character skills that are most relevant to the development of children in their society. The approach is evidence based and character education is sensitive to cultural context but always must be aligned with global values, human rights norms and respect for diversity.

Character education is increasingly being integrated into mainstream education systems, but is also being adapted to non-formal settings which can better reach children affected by adversity and exclusion There are new ways not only of measuring performance and practice of individual character, or social and emotional skills taught, but also potentially of measuring the impact on broader school and life outcomes.

Ultimately character education and the latest knowledge that underpins it is part of a broader new approach to public policy that recognises the complexity and depth of human development.  Such an approach is essential for fulfilling human rights and promoting human flourishing and wellbeing in a world that never stops changing.

Benjamin Perks, UN Human Rights Diplomat

and Senior Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

How journaling, meditation and a spaceman can inspire pupils’ compassion and gratitude

A five-week programme of school-based activities promoting compassion and gratitude can have a noticeable effect on pupils’ attitudes and virtue literacy of two key virtues, according to a pilot study by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

Students’ scores on a well-known measure of gratitude increased after a targeted gratitude intervention, most markedly in girls, according to the pilot’s preliminary results (see Appendix 1).

A comparison of mind maps completed by these 11 and 12-year-olds both before and after the teaching sessions also showed a significantly enhanced virtue literacy, i.e. understanding of the key concepts.

Individual children’s initial knowledge of compassion and gratitude, as expressed in the mind maps, was enriched by the process, leading to more nuanced diagrammatic representations of the virtues, suggesting wider comprehension and learning.

Exercises were undertaken during a pilot study for the Gratitude and Related Character Virtues project, being conducted by researchers at the Jubilee Centre.

This empirical study is embedded within a wider project that is looking at the relationship between gratitude and the “other-regarding” virtues of compassion, humility, generosity and forgiveness. Research Fellow Dr Liz Gulliford is seeking to establish if teaching interventions designed to promote one of these virtues has the effect of increasing the others. The current empirical study focuses on compassion and gratitude within a secondary school setting.

The pilot shows gratitude scores increased in girls and boys who took part in the compassion intervention (Appendix 1). These students had not received any elements of the programme which targeted gratitude specifically, which suggests that these virtues are mutually enriching.

As with the pilot study, the main experimental study due to begin in the autumn will see two classes participating in either the gratitude or compassion intervention while a third will act as a control group in each school. As with the pilot study, teachers are provided with teaching handbooks, which focus on either promoting compassion or gratitude. These specially designed handbooks consist of short, engaging activities such as discussions, writing exercises (such as keeping a gratitude journal), drama and meditation or reflective periods designed to nurture caring and warmth.

In the gratitude intervention, one activity invites children to write a thank you letter. The letter is written to someone who has made a significant and “positive difference in their life,” ideally someone the pupil has not yet thanked for this important contribution. If they have time, the letter can be decorated to make it look special.

When distance permits and as part of homework, the pupil is encouraged to visit the recipient with a view to reading the letter out loud before giving it to them to keep. The teaching materials are simple – paper, coloured pencils/paper, envelopes and, in the case of letters being sent a long distance. A follow-up activity in a different lesson asks children to share their recipient’s reactions to the letter.

The activities in the compassion intervention include a comprehension exercise based on the story of the Good Samaritan. A light-hearted poem focuses on different people’s responses to a football fan who is injured at a match: a medic overlooks the stricken supporter, but a rival fan finally helps the victim. Pupils are invited to comment on the scenario from a range of perspectives.

In another exercise, children are asked to comment on a topical news item. In the pilot, one of the stories the pupils chose to highlight featured seven-year-old Japanese boy Yamato Tanooka, who went missing in a forest – and was subsequently rescued – having been apparently abandoned by his parents as a punishment. Children are asked to put themselves in the shoes of the people in these news stories and imagine how they would feel in that situation.

Before the intervention begins, classes are asked to complete an identical questionnaire that measures gratitude, empathy (as a proxy for compassion), perseverance and happiness. The questionnaire is repeated at the end of the five-week period and the results compared to gauge if there has been an increase in the virtue targeted by the intervention and in any of the other measures.

Perseverance is included because it is an “inward” looking virtue, a skill of self-control, rather than an “outward” looking and other-regarding virtue like gratitude and compassion. Will this virtue also show an increase as a result of the intervention? Additionally, could such interventions also promote wellbeing?

