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A new research project on parent-teacher partnerships

The opening lines of A Framework for Character Education in Schools state that, while parents/guardians are the primary educators of their children’s character, they want all adults who have contact with their children to contribute to that education, especially their children’s teachers. Motivating a new stream of research at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is the idea that, instead of pursuing this work of character education in isolation from each other, character and virtue is most effectively cultivated in children and young people when parents/guardians and teachers form partnerships and collaborate together. As such, at the heart of this research is the claim:

If parents/guardians and teachers forge successful partnerships on character education, it will increase the likelihood of children and young people developing positive virtues constitutive of individual and societal flourishing.

Recent Department for Education research supports this idea, pointing to parental engagement as a feature of structured approaches to character education; while also describing lack of parental engagement as a barrier to character education. That said, not all engagement is perceived by parents/guardians and teachers as positive. For example, a recent poll run by PTA UK found that, while 84% of parents/guardians want to be engaged with their child’s school, nearly half (46%) are unsure that their feedback is taken into account; worryingly 17% cited feeling intimidated as a barrier to getting involved. Moreover, the same survey found that many school leaders believe they are doing all they can to engage parents/guardians, but feel it is hard work and doesn’t always pay off. It would seem that, although parent-teacher partnership can be a positive, barriers may exist to capitalizing on these partnerships.

It is clear that parents/guardians support the idea of character education in schools. A poll carried out by Populus for The Jubilee Centre for Character and Values, found that 84% of parents/guardians felt that teachers should encourage good morals and values in students. Furthermore, it would seem teachers and parents/guardians agree on the benefits of collaboration. A further poll, conducted by PTA UK, showed that teachers believe parental engagement has many positive effects, including improved behaviour (59%) and developing a shared school ethos (53%). The aim of this research is to put together two ideas; the support for character education and the call for collaboration between parents/guardians and teachers as an enabler of children and young people developing positive virtues.

In order to dig deeper into these issues, a survey will be conducted to investigate what common ground exists between parents/guardians and teachers, while also examining differences in their approach to character and virtue. Questions will be posed to parents/guardians and teachers in order to uncover how they view character and how much importance they place on it. The survey will be exploratory in nature, and the findings will inform a practical intervention that will be produced and trailed in UK schools. It is hoped that this intervention may address some of the barriers mentioned above and enable teachers and parents/guardians to fully utilize their relationships to cultivate character and virtue among the children they care for and teach. The project began formally in December 2017 and is due to end in October 2020.

We hope that this research will break new ground. Although many experts agree on the importance of parental engagement for effective character education, there is a relative lack of research into parent/teacher collaboration on the issue, especially in a UK context (notable exceptions to this include Marvin Berkowitz and Thomas Lickona in the USA). It is widely conceived that research into how parents/guardians and teachers might best cooperate on character education is one of the biggest lacunas in the field in both Britain and internationally.

Katy Dineen is a Research Fellow in the Jubilee Centre, working on the parent-teacher partnership project.

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Practical Wisdom and Professional Practice: Integration and Intervention

The standards that govern professional practice are becoming meaningless. These conditions are central to the level of disengagement among professionals from the public, which marks the virtue gap between the professions and the people they are meant to serve

(ResPublica: In Professions We Trust, 2015).

The professions hold a unique place in the public eye, being expected to morally serve the best interests of individuals (e.g. clients, patients, customers) as well as society as a whole. In this respect, the professions occupy a position at the very heart of society. In situations where a practitioner’s personal moral judgement may conflict with expected professional procedures, it is often assumed that the practitioner will act in a virtuous and none self-serving way. Unfortunately, evidence suggests this is not always the case. Whilst one might recall various crises of malpractice across medicine, finance and other professions, ongoing allegations regarding the misconduct of MPs towards female colleagues provides a particularly egregious current example of unprofessionalism in the public sphere.

The Jubilee Centre has conducted a wealth of research into the field of professional ethics in order to explore the role of character and virtue in professional practice. This research has included a range of pre– and in-service professionals, such as teachers, doctors, lawyers, business, nurses and army officers. Across these professions, practitioners were found to consistently report virtues in themselves that were moral (e.g. honesty, fairness, kindness, humour) and performance (e.g. teamwork, perseverance) in nature. In contrast, virtues such as judgement and leadership were indicated as important for professional practice but were typically rated lower by professionals in their personal character, most notably by pre-service university students. The reports illustrate that whilst professionals may attempt to respond virtuously to ethical dilemmas, they often revert to duty- or rule-based reasoning when placed in professional situations. Professionals also expressed a sense of stress and conflict which may be associated with workplace conditions such as audit and assessment pressures in teaching, over-regulation and commercialisation in business and law, and a lack of time and staff in medical professions.

