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Practice makes perfect in a school of virtue

University of Birmingham School principal Michael Roden talks to Richard McComb

There cannot be many homework planners where one of the most prominent pages asks pupils: “What virtues have you shown today?”

Below the question, embedded in a heart shape, are words such as kindness, courage, service, resilience, honesty, loyalty and kindness.

Anchoring the page, a second question is posed: “What virtues will you show tomorrow?”

The language of character is both implicit and explicit at the University of Birmingham School. This is not a one-off homework assignment or even an extend project; character and virtues are the bedrock of the school and they inform everything that takes place at Weoley Park Road in Selly Oak.

Clearly, it is a vision that has chimed with parents who respect the importance and value of academic rigour but believe there is more to education than metrics and school league tables. Before it opened its gates in 2015, there were 1,231 applications for 150 places in Year 7, making it the most over-subscribed comprehensive in Birmingham.

This year, for only the second intake, there were 1,580 applications – 10 for each place. “If things hold true, we could be the most popular school of any type in the city this year,” says Principal Michael Roden.

Mr Roden explains that the Framework for Character Education in Schools developed by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is a vital reference document and underpins daily life and forward planning at the University of Birmingham School. Character education and enrichment is built into the bricks and mortar of the place.

But surely the concepts of good character and Aristotelian virtue are too grand and “difficult” for 11-year-olds to grasp? Far from it.

“The children pick up the language of character very quickly,” says Mr Roden. “Exams are important but it is more important to be happy, to be good, to be a good person. When I talk to parents and prospective parents, I talk about the importance of having the correct moral attitude, looking after others and improving the lives of others. And people get it, it’s what they want.”

When he took up his appointment in April 2014, Mr Roden had 16 months to get the school up and running. The principal and the senior team that would later join him had to display several performance virtues of their own as the clock ticked down, not least grit and perseverance – construction of the school’s new building was on-going the day before pupils arrived.

The school has a diverse intake with a broad range of prior attainment levels. Half the pupils come from the local area and the other half are drawn from three admission hubs in Small Heath, Hall Green, and the Jewellery Quarter. The hubs were chosen with the local authority from areas with an under-supply of school places and selected to reflect the city’s diversity.

Mr Roden decided it was important to boost the traditional role of form tutors. Every day starts with half-an-hour of form-based character education and there are 10 minutes at the end of the day for reflection with tutors. During group reflection, the form teacher and class typically discuss what they have enjoyed that day and talk through any difficulties that may have arisen.

On a Monday, children use their journals to look back on the previous week and assess targets for the next five days. Each year group has a weekly assembly based on a theme of character development.

Character education remains high on the political agenda and former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan captured some headlines when she announced a £5 million fund to promote character in schools.

However, extra curricula activities aimed at promoting the virtues, such as music, sport and drama, traditionally take place off timetable at the end of the day, which Mr Roden thought was inappropriate for some children. He says: “It seemed that the pupils who needed to develop resilience and would benefit from these activities often go home. So I decided to integrate enrichment into the school day. Every member of staff and professional staff contribute to the programme.”

On any given day, there might be cooking, sports such as karate, athletics and volleyball, the school radio and newspaper, knitting or Pilates. The teaching curriculum is effectively suspended on Wednesday afternoons when a rolling five-week programme of life skills might include sessions devoted to learning a musical instrument, first aid or cookery. Last year, 140 pupils performed at a school concert including looked after children and youngsters with special educational needs.

Year 12 pupils organise their own voluntary placements, focused on the idea of service, including working in primary schools and old people’s homes.

The development of this wide-ranging programme is given a high priority in the school and is overseen by senior vice principal Rebecca Tigue, who is director of character education.

Mr Roden believes the ethos, and its practical implementation, has huge benefits for staff as well as pupils. “Staff who had been working in other schools were tired of the instrumental nature of education,” he explains. “This is also about the character development of the our staff. They get time with students outside formal teaching and it makes a massive difference.”

He adds: “The hardest thing when we started in 2015 was everything was new and everybody was new, the staff and the pupils. Character education was new to a lot of people. But it is about holding your nerve and doing the right thing. I am confident it is working. Putting children first and giving them the best possible educational experience is what it is all about.”

And practice, as they say, makes perfect, whether that involves understanding trigonometry, kinetic energy or the virtues.