Dr Gulliford says: “The measure of happiness is included in the pre- and post-intervention questionnaires because both compassion and gratitude have been correlated with increased wellbeing. We are interested to see if scores on the happiness measure go up as a result of taking part in either intervention.”

Dr Gulliford has been pleased with the results of the pilot and is looking forward to the full-scale research project in the autumn. She says: “Preliminary data shows increasing complexity in young people’s understanding of the concepts of compassion and gratitude. The mind maps show conceptual richness emerging in the data and indicate that it is possible to influence the children’s conceptual understanding and virtue literacy of compassion and gratitude.

“We are encouraged by the early results which appear to show improvements in pupils’ virtue literacy. The pilot suggests the interventions are helping to build a vital bedrock of understanding among young people.”

In the compassion intervention, for example, one boy’s pre-intervention mind map featured five annotations including the words “loyal,” “friendly,” “romantic” and “funny”. When the pupil repeated the exercise at the end of the five-week programme, he contributed 10 words and phrases including “helping others,” “sacrificing things for others,” “kindness,” “empathy,” “forgiveness” and “understanding others [sic] feelings.”

Another pupil initially expressed three thoughts on their compassion mind map (“suffering,” “it shows your personality” and “buying food for the homeless”). However, the number of annotations quadrupled to 12 at the conclusion of the intervention. The post-intervention terms included “putting yourself in someone elses [sic] shoes,” “caring for others” and “improving lives.”

Dr Gulliford adds: “Similar results were seen in the mind maps completed by pupils following the gratitude intervention.”

WGD-3544Schools’ Reaction

Amesbury School, a mixed preparatory school in Hindhead, Surrey, was one of the three schools in the pilot.

Form tutor Sarah Page taught the gratitude component to a group of Year 7 pupils as part of PSHE, using the teachers’ handbook. The study has her overwhelming support.

Sarah says: “I would 100% recommend this project to schools. The tasks are brilliant. The way the project has been put together is very clear. The instructions are clear. The teaching handbook is very supportive and it doesn’t put you under pressure.”

Sarah reported dramatic improvements in pupils’ understanding of gratitude. For example, one girl’s mind map at the start of the intervention featured just the one word, “gratitude,” and her name. The work sheet was effectively blank even though the pupil was given encouragement and examples to consider.

“At the end of the project, the mind map was full,” says Sarah. “To see such a change in approach to that one word and to see her progress was really touching. It gave me a warm glow.”

The children engaged well with the “thank you” letters exercise. One boy chose to write a letter to his granny, prompting a positive emotional response from his relative.

Sarah describes sessions where children made “thank you” videos as a “huge success.”

The pupils were encouraged to express gratitude to an individual for a particular service. The children dedicated their short films to Anne Frank, British astronaut Tim Peake, Sir Winston Churchill and their teachers. Peake, the pioneering spaceman, was thanked for risking his life for “the good of human intelligence.”

Sarah says: “The children loved putting the films together and to see the way they talked about gratitude was powerful. I loved teaching the gratitude classes and the children really embraced it. ‘Thank you’ can be easy to say, but looking at the impact and the meaning has taught them a lot.

“Compassion and gratitude are very important for children to learn and they are an important part of all our lives.”

Kings Langley School, Hertfordshire, which also took part in the pilot, said pupils enjoyed the activities and engaged with the drama/acting, meditation tasks and the gratitude journals.

The journals gave the pupils “an opportunity to reflect on the good things others have done for/to them,” according to Melusi Moyo, school coordinator for Religious Studies and PSHE.

Melusi says: “Overall, this was a wonderful experience for our students. I am sure the data analysis would show that after delivering the lessons students’ understanding of gratitude and compassion has developed.

“During the second mind map sessions, the vocabulary used to describe compassion and gratitude was richer and students demonstrated a clear and good understanding of how they could express gratitude and compassion.”

Dr Liz Gulliford, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

  • If you are encouraged by the schools’ experience of the programmes and would be interested in taking part in this research project in autumn 2016, please get in touch with Liz Gulliford on 0121 414 4813 or



Virtue, spirituality and the possibility of spiritual virtues

Traditionally, moral or other virtues have been considered aspirations to personal excellence: to have cultivated a virtue – albeit imperfectly – is to have attained some higher human state. While regarding virtue and the virtuous in this normatively exalted way, however, it has also been common to esteem people for their so-called ‘spirituality’ or spiritual qualities.