Although these findings paint an encouraging picture of the moral intentions of practitioners, it is evident that more needs to be done to support their moral development within the workplace. The Jubilee Centre findings to date show there is clear scope to develop targeted CPD programmes that educate and train practitioners how to be virtuous in their practise, especially given the morally testing situations that many practitioners will face daily. Equally important is that workplaces embed an ethos and culture that encourage morally sound practise from their employees. This ethos should also extend into pre-service institutions, such as universities, to provide future professionals with space for critical moral and ethical reflection during their training. For example, the Jubilee Centre found that established business professionals conveyed honesty as the most important virtue to business practise but this was not replicated by university students. One could question the utility of pre-service training if it does not equip students with the virtues deemed essential for moral professional practise in the field.

The current project Practical Wisdom and Professional Practice: Integration and Intervention involves integration of existing Jubilee Centre data to conduct advanced analysis across the professions. This secondary analysis will explore common trends or differences in character that may emerge across professions and by gender, stage of career, or other demographic factors. For instance, are there similarities or distinct differences in self-reported and perceived ideal character strengths between professions? How do professionals’ evaluations of their own character strengths associate with their responses to ethical dilemmas and perceptions of their workplace conditions? Do these associations differ if a professional’s dominant character strengths are moral, performance or intellectual in nature? By conducting such analyses, the project seeks to offer new conceptual insights and practical recommendations that may inform both the pre– and in-service ethical training of professionals, be it specific to certain professions or more generic for all good professional practice.

The project will look to use the findings from the secondary analysis to open discussions with professional educators, regulators and other stakeholders over the implications for professional education. This will include examining the materials and practises that are currently used within in-service professions regarding ethics and character, such as mission statements, codes of practise and induction or training procedures. The Jubilee Centre has already made in-roads into designing interventions within professional education, with the pilot of an online intervention which introduces the concepts of character, virtue and practical wisdom to pre-service teachers, doctors and lawyers (see Character in the Professions). This programme provided promising initial findings that character-based interventions can positively influence the ethical practise of professionals who take part. Building on this work, the current project will form the basis for developing intervention programmes to enhance virtuous practice in UK-based professions and pre-service training. Given the growing influences of individualism, consumerism and legalism in the modern world, the project intends to help bridge the virtue gap between the working professions and the people they serve.

Dr Stephen Earl (Research Fellow), Joseph Ward (Research Associate/ Impact Officer), Aidan Thompson (Director of Strategy and Integration), Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

Phronesis: The New Synthesis?

Psychologists have acquired newfound interest in examining moral development since Kohlberg’s famous studies in the 80s. Likewise, there has, in the last few decades, been a resurgence of interest in character education. We know a lot about how moral understanding and moral emotions develop. Yet the crucial question of what motivates moral behaviour, especially in situations of complex moral conflicts, is still being hotly debated.

Within the psychology literature, three main theories of moral behaviour have developed; in line with Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, research has shown some connections between moral reasoning and moral behaviour, while at the same time, Neo-Kolbergians or perhaps even ‘anti-Kolbergians’ have shown moral identity (how much one sees moral values as integral to one’s sense of self), and moral emotions (centrally involving empathy and sympathy) to play a crucial role in predicting moral behaviour.  Similarly, character education programs,  especially those focusing on moral educational interventions in the classroom, have had success in developing pupils who are virtue literate, that is, able to comfortably handle terms like ‘courage’, ‘justice’, etc., as well as  perhaps better able to identify moral salience in situations. However, within both literatures it is still unclear to what extent such literacy translates into behaviour or indeed what best predicts moral action or how these different factors relate to each other.

Indeed, in the moral psychology literature, this missing link has been described and labelled as the ‘gappiness problem’: addressing what bridges the gap between virtue literacy and virtuous behaviour.  What motivates someone acting in a moral way?

If we go back to Aristotle, we will note a curious tension: Aristotle suggests that virtue is a matter of habituation, and of responding appropriately to situations; he also suggests, however, that in order to be virtuous in the full sense of the term, one needs to be wise or a phronimos (more often translated as a ‘practically wise’ person). Phronesis is an intellectual virtue, but is one that both requires that its possessor have morally good habits and emotional dispositions in place, and ensures that its possessor is robustly possessed of the full gamut of the virtues, and will reliable respond, behaviourally or otherwise, appropriately to situations, no matter how different from previous ones she has experienced, how difficult, or how unclear it may appear.