As pupils’ homework planners make clear: “Practice is vital for success. This is the case for everything and anything you do. Whether it be aiming higher in music or sport, achieving in maths or French, or becoming a kinder, more patient and more compassionate person, practising is the only way to develop key virtues, skills, techniques, spellings and familiarity with knowledge and working methods.”

The homework, in that sense, never ends but it is hard to think of a better education for life.

Michael Roden is Principal of the University of Birmingham School.

Deadline looms for the virtuous journalist

The view from my bedroom at Windsor Castle takes in St George’s Chapel, the final resting place of eleven English monarchs.

My near neighbours include Henry VIII, Charles I, George III and The Queen’s father, George VI. With the mortal remains of kings and queens so close, it seems appropriate to consider the much-heralded demise of my estate, the Fourth Estate.

I have worked in journalism, predominantly newspapers, for a quarter of a century. In the course of my work, I have stayed in lavish hotels but my modest room inside the world’s oldest inhabited castle trumps the lot.

I am at the royal palace for a consultation on the professions held by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. Academics from the Centre and attendees representing diverse fields, including medicine, education and finance, are gathered in Vicars’ Hall, where Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” was first performed in front of Elizabeth I.

There are discussions about moral practice, wisdom and service. As a former crime reporter, I tell myself to park my prejudices at the castle keep. Do lawyers and accountants contribute to the public good? Really? Always? Do hedge fund managers act as touchstones for human flourishing? In fact, are the bosses of banks and retail conglomerates professionals at all? And what of journalists? Oh, just don’t go there…

Go there, however, is exactly what we must do. Otherwise, what is the point? The industry in which I ply my trade is not known for its riches, not as far as employees are concerned. According to the National Union of Journalists, one in five of my fellow newsmen and newswomen earn less than £20,000 a year. The salary of a senior journalist could be £35,000 to £40,000 but job responsibilities might include managing reporters, a task akin to herding cats. I should know; I’ve done it.

This means there must be other reasons for entering the profession such as the desire to safeguard human rights, democracy, the rule of law and social justice. Admittedly, there is a smidgen of ego at play in the pursuit of a byline. Bankers get six-figure bonuses; reporters get their name on a story. We are easily pleased.

There has never been a better time for self-reflection and self-analysis in journalism. The explosion of free content via the internet, allied to the newspaper industry’s implosive reaction to the commercial threats posed by the web, has led to the collapse of circulation figures, the withering of advertising revenues and the closure of titles. The newspaper where I cut my teeth, the Chatham News, sunk without trace in Kent’s former naval port in 2011.

Who has taken over the territory vacated by reporters on papers like the Chatham News? What are their professional credentials? And who are their paymasters? If you can get hits on a website publishing lists like “The 15 Top Places to Buy A Crisp Sandwich,” why bother sending a journalist to cover the local magistrates’ court or the council’s general purposes sub-committee? The latter costs money, not just in time commitment but also in training reporters so they understand the importance of libel law, contempt of court, corroborating sources, grammar, story construction and all that boring non-crisp sandwich stuff.

Today, it is the bloggers, vloggers, tweeters and “citizen journalists” who are the new media stars. Much has been written about their innovative messaging, communication strategies, audience engagement and the speed of transmission. There is much for the traditional media to learn in this regard.

But what training do the digital communicators, list-disseminators and news-regurgitators receive? What is their motivation? What is their moral outlook? And, perhaps crucially, are they answerable to anyone other than an algorithm?

The new generation of “content creators” is unsullied, as yet, by the corruption scandals that have dogged the UK’s newspaper industry. Phone-hacking, illegal payments to public officials and collusion between the police and the press have damaged public perceptions.

In light of these upheavals, it is timely to assess the professional state of play in journalism. What are we to make of the 24/7 digital behemoth that has seized the information vacuum vacated by local, regional and, in many cases, national newspapers?

Such questions run through my mind at Windsor Castle. Rigorous debate centres on the need for professionals to extol good character and virtuous conduct. I am still working on my virtue literacy, but I get it and, most importantly, I see the value. I understand the need for honesty, compassion, resilience and courage. Humility is really hard for a journalist but I am getting there, too.

It is right that I am candid. One phrase that re-appears at the Windsor consultation troubles me. It is the concept of the professional as a “moral agent.” Morality is a biggie. In journalism, it is usually associated with its opposite, namely moral duplicity and its odorous bedfellow, hypocrisy. Take the politician who parades his family for a photo opportunity only to be revealed as a “love cheat.” Or the popular children’s entertainer who is exposed as a paedophile.