It may therefore be wondered whether there is much or any connection between virtue and spirituality: perhaps, more precisely, whether there might be human qualities meriting consideration as virtues of spirituality or spiritual virtues.

Like the terminology of virtue and virtues, that of spirituality and the spiritual is prone to fast and loose popular application to various states of feeling, appreciation, attitude, value, character, and so on. However, less like virtue talk, a problem with the received discourse of spirituality is that it has strong traditional connotations of religion and religiosity – which are clearly uncongenial to modern secular sensibilities.

That said, there have been interesting recent attempts – not least in British educational policy making – to reclaim or rehabilitate ideas of spirituality and the spiritual in order to retain something of the ‘higher’ aspirational sense of these terms, in the prevailing secular context of contemporary British schooling.

Still, there seem to be at least two problems with such efforts. The first it that it seems difficult to decouple notions of spirituality and the spiritual from what seems to be their natural home in traditional religious contexts. On this view, the task of finding a meaningful secular sense of the spiritual may be just as hopeless as that indicated by the late Elizabeth Anscombe of making modern philosophical sense of a moral sense of ‘ought’ in conditions of no widespread belief in God as divine lawgiver. In the present view, however, the main difficulty with recent attempts to rehabilitate the notion of spirituality is that they have failed to identify a distinctive sense of the term that does not reduce to such more familiar notions of subjective well-being, moral association and/or aesthetic appreciation.

That said, there may yet be another place to seek a secular analogue or model of spirituality, the spiritual and even spiritual virtues, in the so-called theological or ‘infused’ virtues of scholastic theology. For these, notwithstanding their evident Pauline Christian roots, appear to identify certain virtues that are distinct from, additional to or ‘transcendent’ of the more familiar virtues of personal and social flourishing – principally, temperance, courage, justice and wisdom – of classical Greek virtue ethics.

On the one hand, of course, the trouble – for secular purposes – with the key theological virtues of faith, hope and love or charity is that they do seem firmly tethered to a very specific theistic perspective. From this viewpoint, it may seem difficult to see how faith and hope could generally count as virtues apart from the kind of other-wordly grounds for such faith and hope provided by something like traditonal Christian theology.

On the other hand, however, it may not be impossible to see how the Christian notion of love or charity – not, of course, the love of personal or erotic attachment, but of something more like disinterested general concern for others or other causes that precisely transcends the personal attachments of self – might not be thought a genuine virtue in secular or non-religious contexts.

Moreover, it is arguable that some such personal transcendence is required to make substantial sense of a range of self-effacing virtues such as forgiveness, humility and altruism that are also not clearly reducible to the cardinal virtues of Greek antiquity. To be sure, the modern British philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch clearly regarded such self-transcendent love for others, via liberation from what she called ‘the fat relentless ego’ – as lying at the very root of all proper human morality.

Still, whether this fairly strong claim is sustainable, such personal transcendence clearly identifies a moral motivation that seems qualitatively distinct from the largely instrumentalist – and ultimately self-interesed – moralities of social contract and tit-for-tat reciprocity of much modern moral philosophy. Moreover, as already indicated, it seems to identify a moral motivation that cannot either be easily accommodated in the basically naturalistic terms of Aristotelian virtue ethics – which, when all is said and done, also locates the roots of morality in personal and social interest and flourishing.

That said, for your hardened secularist, this may also be what makes any of such talk of self or ego-transcendence impossible to swallow. For how, in the absence of God or a transcendent reality upon which the empirically conditioned human struggles and cares of this world are ultimately dependent for their real meaning and value, might any such notion of un-self-interested agency make much sense?

These are large questions that I leave it to readers to ponder.

David Carr, Professor of Ethics and Education, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

My Impression of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues: some thoughts after two weeks’ work experience.