The contrast Aristotle is identifying here, may, perhaps, be illustrated with a different example. Many people are brought up to, and are habituated to be polite: they hold the door for others, apologise when they inconvenience others, and thank others for their favours or services. However, in many cases, this politeness seems almost robotic: sometimes people apologise for no reason, thank without thinking, and, what is worse, may fail to do so when they don’t like the person, when the person is not good looking, etc., even where it would be appropriate to do so. We would say that these people are not really or truly polite, but merely perform polite behaviours out of habit. By contrast, someone who behaved politely in all the cases where it would be appropriate to do so, and even when it might seem difficult or where others might fail, due to some frailty or other, would be truly polite. This, albeit caricatured, is what Aristotle has in mind when he speaks of virtues being habituated but only (truly) possessed by those who also have phronesis. Many people may be kind or honest some of the time because they are used to it; but will fail to do so under pressure, or may do it for the wrong reasons, etc.

While construed in largely ideal terms, seen in light of the aforementioned debates, Aristotle’s account seems to hold promise: perhaps what stands between being virtue literate and behaving morally is a more encompassing notion, namely phronesis: the excellence that allows one to act or respond in the humanly best way. This comprises not just virtue literacy, but also the knowledge of, and internalisation of certain values, the reasoning that allows one to see what alternatives will best realise those values, the capacity to identify the salient features of a situation from moral point of view, and, in situations where values are in conflict in a given scenario, the ability to decide which would be most appropriate, or best, to pursue in a given situation. At the same time, the person with phronesis will be motivated to behave in accordance with the foregoing considerations and will do so (all else being equal) reliably and for the right reasons. Thus, in many ways, the concept of phronesis promises to combine existing insights, but add to them certain nuances to the reasoning involved in virtuous behaviour, thereby offering a more promising suggestion for how to address the ‘gappiness problem’, at least as seen from a virtue ethical perspective.

We have just started a project that will be premised on a philosophically-informed, but empirically measurable definition of phronesis, and will be aiming to design an instrument to measure this construct, as well as its development from adolescence through to early adulthood. This is an exciting and ambitious project as a measurement of phronesis has not been attempted before, either in the JCCV or the existing moral psychology literature.  It is therefore a much-needed addition to the work of a Centre that prides itself on operating in the area of Aristotelian character education.

Dr Panos Paris and Dr Catherine Darnell, Research Fellows at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue

Teacher Education:  Character, ethics and the professional development of pre- and in-service teachers

“If we want character education to be embedded within our curriculum and practised in our schools then it needs to be included in teacher training and explicitly developed and recognised in the assessment of trainee teachers. It also needs to be reflected and enhanced in ongoing continuing professional development for teachers”

Nicky Morgan MP (Taught Not Caught: Educating for 21st Century Character, 2017)

 

Recent Jubilee Centre reports such as Character Education in UK Schools have shown that the ideals of character and virtue have recently undergone a resurgence of interest in political and educational circles, and among the wider public, both internationally and in the UK. There is also strong support from parents for the idea that schools should promote character development; 84% of UK parents believe that teachers should encourage good morals and values in their students and 91% of UK adults say it is important that schools develop good character.

An indication of this resurgence can be found in the Department for Education strategy 2015-2020 World-class education and care document in which character and resilience have been made one of the DfE’s 12 priorities; the recent report, Developing Character Skills in Schools, also highlights the prominence of character development within schools. Within this it is shown that 97% of schools seek to promote desirable character traits amongst their students; however it is also reported only 17% of schools have a formalised plan for character education – only 43% of these offer all staff members training relating to the development of character.

With character education taking a more prominent seat at the educational round table, the current Jubilee Centre research project, Teacher Education:  Character, ethics and the professional development of pre- and in-service teachers, looks to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Previous research undertaken by the Jubilee Centre (The Good Teacher; Statement on Teacher Education and Character Education; Framework for Character Education in Schools) advocates the allocation of time and space for teachers to critically reflect on the moral aspects of their practice. It is recommended that initial teacher education (ITE) seeks to develop the moral agency of teachers and, to ensure the early enthusiasm of teachers wanting to make a difference is sustained, it is suggested that continued professional development (CPD) programmes include academic and theoretical input concerning the integral role of moral virtues in the profession.

Building on this previous work, the current project seeks to delve deeper into the important issue of how teachers are prepared and supported to meet the moral and ethical demands of their roles. In the current climate, schools and teachers are facing unprecedented pressure and unmanageable workloads as a result of the prioritisation of grade attainment (House of Commons Education Committee). The heavy reliance on academic progress and performance in league tables has led to many initial teacher training programmes and CPD activities being heavily laden with academic skill-based learning, often neglecting or minimising the role of moral teaching.