As far as reporters are concerned, morality is a bear-trap. And yet it seems to me, post-Windsor, that the time is ripe for journalism to turn the light upon itself and illuminate its own professional practices. It might just be the one thing that saves the Fourth Estate because character, or the lack of it, goes to the heart of what we do.

Richard McComb

Freelance Journalist

 

Moral flow and character strengths

Being totally absorbed, feeling optimally challenged and concentrated – these are just a few of the characteristics that constitute flow, defined as a personal experience marked by deep enjoyment and total immersion in what one does.

Nine dimensions have been described to make up the flow experience:

  • a balance between challenges and one’s skills
  • the merging of action and awareness
  • clarity of goals
  • clear, immediate, and unambiguous task feedback
  • total concentration
  • a sense of control over one’s actions
  • the loss of self-consciousness
  • the transformation of time (e.g., time typically passes faster than normal)
  • the feeling that the experience is intrinsically rewarding (i.e., autotelic).

Flow theory draws heavily from Aristotle’s notion of pleasure in unimpeded activity and can be considered to be a eudaimonic approach to subjective wellbeing. Past research has related flow experiences to decreases in fatigue, increases in wellbeing and creative thinking, as well as self-growth in a variety of settings including schools, universities and work environments.

Usually, however, all that glistens is not gold and the concept of flow is no exception. By definition, flow experiences are transient and subject to fluctuations. Put differently, whether or not a person is “in flow” can change from day to day, or from moment to moment. What is more, flow theory does not have an inbuilt moral compass and flow experiences are consequentially amoral.

Indeed, it is possible for flow experiences to be destructive to the self and the culture one is surrounded by. Theoretically, a robber can be in flow whilst committing a crime.

Drawing on these issues, I will explore potential solutions to foster flow experiences consistently in a variety of settings and to counteract the destructive potential arising from the amoral nature of flow.

Nakamura and Csikszentmihályi recognised that whilst there seems to be a universal capacity to experience flow, people differ with regards to the frequency as well as the quality of flow experiences. Everyone may be able to experience flow during their daily activities, but some individuals have more frequent, intense flow experiences.

Csikszentmihályi refers to these individuals as autotelic personalities. They can deliberately enter flow and maintain this state for prolonged periods of time. However, there is disagreement on how to assess whether an individual actually possesses this flow proneness.

A potential way forward may be to view personality not as a stable, unchanging set of traits but rather as a density distribution of states. Previous research has shown daily experiences and events can change personality states and subsequently have the potential to leave a profound mark on an individual’s personality over time. Daily experiences can solidify a change in an individual’s personality, which in turn, has an impact on how an individual reacts to his or her environment in the future.

In the context of flow, if an environment is conducive to flow experiences, over time this may contribute to the development of autotelic personalities. Previous research has already established the existence of intra-individual variability in daily flow experiences (i.e. some individuals exhibiting high flow variability, whereas others have very stable flow experiences over time) and that this can affect the creativity of individuals in work settings. Therefore, a proposition to foster more frequent and lasting flow experiences would be to (re-)engineer environments in a way that they are more conducive to flow, which may potentially generate autotelic personalities over time.

In regard to the potentially destructive consequences of flow experiences as described above, the possibility to change the amoral character of flow to a moral one appears to be unlikely. Therefore, my suggestions pertain to influencing the more proximal causes that generate flow experiences such as the enactment of character strengths.

Character strengths are defined as a subset of personality with a moral component. Furthermore, several scholars have argued for a link between the use of character strengths and flow experiences. In addition to this, a study by Woerkom and colleagues (2016) recently provided empirical evidence for the relationship between strengths’ use and increased work engagement, a concept akin to flow experiences.

As there is a moral value attached to character strengths, flow experiences that arise from such activities are unlikely to lead to destructive acts. Thus, a way to foster moral flow would entail a focus on character education with the goal of encouraging the use of character strengths. The potential downstream effects of this intervention could be to foster a flow experience in individuals that retains a moral component because it is the result of enacting character strengths in schools, universities and work environments.

I encourage practitioners to create environments that foster flow and that, over time, contribute to the development of individuals that can enter and maintain flow more deliberately, i.e., autotelic personalities. Interventions along the lines of character education are proposed to ensure flow experiences resulting from the enactment of character strengths retain a moral component.