What would I learn at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues if I got my work placement there? Would it actually be interesting, or would I end up making coffee and sorting out filing cabinets, like everyone else? I remember doing a questionnaire at school with the Centre’s name on it. I wonder what they were looking for from the study? What does one do in a research centre? How do you even research character?
Those were my thoughts as I wrote the email to the Centre all the way back in December 2015. I am 16 years old, I’m a student at what I’m told is one of the best schools regionally, and have no idea what I would like to do as an adult. I am interested in politics, sociology and philosophy and read about the subjects in my free time, so I was inquisitive about what goes on in a research centre at a leading (and local) university; particularly one which is interested in character, virtue and the application of research. My work experience placement was agreed and accepted by the Jubilee Centre, and I would start in June 2016. I had no idea what to expect.
The atmosphere at the Centre is relaxed, more than I expected, but work gets done. Everyone is friendly and everyone gets on with their own thing, each person working on their own project and research, covering a large variety of interrelated subjects, alongside the support team and management. I have found this variety of projects and people very beneficial to me, as it has provided me with an insight into a huge variety of possible avenues for me to go down in future. There are people here with backgrounds in Psychology, Philosophy, Education, the Military, Diplomacy and Healthcare, and speaking to them about their roles, responsibilities and research has helped me better understand each topic and profession – perfect for someone like me, with no single career path in mind. Speaking with and learning from the staff in the Centre has definitely helped me to gain a better awareness about what might be the best thing for me.
The projects themselves are really interesting; there are explorations into how character develops as nurses and soldiers progress through their respective fields; there is an investigation into how developing one character virtue in children, could develop other character virtues as a consequence; another on the implementation and impact of character education in three ‘beacon’ schools; and another looking at perceptions of character in marginalised young people, disengaged from ‘mainstream’ education. The Centre is truly interdisciplinary, and in addition to these research projects there is far more going on than I can say here!
During my work experience placement, I have taken part in surveys, supporting research into the effects of social media on young people’s moral development; I have spent time inputting data from research online, and I have helped develop an online character education course for professionals. In addition, from a skills perspective, working with the support team has allowed me to have first-hand experience doing actual practical jobs. I have helped look for subject-relevant publications, helping grow the content of the biggest online library of its kind; I have assisted in the planning of events, helping to organise a seating plan and guest list register for an event at the House of Lords, and have aided in designing and proofing certificates, flyers and brochures. I was even given the opportunity to welcome delegates to a conference attended by the Minister for Children and Families, and the launch of a new Association of Character Education. In the last 3 days, I have used Microsoft Excel more than in the past three years!
What I’ve found most useful, and seemingly unique to the Jubilee Centre itself, is that the experience has not just been work-related, but much more informative on a personal level. Reading the collection of research reports highlights what character is, but speaking about and focussing on matters of character and virtue on a daily basis has certainly made me think. What makes my school as good as it supposedly is? Is it just focussed on exam results, or does it consciously atempt to build and nurture flourishing pupils? How have I developed some virtues but appear to lack others? How would I act when faced with ethical and moral dilemmas? What really are my virtues? And am I ready to go into the world and make moral judgements, be a benefit to society and succeed and cope with whatever comes my way? Can we ever truly achieve eudaimonia?
Hayaan Choudhury, Student, King Edward’s School

Humility as Freedom

When we contemplate a virtue, two big questions that we ask about it are, What is it? and What makes it a virtue, that is, a human excellence? The answers to these questions are intertwined, since what makes a trait a virtue will always depend on what that trait is. In this short piece, I want to focus mostly on what makes humility a virtue, and argue that it is a virtue, in part, because it is a kind of freedom.

But first, let me say a little bit about the preliminary question — what humility is. David Hume says that humility is “a dissatisfaction with ourselves, on account of some defect or infirmity,” and the Oxford English Dictionary agrees when it says that humility is “having a lowly opinion of oneself.” Some people may use the word ‘humility’ in this way, but most of us wouldn’t think that low self-esteem or disliking oneself is a virtue.

One idea that’s popular among philosophers, and perhaps connects a bit with the idea of low self-esteem, is the proposal that humility is a kind of serenity about, or acceptance of, one’s limitations. Such thinkers point out that intellectual humility, for example, is characteristic of good scientists. They’re aware of the difficulty of scientific questions and don’t presumptuously think they know all the answers, or that they have nothing to learn from other scientists who have rival theories.

Such persons are open to criticisms of their views; they’re always ready to learn, and alert to the possibility of making mistakes. This isn’t exactly dissatisfaction with oneself, but it is a contrary and corrective of “self-satisfaction.” And it’s easy to see how this trait, unlike low self-esteem, is a human excellence. Intellectual humility makes a person a better scientist, and acceptance of our limitations in other domains, such as athletics or friendship or some craft, is likely to make for better athletics, friendships, and craftsmanship. We are limited in various ways, and we’ll be better off if we recognize that fact and take it seriously, yet without falling into despair about it. This is one of the fruits of humility that give it the status of a virtue.