This research aims to take meaningful steps forward, intending not only to explore teachers’ (pre- and in-service) perceptions and experiences of preparation for character education, but to establish how best to train and support them for this endeavour. The project will explore the impact of reflection on teachers’ development with the intention of integrating evidence of good practice into a coherent programme which can be disseminated to schools and training institutions to be used within ITE and CPD.

Teachers are not being adequately prepared to fulfil all aspects of their roles as educators. Teacher Education:  Character, ethics and the professional development of pre- and in-service teachers, seeks to address this concern and facilitate the advancement of character education in schools.

Project Timeline:

Stage 1 (September 2017 – August 2018): Research, design and implementation of initial teacher training programme for pre-service teachers.

Stage 2 (September 2018 – August 2019): Research, design and implementation of continued professional development programme for in-service teachers.

Initial findings from stage 1 of the project can be expected in September 2018. Initial findings from stage 2 can be expected in September 2019, with the research report to follow.

 

Michael Fullard and Paul Watts are Research Fellows at The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. They are both experienced teachers working on the Teacher Education:  Character, ethics and the professional development of pre- and in-service teachers project.

 

Kindness at Christmas

While it seems the run up to Christmas gets longer each year, with mince pies and brandy butter appearing on supermarket shelves well before Halloween, many still prefer to see the end of the month of November before decking the halls. Indeed, for centuries, the first Sunday of Advent (this year falling on the 3rd December) has marked the beginning of a season of preparation.

In its religious context, Advent is the time of year wherein Christians prepare for the coming of Christ, and includes practices of penance and charitable giving. Of course, in today’s increasingly secular society, the focus on penance has been diminished considerably. Nonetheless, there remains a certain yuletide commitment to higher ideals, or as it is sometimes known ‘Christmas spirit’. So evident is our appreciation and appetite for something more noble at this time of year, even adverts, produced to influence our spending behaviour, appeal to our better nature. It seems incongruous that adverts as touching as John Lewis’s Monty the Penguin are produced at Christmas time to boost sales; or that the aim of adverts like German chain Edeka’s, appealing to the loneliness of the elderly at Christmas, is to increase our consumption of material goods.

As such, if there is any time of year where people are particularly susceptible to ideas about virtue and character, it must be Christmas time. As Winston Churchill put it, ‘Christmas is a season not only of rejoicing but of reflection.’ It is a time to think about how we have done over the last twelve months. Have we advanced on our path to virtue? Have we spent the last year cultivating good character? Or have we slipped into bad habits?

For parents, these questions have another dimension; Christmas marks a time to think about the character formation of children. Many examples exist, both contemporary and historical, showing the prevalence of this parental reflection on children’s character. Perhaps the simplest and clearest is Santa Clause’s ‘Naughty or Nice’ list.

So, what can parents do to help children cultivate good character? Parents have been asking the Jubilee Centre this question a lot recently. In fact, there has been so much interest, on the part of parents, in activities and advice on how to foster good character in children that the Jubilee Centre has decided to create a dedicated parent section of its website. This section will provide parents with age appropriate character education resources. The idea behind this initiative is to give parents tools to help them help their children on their path to virtue action and practice. As an introduction to this initiative, and given the season that is upon us, the Centre has produced an advent calendar. In place of daily chocolates, the calendar will give parents/guardians and children opportunities to discuss various virtues (e.g. courage, good judgment etc.) and do something kind for themselves and others.

AdventCalendar

The Jubilee Centre has always recognised the role of parents as the primary educators of children’s characters. In fact, the very first lines of A Framework for Character Education in Schools say just that. It is encouraging that more and more parents are recognising the Centre’s work, and how its research and resources can be utilised in their pursuit of promoting virtue among their children. One new path the Centre’s research is taking is to learn more about this centrally important parental role through examining how parents/guardians collaborate with teachers on character education. At the core of this new research is the idea that:

If parents/guardians and teachers forge successful partnerships on character education, it will increase the likelihood of children and young people developing positive virtues constitutive of individual and societal flourishing

In sum then, Christmas is a time of year that naturally lends itself to character education; no one wants to end up on that naughty list. We here at the Centre hope you, and your family, enjoy our Advent calendar. We also hope you join us in our plans to use our research and resources to reach out more to parents, and help them in their pursuit of virtue for their children. In this, we might even keep the spirit of the season alive long after Christmas has ended. As Dr Seuss so eloquently put it, ‘Christmas will always be as long as we stand heart to heart and hand to hand’.

Download the Jubilee Centre’s 2017 Advent Calendar here.