Jakob Stollberger, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

References

Baumann, N. (2012). Autotelic Personality. In S. Engeser (Ed.), Advances in Flow Research (First Edit., pp. 165–186). Heidelberg: Springer Verlag.

Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO-PI-R) and NEO Five-Factor-Inventory (NEO-FFI) professional manual. Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

Csikszentmihályi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety. San Fransisco: CA: Jossey-Bass.

Csikszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York: NY: Harper and Row Publishers.

Csikszentmihályi, M. (1996). Creativity. Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Perennial.

Csikszentmihályi, M., Rathunde, K., & Whalen, S. (1993). Talented Teenagers: A longitudinal study of their development. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Debus, M. E., Sonnentag, S., Deutsch, W., & Nussbeck, F. W. (2014). Making flow happen: The effects of being recovered on work-related flow between and within days. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99, 713–22. doi:10.1037/a0035881

Fleeson, W. (2001). Toward a structure- and process-integrated view of personality: Traits as density distributions of states. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 1011–1027.

Fleeson, W., & Gallagher, P. (2009). The implications of Big Five standing for the distribution of trait manifestation in behavior: fifteen experience-sampling studies and a meta-analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 1097–114. doi:10.1037/a0016786

Fullagar, C. J., & Kelloway, E. K. (2009). Flow at work: An experience sampling approach. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 82, 595–615. doi:10.1348/096317908X357903

Fullagar, C., & Kelloway, E. K. (2013). Work-Related Flow. In A. B. Bakker & K. Daniels (Eds.), A Day in the Life of a Happy Worker. Hove: Psychology Press.

Harzer, C., & Ruch, W. (2013). The Application of Signature Character Strengths and Positive Experiences at Work. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 965–983. doi:10.1007/s10902-012-9364-0

Judge, T. A., Simon, L. S., Hurst, C., & Kelley, K. (2014). What I experienced yesterday is who I am today: Relationship of work motivations and behaviors to within-individual variation in the five-factor model of personality. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99, 199–221. doi:10.1037/a0034485

Kristjánsson, K. (2010). Positive psychology, happiness, and virtue: The troublesome conceptual issues. Review of General Psychology, 14, 296–310. doi:10.1037/a0020781

Kristjánsson, K. (2013). Virtues and Vices in Positive Psychology: A Philosophical Critique. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Kristjánsson, K. (2015). Aristotelian Character Education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Moneta, G. B. (2004). The flow experience across cultures. Journal of Happiness Studies, (5), 115–121.

Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihályi, M. (2002). The Concept of Flow. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (First Edit., pp. 89–105). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nielsen, K., & Cleal, B. (2010). Predicting Flow at Work: Investigating the Activities and Job Characteristics That Predict Flow States at Work. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 15, 180–190.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strenghts and virtues: A classification and handbook. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Shernoff, D. J., Csikszentmihályi, M., Schneider, B., & Shernoff, E. S. (2003). Student Engagement in High School Classrooms from the Perspective of Flow Theory. School Psychology Quarterly, 18, 158–176.

Steele, J. P., & Fullagar, C. J. (2009). Facilitators and Outcomes of Student Engagement in a College Setting. The Journal of Psychology, 143, 5–27.

Stollberger, J., & Debus, M. E. (2015). Go with the flow – but keep it stable: the effect of flow variability on daily creative performance. In The 17th Congress of the European Association of Work and Organizational Psychology. Oslo, Norway.

Van Woerkom, M., Oerlemans, W., & Bakker, A. B. (2016). Strengths use and work engagement: a weekly diary study. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 25, 384–397. doi:10.1080/1359432X.2015.1089862

Practical New Handbook to Help Schools Evaluate Character Education

Amid the pressure to hit targets and the clamour to shine in school league tables, there is resurgent interest in the wider development of students’ character.

Teachers and parents see the intrinsic value of helping young people to untap their potential as flourishing citizens of the world. But how does a school judge how well it is embedding character education?

For a school to understand how to make progress, and to engage in effective self-evaluation, it is necessary for staff to understand where the school is starting from. What is it excelling at when providing character education? Are there any aspects of character education provision that could be improved? Answering these questions is not easy and will be based on teachers’ professional judgement.