But humility may manifest itself in other ways than attentiveness to one’s weaknesses and mistakes. It might enable a person to forsake a high profile job that is less productive of good, and accept a low profile job that involves a greater contribution to the civic good. It might enable somebody to work usefully behind the scenes at a job for which other people get most of the credit. It might enable a person of great talents to exercise those talents in a way that doesn’t show others up to be inferior. So the acceptance of limitations view is probably not an adequately general account of humility.

I think a more encompassing understanding of humility is that it is the absence of what I call the “vices of pride” — such vices as snobbishness, invidious pride and its obverse twin envy, pretentiousness, vanity, arrogance, presumptuousness, self-righteousness, hyper-autonomy, and domination. These vices are various kinds of concern for what I call “self-importance.” For example, vain people seek a kind of empty importance by being admired, feared, or envied by others, or by striking awe into others. My view is that if you’re completely without any of these kinds of concern for self-importance, then you are humble, and if you have a noteworthy dearth of them, then you are unusually humble.

Why think that lacking, or falling short of, these concerns is virtuous? I think it offers many advantages in living a good human life, but I’d like to argue here for just one, and give just one example: humility is a kind of freedom.

Think of the pain and degradation of envy. Someone close to you has an impressive success in some domain that you would like to succeed in. Perhaps she lands a wonderful job, or receives some honor, or has some financial success. And to make the case more challenging, let’s say she kind of rubs it in, talking a little too much about her success and subtly suggesting juxtapositions of it with your own more modest successes. You find yourself feeling bitter about her success and hostile towards her; you wish she weren’t so lucky, or maybe you even wish something bad would happen to her, for once. You see her as a rival, and your defenses are up.

In letting these emotions have sway, you’re morally damaging yourself and your relationship with this person who is close to you. You’re degrading your life and hers by turning what ought to be a matter of celebration for both of you into a nasty contest for individual self-importance. Instead of suffering from envy and degrading yourself and the other into something unworthy of human beings, instead of cutting yourself off from one another in this unspoken defensiveness and isolation, how much better it would be to rejoice together in this person’s success!

In doing so, you would not only avoid your own envy, but would cut through and dissolve and sooth the unworthy invidiousness in the other’s suggestions. You would dissipate the unhealthy and destructive dynamic of envy and invidious pride that covertly pollutes your selves and your relationship.

The dialectic of envy is a bondage and corruption of the human soul and its relationships. As a lack of concern for self-importance, the virtue of humility makes room for love and respect, for happier emotions and genuine soul-to-soul communion and deep friendship. Thus, one of humility’s many functions is to free us to be what we were created to be. Humility is a kind of freedom.

Robert C. Roberts is Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues; a joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy

Reasoning Social Creatures – a psychological approach

During the week of 16th May 2016, the Jubilee Centre was delighted to welcome Blaine Fowers as a Distinguished Visiting Professor for 2016.  Blaine, who is Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Miami, focuses his work on the contributions of Aristotle’s ethics to a richer understanding of research and clinical practices in psychology and of ordinary life.

Blaine recorded a blog on ‘Reasoning Social Creatures – a psychological approach’, in which he describes his 20 years of work in the area of Aristotelian virtue ethics, from a psychological perspective.

During his visit he had the opportunity to meet with the Centre’s researchers to discuss projects and delivered a seminar titled ‘How Can Humans Flourish as Dependent, Vulnerable Creatures? The Necessity of Virtue‘ as part of the Centre’s bi-weekly seminar series. The paper is available to view here. Blaine has also written for the Centre’s Insight Series; the paper titled ‘The Accidental Virtue Scholar’ is available to view here.

Prof. Blaine Fowers, University of Miami

The virtues and vices of social media sites

More than half of UK parents think social media sites like Facebook and Twitter hamper the moral development of their children, according to a poll for The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues based at the University of Birmingham.

The survey also found that 40% of parents are concerned or extremely concerned about the negative impact of social media on young people.

The Parent Poll provides a unique insight into parental social media use, the perceived daily habits of their children and widespread anxieties about the influence of online networks in 2016.

Other key findings include:

  • Only 15% of parents agree that social media supports/enhances a young person’s character.
  • Anger, arrogance, ignorance, bad judgment and hatred are the top negative character traits, or vices, reported by parents on social media sites.
  • Almost three-quarters (72%) of respondents who use social media, however, believe they see content containing a positive moral message at least once a day.
  • The ‘Character Strengths’ that are seen to be promoted most regularly on social media sites are humour, appreciation of beauty, creativity, love, courage and kindness.