Dr Katy Dineen and Dr Catherine Darnell, Research Fellows, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Reflections on Character Education From a Former Secondary School Teacher

Before coming to the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, I spent three years training and working as a secondary school teacher. Working in this role fuelled my conviction for character education within schools and allowed me valuable insight into the concerns that teachers have about the idea of its implementation. This blog explores those concerns and seeks to remedy some of the confusions and apprehension that I’ve encountered from staff in schools.

There is still a lot of confusion as to what exactly character and character education is. I’ve always thought one of the best definitions of character and character education can be found in the Jubilee Centre’s The Knightly Virtues, which describes character as ‘the constellation of virtues possessed by an individual and character education is the deliberate attempt to cultivate these virtues’. To me, virtues are constructive traits that are beneficial to both the individual and to the wider society. Virtues include curiosity, courage, compassion, community volunteering, and confidence among others. Character education is the notion that by the time pupils leave school they should understand and view virtues as important – enabling them to develop into mature adults and to realise their full potential.

Character education is not new. It has existed as an idea from ancient times to the present day, however, the drive and focus in schools on academic attainment has resulted in character education having lower importance in the educational agenda for the past few decades. The issue is that this narrow focus on academic attainment has led schools having a great resemblance to factories, outputting students with different grades of quality for the benefit of the employment market. Such a narrow emphasis on attainment leads to pupils being perceived more like products than as the individuals they truly are.

Children with an education that is enriched with character development will be better equipped for the trials of adulthood, which requires more than just academic knowledge to flourish. I cannot claim that character education will lead to all children achieving better grades but it is within reason to think that children who have a language of virtues reinforced through their daily school routine will be all the more likely to see those virtues as important and to exemplify those virtues themselves. If pupils are more virtuous, then they will be more likely to strive to reach their full potential and to make themselves and their communities’ better places.

There is still confusion what character education looks like in practice. Some advocate character education as a discrete timetabled subject similar to citizenship or religious education. I am firmly opposed to this stance; relegating character to a weekly timetable slot will only strengthen the view that character and virtues are not something that should be regarded as a discipline for life but merely as instruments to be picked out from a toolbox when socially advantageous. Character is holistic and therefore it should both permeate and be reinforced throughout the whole school.

A reoccurring concern is that the introduction of character education will just add to the workload of teachers. However, the reality is that many teachers are already doing many aspects of character education, even if it is not realised.  If you work in a school and you monitor pupils’ behaviour on a day-to-day basis, embed values in lessons, run form-time activities, adhere to a school ethos or model good behaviour, then you are already doing part of what constitutes character education.

So why bother with character education if we are already doing it in some form? Schools are presently not legally obliged to shape the character of their pupils, although they are required to develop the SMSC (spiritual, moral, social and cultural) dimensions of the child.

In my opinion, SMSC is an ambiguous and ineffective term. One school I have been part of took the idea that SMSC arose naturally through daily interactions and would therefore not require any additional emphasis from teachers, SMSC was relegated to a mere tick-box exercise on lesson plans with little follow-up assessment. This school also had no embedded school values or ethos when I initially arrived; perhaps unsurprisingly behaviour deteriorated over time and grades plummeted. It is clear to me that the schools that neglect the development of their pupil’s character in favour of focusing all their efforts on attainment will always fail to achieve in the long-term, as pupils will not have the right mind-set to overcome difficulty, leading to agitation in the school body which will eventually result in attainment suffering.

This experience was in sharp contrast to another school I have been part of, which proudly displayed their eight core virtues on their walls. Each week, the school would focus on one of the eight virtues that would be present throughout the weekly assembly and in form-time; pupils would have content structured around that particular virtue and subject teachers were asked to include references to the virtue in the planning of their lessons, wherever they were able.

The disparity between these two accounts is troubling, especially when we imagine this at a national level. A child can go to one school in England and experience a significantly higher quality of character development than that of a child in a neighbouring school down the road. Children who are in schools that have little consideration for the development of character are being failed by the education system. They are unprepared for their adult life and more needs to be done to address this.

The last concern is that teachers fear they would lose ‘subject time’ to ‘character time.’ I don’t see this being the case; teachers can ask questions which both shape character and are academically rigorous. A science teacher, for example, might ask questions that refer to past scientific pioneers who displayed courage in pushing the limits of human knowledge despite the risks they faced, such as Darwin, Galileo or Jenner. The history teacher might ask questions that relate to the qualities of important past figures, for instance, what are the virtues that Joan of Arc displayed? (Courage, hope, leadership) I am not suggesting that individual subjects should utilise one particular set of virtues but I do think some virtues may crop up more often than others within each subject. We would rightly think that sportsmanship is more likely to emerge in a physical education lesson than a cookery lesson, but there is no reason why the cookery teacher should exclude making links to the idea of sportsmanship. All subjects are able to make a unique but broad contribution to shaping the character of pupils.

In closing, teachers and senior leaders can help advance the cause of character education through raising ideas of character education in staff meetings; promoting an ethos which focuses on virtues in their school; and planning schemes of work and activities which will get pupils engaged and thinking about virtue and encouraging character as something which should be holistic through all aspects of school life.

Jason Metcalfe is a Research Associate at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

What Makes A Habit of Service?

Think about the last thing you did to help someone else or the environment. It might be doing the food shop for your elderly neighbour, setting up a change.org petition, or volunteering at the local Park Run on a Saturday. Did you enjoy it? Did you feel it challenged you? Did you see the benefit to others and to yourself? Did you get to make any decisions about it, or take the lead? Did you learn anything from it? Did you get any support from your school, college, university or workplace? Did it make you want to do it again?

If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, then according to the #iwill campaign, you’re more likely to have had a high quality social action experience. #iwill is a UK-wide campaign to make social action (practical action in the service of others to create positive change, like volunteering, campaigning, or fundraising) a habit for life among 10-20 year olds. Their goal is based on the premise that if young people have a high quality experience of youth social action, then they’re more likely to want to do it again.

But until recently, we didn’t know for certain that there was any link between quality and habit when it came to social action. So we surveyed over 4,500 young people and conducted 7 in-depth narrative interviews to find out just that. Defining a young person with a habit of social action as someone who has taken part in social action in the past 12 months, and intends to take part again in the next 12 months, we found that young people with a habit of social action were more likely than those without a habit to have had a quality social action experience.Habit of Service infographic#iwill Campaign’s Six Quality Principles – you can view the full info-graphic here

Setting these in the context of a young person’s experiences can help show what these quality principles look like in practice. Let’s take Beth[1] as an example.

When Beth (now 18) was just 10 years old, her mum saw a poster advertising a first aid cadets programme, and took her along. Beth was surprised to find that she absolutely loved it:

You just think, why would a 10 year old want to join a first aid society? And my mum’s like, “Oh no, it’s gonna be absolutely fantastic, you can go”, gives you a friendly nudge. So your 10 year old turns up and goes, “this is not what I planned”, I asked my mum to do dancing or something … But, when you get into it, even at the age of 10, there is so much that you can do.

Fast forward 8 years, and Beth has not only won several awards for the volunteering she’s done, but she has also won a place on a trip to Hong Kong to compete against other first aiders from around the world. She’s been a Brownie leader, a Guide, represented other young people on charity youth boards, volunteered for an orchestra to help young carers learn instruments, and has volunteered at a museum. Throughout all this, we can identify those quality principles in Beth’s experience.

  • Challenging and enjoyable, and youth-led: On Brownies, Beth said, “it was a learning curve for me, having to plan my own schedule, provide my own resources, manage a team, at just 17, it was a bit crazy doing A Levels at the same time, but I had such a love for what I was doing, because I love working with youth”.
  • Reflective: “I feel like volunteering has developed me such as a person, where you just had to think on your feet … it’s kind of been, it’s very character building, it builds you as a person”.
  • Progressive: “as soon as you turn 18, you can’t be a cadet anymore, so, obviously you can help with cadets which is what I do but, there’s a…actually…a university first aid society”.
  • Socially impactful: Gained a BTEC in peer education, which meant she could “train to teach others, and I feel like that’s also a very vital skill, because it’s not only just doing first aid, but you’re also teaching others”.
  • Embedded: “My uni is very good for volunteering, so we have something called the college cup … you get judged on how much volunteering you do … which is why I actually liked my uni because volunteering is such a core part of it”.

So what does this all mean in practice? For the first time, youth social action providers have evidence that there is a link between the quality principles of social action and a habit. While this doesn’t mean we’re in a position to say that the quality principles are what helps young people develop a habit of social action – further, experimental research would be needed to do that – it provides a good rationale for exploring the connection between quality and habit further. What’s more, we now have a set of questions, tested and refined, to measure the quality of the social action experience, which can be used by anyone with an interest in this area.

The A Habit of Service research project was launched by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and the #iwill campaign on 22nd November.

Emma Taylor Collins is a Research Associate at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

[1] Pseudonym given to protect identity.

The Virtuous Poker Player: Is There Such a Thing?

The Godfather of Poker, Doyle Brunson, once said, ‘Poker actually isn’t about winning or losing; poker is about making the right decision.’ In my opinion, this is a very versatile saying. For example, if you were to substitute the word poker for life, you would have a quote worthy of an inspirational fridge magnet. Such is the nature of poker. It is a brooding, philosophical game; a microcosm of the peaks and troughs of life. This is why so much poker terminology permeates our language… it’s the fall of the cardswhen the chips are down… I’m going all in… Even Voltaire employed the poker/life metaphor in his writing, ‘Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.’