The Parent Poll was commissioned as part of the Jubilee Centre’s project on the Influence of Parents and the Media, which is looking at the impact of social media on young people’s moral character, in particular with regard to empathy and honesty.

The UK-wide poll questioned 1,738 parents of children aged 11 to 17. The average age of the respondents was 40 and the majority work in senior and middle management. Parents were asked about their own experience and use of social media sites and to estimate that of their children.

Some 93% of parents use at least one social media site, the most popular being: Facebook (83%); YouTube (48%); Twitter (41%); Instagram (28%); Google+ (20%); Snapchat (18%).

The most popular sites are broadly the same as those used by young people in the poll, although use of the instant messaging service Snapchat is higher among children (38% compared with 18% of adults in this sample).

Interestingly, parents acknowledge that 64% of 11 and 12-year-olds use Facebook in violation of its age restriction. Facebook requires users to be at least 13 before they can create an account[1].

There are similar findings for Snapchat (30%) and Instagram (35%), which also have age restrictions of 13.

It’s not all bad news…

Whilst the negative effects of social media sites are well publicised, the potential positive impact of these sites seem to be given less attention. The results of this poll, however, suggest that it’s not all bad.

There appears to be some cause for optimism in that 72% of respondents who use social media believe they see content with a positive moral message at least once a day[2].

This figure is higher than the percentage who regularly see negative moral messages, suggesting that social media is not just an environment for vice.

The poll asked parents to consider an “A to Z” of character strengths[3], from “Appreciation of beauty” to “Zest,” and to say which of these positive character traits they see promoted regularly (“at least once a month”) on social media sites.

The top five character strengths were: humour (52%); appreciation of beauty (51%); creativity (44%); love (39%); and courage (39%). Prudence (7%), judgment (10%) and leadership (12%) were some of the lowest ranking traits.

But there is some bad news…

When the same parents were asked to name the character strengths they thought were lacking on social media, forgiveness and self-control topped the bill on 24%, followed by honesty (21%), fairness (20%) and humility (18%).

A bleaker picture emerges when respondents were questioned about the negative character traits, or vices, they see on social media sites (“at least once a month”). The top vice is anger/hostility, reported by 60% of parents. It is followed by arrogance (51%); ignorance (43%); bad judgment (41%); and hatred (36%). Vanity, commonly perceived to be a major negative character trait in the “selfie” generation, was a relatively lowly ninth (30%) on the league table of social media vices.

In terms of the implications of these negative moral messages, when asked if social media hinders/undermines a young person’s character or moral development, 55% of respondents agreed – and one in 10 strongly agreed. These figures suggest that the influence of social media on young people is a genuine, and strong, concern for parents.

Interestingly, when conversely asked whether social media enhances/ supports a young person’s character or moral development, only 5% (or 91 out of 1738 parents) strongly agreed.

The poll suggests parents may need to pause and self-reflect before criticising the amount of time their children spend on social media. In fact, there is a medium-strong correlation between parents’ use of social networking sites and children’s use.

A third of parents (33%) are on social media for up to two hours a day – virtually the same as children (35%), according to the poll. Almost a fifth of adults (17%) admit using social networking sites up to four hours a day, compared with 22% of children.

At the extreme end, 6% of parents are on social networking sites for more than seven hours on a typical day. That compares with 8% of children.

Dr Blaire Morgan, co-principal investigator, said: “The Parent Poll is an opinion poll, not in-depth research. However, it will help to motivate the rest of our study into how social media use affects young people’s attitudes and behaviours with regards to moral values. We are particularly keen to gauge the impact of social media on young people’s experience of empathy and honesty.

“The project is due to report in November 2017 and we hope to produce evidence-based recommendations on social media use for parents and schools. The poll demonstrates a clear need for this research and highlights high levels of anxiety about the impact of social media networks on the character development of young people.

“There are some surprising findings in the poll, not the least the low level of agreement that social media can enhance or support a young person’s character or moral development. Whilst parents acknowledged that positive character strengths, including moral virtues such as love, courage and kindness, are promoted through social networking sites, they were reluctant to agree that these sites could have a positive impact on their child’s character.