I find it interesting that poker is so often used as a vehicle to deliver life advice in spite of commonly being understood to be a vice. Certainly vices are present in poker; greed, envy and pride being the most obvious; but as Shakespeare said: ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ With this in mind, the rest of this blog post hopes to give ground to the idea that poker could in fact, in part, promote virtuousness and good character by exploring its relationship with the virtues of wisdom, temperance, justice and humanity.

Wisdom

In his vindication of Martial Arts as a means of becoming more virtuous (The Way to Virtue in Sport), Allan Bäck acknowledged that ‘People—even philosophers—often claim that practicing a sport improves moral character’ and that even ‘Plato advocated education of the body as well as of the mind: gumnastike as well as mousike.’ Now you’re not going to achieve a six-pack playing poker but I would argue that, like sports, games like poker can constitute an education of the mind, i.e. cultivate intellectual virtues.

In order to learn a game like poker you are going to need, or need to develop, a love of learning and curiosity, two of the five character strengths that comprise the virtue of wisdom according to the VIA Classification of Character Strengths. For beginners, just the rules of play can be difficult to grasp, and beyond this there are the endless annals of poker strategy in print and online. The successful player has to be interested, engaged and willing to learn. They will need to develop the grit and resilience expected of any serious sports player.

Judgement and perspective, also constituents of wisdom, are essential for the developing poker player. In my experience of playing poker, it is those players that develop a sense of entitlement that are those quickest to stagnate. This stagnation can lead to bitterness and cruelty (online poker comment boxes are a treasure trove of profanity, usually players mourning themselves and cursing others.) It takes an open-mind and a rational perspective in order to prosper as a poker player.

As Michael Austin writes in his article Sports and Moral Development, ‘A child learns how to play soccer by imitating those who are good at the sport. Similarly, a child can learn how to be virtuous by imitating those who are morally good.’ Just as football has its goodies and baddies, its role models and bad examples, so does poker. Fortunately, the game of poker has a vibrant community of players and tutors that encourage, through discussion and training, what Austin calls the ‘proper habits of the practice’.

Temperance

In the film Rounders (a film that is generally acknowledged as the greatest poker film of modern times) – Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), in an argument with his non-poker-playing girlfriend, exclaims, ‘Why does this still seem like gambling to you? Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table at the World Series of Poker every year?’ The point Mike is trying to make is that, though poker is fundamentally a game of chance, the player has the potential to put the odds in their favour. Thus the game becomes not solely about luck, but also a contest of skill.

Any poker strategy guide worth its salt advocates strict bankroll management. It is arguably the most important part of poker strategy and based on temperance. Bankroll management essentially requires you to have the prudence and self-regulation to play only at a level financially viable to you. You keep your poker bankroll divorced from the rest of your finances and you only ever play with a small fraction of it at a time. Doing so should hopefully mean that your losses are small enough not to affect you mentally and financially and also that you will be able to outlast any periods of negative variability.

Interestingly, the reason why Mike McDermott is in such hot water with his girlfriend is because at the start of the film he was a victim of his own intemperance, losing everything on a single hand of poker. This is why actively practicing the virtues is so important if you are going to play poker. Despite what Mike McDermott tells his girlfriend, poker is a game of chance, it is gambling, and gambling can be, and in many cases is, insidious. For those poker players who struggle to exercise control over gambling, the right decision would be to not play at all, or to play without the involvement of money, purely for the love of the game.

Justice and Humanity

Poker is a game that promotes sophisticated decision making. Players who do not exercise temperance and wisdom will quickly find themselves exiled to the spectator’s rail. But the virtuous character strengths developed through playing poker also have other applications; poker can develop a practical wisdom (phronesis) that can contribute to societal flourishing. Thus, to borrow from Allan Bäck, ‘it purports to be a serious part of life—and to transcend contests’. Raising for Effective Giving is a charity founded by poker players that uses a poker philosophy to maximise their philanthropy. As World Champion, Martin Jacobson, is quoted as saying on their website:

“Contributing to charity in any way, shape or form is really important for me and I have found REG to be the superior option. Their rational strategy to effective giving is something I can relate to because I use the same approach to maximize my potential as a professional poker player.”

Considering this, the versatile sentiment of ol’ Texas Dolly, Doyle Brunson, can even be applied to the character strengths of social intelligence, kindness, fairness and citizenship, strengths comprising the virtues of justice and humanity: ‘Poker actually isn’t about winning or losing; poker is about making the right decision.’

Vice or Virtue?

In this blog I have proffered that poker players who exercise the virtuous character strengths of wisdom and temperance are the most likely to succeed, and presented a shining example of charitable action taken by poker players (of which there are many), but is this enough to claim that poker itself, on the whole, is virtuous? You could argue that the game of poker is a morally neutral construct and it is each individual’s interaction with the game which is virtuous or not. However, poker is a zero numbers game, which means for every win there has to be a loss of the same amount. The circumstances of the game therefore directly promote the vices of greed and envy: greed because in order to win you must engage rapaciously in the pursuit of material possessions and envy because that which you covet is your neighbour’s chips. So is the gentrification the game has enjoyed in recent years merely a virtuous veneer atop a cankered core? Tell Shakespeare I am still thinking about it…

Richard Hughes is Research Administrator at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Character in Sport – a virtuous act, or mere bouncebackability?

In the Flourishing From the Margins research report published by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues last week, one of the less notable findings deserves some greater attention. In Stage One of the study, nearly 3,000 young people (aged 11-19 years) were asked to quantify the level of influence that thirteen different factors had on their perception of living a ‘good life’. Whilst unsurprisingly close family and friends scored across all age groups as the factors having the greatest influence on young people, the influence of sport was the highest scoring ‘tertiary’ factor.  In aggregating the 13 factors, ‘tertiary’ factors included the perceived influence of sport, music, the news, television, celebrities, and social media. Overall, participants scored the influence of sport on their perception of living a ‘good life’ at 66.2 out of 100; higher than social media (55.4), television (53.8), music (53.2), celebrities (50.2) and the news (48.4).

This score was higher than secondary factors such as teachers or youth workers (59.0) and the people in your community (45.0). The Aristotelian concept of living a ‘good life’ in terms of both individual and societal flourishing was the lens through which the Flourishing From the Margins project brought the language of character into the worlds of marginalised young people.

Sport is performance, so it makes sense that character is viewed through this lens. However, drama, spoken word, and dance are all equally performance-driven, and yet the language of character is almost completely absent in reference to them. In the Jubilee Centre’s A Framework for Character Education in Schools, performance virtues are defined as ‘character traits that have an instrumental value in enabling the intellectual, moral and civic virtues.’  Whilst ‘performance’ can be defined outside of virtue, what the above definition suggests is that viewing ‘character’ only from a performance perspective is limited, and therefore insufficient.

The Jubilee Centre successfully debunked the myth that ‘character is borne on the sports field’ in its 2015 publication Character Education in UK Schools. In that report, findings suggested that young people who engaged in extra-curricular activities in drama and choir were better equipped to answer moral dilemmas from a virtue-based perspective than those who engaged in sport. Why is the language of character so prevalent in professional sport, then, particularly in the mainstream media?

‘He demonstrated his work ethic and character’; ‘I’ve never doubted the character of the players’; ‘the performance seemed very much out of character’; all direct quotes from articles on skysports.com posted over a 72h period (21st – 23rd October 2017). In fact, at the time of writing, there are 6,704 articles containing the term ‘character’ on skysports.com (correct to 23/10/17). But what does ‘character’ mean, in a professional sporting context? Or at least what do those who use the term so freely really mean by it?

A quick analysis of the use of ‘character’ in the most recent of the 6,704 articles suggests that it is used either by professional sportsmen across sport (footballers, rugby players, American footballers, Formula 1 drivers) to indicate a resilience, or a ‘bouncebackability’, from a recent poor run of form, or in a match where a team was losing at half-time, and came back to win.

Is that what the media wishes to present to their audiences, then? That character is demonstrated, lived, and presented in the sporting arena as resilience, being tough to beat, or coming back to take the lead, or hold on in the face of adversity? All are worthy concepts, and ones that can be used to influence the character formation of young people in a positive manner. However, should we, the viewing public, be demanding more from both our interviewers and pundits, and our sports stars themselves? Where there is talk of ‘the lads showing character’, should we challenge this, or qualify it. Is it good character? Is there a way to combine good citizenship, moral action, and critical thinking with a resilient performance to encompass the four types of virtue that the Jubilee Centre advocates for? Not diving to win a free kick, helping an opponent back to their feet, and restraining oneself from berating a referee when you disagree with a decision are quick and easy examples of demonstrating the moral, civic, and intellectual virtues on a sports pitch. They are not always the ones that come to the mind when the players are asked ‘if that was a performance of character?’ Maybe, given the perceived influence that sport does have on the character formation of young people generally, and the educationally marginalised as demonstrated by this study, there is scope for change. Phronesis in football; the discerning derby. Stay tuned.

Aidan Thompson

Director of Strategy and Integration

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

 

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