“The Jubilee Centre’s ‘parents and media project’ seeks to explore the relationship between social media and virtues in more depth, and hopefully offer a more constructive outlook on how social media might impact on a person’s character and moral values. Social media is not going away, so by learning more about this relationship we should be able to maximise the benefits of social media use and avoid the pitfalls.”

[1] Parents’ knowledge of the age limit was not assessed so it is unclear as to whether parents knowingly allowed their children to use this site.

[2] Please note that the questions on character strengths/vices on social media were only asked to parents who used social media on a daily basis; this was 1598 parents in total.

[3] 24 Character Strengths – Peterson & Seligman (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Definitions of these character strengths were offered for clarity.


Profile: Dr Blaire Morgan, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Blaire’s fascination with psychology began at school and led to her studying a BSc in Psychology at the University of Birmingham. After graduating in 2009, she subsequently completed a PhD in cognitive psychology at the University.

Blaire, originally from Alsager, Cheshire, joined the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham in 2012, where she works as a Research Fellow.

She says: “Working at the Jubilee Centre was a new challenge for me and I like the fact the research impacts on people’s lives and links with education. You can see real-world impact with the work of the Jubilee Centre and that is what drives me. I am able to work alongside, and learn from, other academics because of the Centre’s multi-disciplinary ethos. There are educationalists, philosophers, sociologists and psychologists.”

Blaire previously worked on the An Attitude for Gratitude project, which involved 10,000 participants and examined how gratitude is understood, experienced and valued in the UK. The methods from this project have recently been replicated in Australia, funded by a grant from the Society for Educational Studies; this replication has allowed for a cross-cultural comparison of gratitude.

The An Attitude for Gratitude project also led to the development of the Multi-Component Gratitude Measure, a world first, which allowed the Centre to test gratitude-related conceptions, behaviours, emotions and attitudes alongside one another.

Blaire is now working on one of the Centre’s second wave of projects, looking at the Influence of Parents and the Media. She is particularly interested in how virtue and values can be measured.

She said: “You cannot assess virtue by just looking at one dimension, such as emotions. You have to look at emotions, cognitions, attitudes and behaviours, and that viewpoint is what underpins our gratitude measure and what is informing this current study too.”

The project will look at the impact of social media on the moral character of young people and devise guidelines to be adopted by parents and schools in relation to the use of sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. To find out more, or get involved, please visit our webpage


In Search of Universal Truth: the role of character education in bringing people together

Of all ways in which the vote for Brexit has shone a light on the state of our society, one finding is both clear and profound: Britain is becoming a more heterogeneous country, both culturally and economically, with fewer shared values, a suspicion of elites, and a weakening national identity.

This phenomenon is not limited to the UK. The picture is true to varying degrees across the Western world, as governments and societies struggle to adapt to economic globalisation and large scale movements of people. In his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, Charles Murray describes the situation in the US, where the notion that there is a set of life experiences and mores that are commonly shared by all sections of society – which Murray considers to be the keystone of the great American experiment – is in rapid decline.

But what has this got to do with character education? Well, let me give you an example from my own work with Floreat Education, a multi-Academy trust I founded. We work in a mixed area of West London, with large numbers of families for whom English is an additional language and with high levels of religious observation. The main centres of community life are the Gurdwaras, Temples, Mosques and non-conformist Churches, but there are very few secular venues where people from a range of backgrounds can gather.

Floreat has been active in the community for two years, attempting to launch a new primary school, and have been staggered by the lack of interaction between the different communities. This isn’t a case of black vs white, or indigenous vs immigrant. Nothing so straightforward. Rather, it is a case of people living parallel lives where there is strong bonding within communities but very little bridging between them.

One of the few secular institutions that can cater for all groups is a community school, and this is where the focus on character virtue development can be transformative. In speaking to a range of parents, we found very high levels of interest in the idea that a true education should, as well as pursuing academic goals, be concerned with the moral development of young people.

Many parents look to Church and faith schools for this very reason, but as followers of the Jubilee Centre will know one does not need to have faith to believe that character matters.

Floreat’s mission is to bring the practice of character virtue development into mainstream secular schools. We base our approach on the 24 traits identified by Seligman and Peterson in Character Strengths and Virtues, and it is providing a rallying flag around which parents from a range of backgrounds can gather.

This is more than simply a souped-up version of British Values; rather, it is the idea that there are universal truths about how to live well with other people, and that those truths have been recognised by all major cultures and religions in time and space.

Putting an explicit and purposeful attempt to develop good character at the centre of school life (and you can find out more about our programme here) can act as a powerful integrative force, in three ways. First, it draws its content from many sources, and is therefore relevant to the pupils studying it, whatever their background. Second, it shows them that truth can come in many forms and from many directions, and that people should be open-minded and curious enough to look for it in anyone.

Finally, it paints a vision of the good life, a flourishing life, in which true virtue is achieved by being active in the world and living a life of meaning and purpose in the service to others. And if we are to rebuild trust in our increasingly diverse society, what could be more important?

Lord James O’Shaughnessy is a Senior Fellow in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. He is also Founder and Senior Adviser at Floreat Education.

Virtue Training: it’s just what the trainee doctor – and the teacher and the lawyer – ordered

Teachers, lawyers and doctors are expected to be beyond reproach when it comes to their conduct and ethical behaviour.

We entrusted them with some of our most precious gifts and possessions: teachers help to nurture our children and act in loco parentis; solicitors and barristers safeguard our personal assets and legal rights; and medics are responsible for our well-being, health and, quite possibly, our lives.

Individual members of the professions, regardless of seniority, are guided by prescribed codes of conduct and must adhere to rules and regulations in their day-to-day lives. Additionally, we also expect teachers, lawyers and medics to be role models. They should be “upstanding” and reliable

But how do young and inexperienced new professionals learn how to become the virtuous practitioners that society expects? How do trainees in their late teens and early 20s become equipped to manage their actions, behaviours and thoughts in the interests of pupils, legal clients and patients – as well as for their own benefit as flourishing human beings?

Crucially, previous research conducted by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues has revealed limited scope in the training programmes of student teachers, lawyers and doctors to examine and nurture virtues such as compassion, self-discipline, gratitude and honesty. It is perhaps a staggering omission.

All of the professions in the public and private sectors have rules and regulations and codes of conduct, but this is not enough to prepare trainees for the ethical and moral dilemmas they will face in the classroom, the courtroom or the hospital ward. Indeed, “rookie” professionals may find there is literally nowhere to go if an individual scenario does not fit into a rigidly defined framework of right and wrong.

It is the belief of the Jubilee Centre that virtues training can play an important role in guiding trainees and new professionals in such challenging circumstances. To address this learning deficit, the Centre is developing new online courses to promote virtue-based practice among students in these three key employment areas. Our teaching interventions are central to a new research project that is designed to extend professional knowledge and enactment of phronesis, or practical moral wisdom.

Using e-learning strategies, and in consultation with senior professionals in education, law and medicine, we have developed flexible and practical courses that inform students about virtue ethics as they start out on their careers.

The courses assume the students have limited or negligible knowledge of the themes and require them to engage as active, critical participants. The learning units include introductions from professionals and researchers in the relevant professions, presentations, activities and the consideration of role models.

The difficult challenges posed by ethical dilemmas form an important part of all the courses. By harnessing practical wisdom, virtue ethics maintains that we can improve our decision-making and make better choices. The courses’ ethical dilemmas, some of which are animated to help to bring them to life, allow trainees to test and reflect on their own reactions in everyday workplace scenarios.

For example, one of the medical dilemmas looks at the case of a patient who is HIV positive. The woman does not want her GP to disclose her condition to anyone, including her husband. The husband then makes a separate appointment with the same doctor and announces he is considering having a vasectomy as he no longer wishes to use condoms for birth control. What should the GP do?

There is no right or wrong answer to the dilemmas. Rather the scenarios and the course in general are designed to get trainees to reflect on their own professions, behaviour and decision-making. We want them to look at their own character because character goes everywhere with you and informs every decision you take.

As part of the course, trainees are also able to instigate conversations with their tutors or other students via anonymous online discussion boards.

Through the teaching interventions, we hope to encourage educators and trainers to create conditions in which the professional development of the virtues is given a higher priority.

Following rigorous trials and tests, the research will produce a new set of practical, free teaching resources that will help inform and guide the next generation of industry professionals. The courses are being designed so they can also be used by staff already working in relevant bodies organisations, such as NHS trusts.

The success of the interventions will be measured by examining the extent to which students and professionals become more virtue literate and work in the interests of both individuals and society at large motivated by virtues such as gratitude, compassion, courage and humility. We hope the teaching interventions will reinvigorate this neglected field of professional practice and guide new professionals throughout their careers.

Dr Binish Khatoon, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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