With these challenges in mind, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues is launching a new handbook to help guide staff through the self-evaluation of character education provision. The new Character Education: Evaluation Handbook for Schools provides practical advice, guidance and tools to help schools implement the principles and practice of self-evaluation to enhance and improve character education provision.

Developed in collaboration with an expert advisory group of teachers, the handbook is not a rigid, prescriptive guide; rather it is designed to be flexible and applicable to the context and needs of individual schools. It dovetails with the Jubilee Centre’s Schools of Virtue research project, which is looking at how three beacon schools have embedded character education interventions, along with the effects of these.

The handbook focuses on the evaluation of provision; it is not about schools looking to measure the character of students but rather to support teachers and give them the tools they need to identify what the school can celebrate, and also what can be done to improve character education. The focus on self-evaluation is also seen at a national level through schools’ development of self-evaluation summaries to inform Ofsted inspections.

Despite the benefits of self-evaluation, research by the Jubilee Centre suggests self-evaluation methods for character education in UK schools are limited. We hope the new handbook will help teachers to put character education front and centre of the school day and ethos.

The nature of self-evaluation and its practical application in school environments, both in primary and secondary settings, is central to the handbook. It is important that self-evaluation is grounded in a clear and accessible framework clearly defined by individual schools, shared with all staff and based on the priorities of the students they serve. Students, parents, teachers, support staff and governors need to be involved as a united community. In essence, what matters most to students, parents and teachers?

The handbook comprises four sections, starting with an introduction to self-evaluation, character and character education. This section also considers the limitations and opportunities presented by evaluating character and character education.

From this background section, the handbook moves on to provide a practical framework that schools can use to evaluate their provision of character education. It is suggested that the framework is adapted by schools to serve their individual circumstances and is used as a live document that is regularly revisited to appreciate any progression made.

The framework is based around four levels so schools can map where they are starting from and chart their progress. These levels are then applied to the following topics: the school ethos, culture and vision; the curriculum (explaining how character education is embedded in lessons and throughout the school day); learning outside the classroom; the school community (how students, staff, governors and parents understand and demonstrate virtues); and links with the wider community.

The third section looks at the different approaches and methods that can be used as part of a school’s self-evaluation. Effective self-evaluation of character education relies on consulting with the wider school community. This section is intended to give schools the tools they need not only to capture the school community’s thoughts but also provides advice on analysis. Included in this section is advice on the use of surveys, lesson observations, group interviews and moral dilemmas.

The final section provides practical advice on student self-reflection and how this can support the development of students’ good sense – defined as being able to respond to a situation by feeling the right thing, in the right way, towards the right people, at the right time and for the right length of time. Students are invited to consider not only what they have done but how and why they have done it. As the handbook explains: “Young people should be given the opportunity to consider how their thoughts and feelings may have had an impact on an outcome and how they may be able to put this reflection into practice in future”. This section also includes real-life examples of how schools, both primary and secondary, have incorporated self-reflection in their timetable. It is hoped that this will provide inspiration for other schools looking to embed student self-reflection.

The handbook will be made widely available online and it is the belief of the Jubilee Centre that it will support schools to understand further how and why they are providing character education and help them to identify what they are doing well and the improvements they can make. The goal is to allow schools to see the value of character education for the benefit of their students, the wider school community and society in general.

Emily Burn, Research Associate, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

The politics of virtue: moral issues in the 2016 US Election

“This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful.”[1]

These were the words of US first lady Michelle Obama on the Hillary Clinton campaign trail in New Hampshire last month. The speech, widely lauded as one of the best of the campaign, focused on the conduct of Clinton’s Republican opponent Donald Trump, in particular his behaviour towards women.

As the contest approaches its climax, it doesn’t take much reflection to recognise that this has been quite an unusual campaign. The revelations and scandal surrounding both candidates have enflamed a presidential election to an extent seldom seen and the level of mutual contempt is palpable.

In that same speech, Mrs Obama asked her audience: “…how can we maintain our moral authority in the world? How can we continue to be a beacon of freedom and justice and human dignity?” Indeed, it is surely as a result of Trump’s outlandish behaviour and the controversy surrounding Clinton’s alleged malpractice in government that these questions are at the forefront of the debate. As a result of the moral outrage sparked by allegations of harassment by Trump, much of the commentary in the US has focused on morality and issues of “moral character”. Interventions have come from as far afield as Iran, with its president scathingly suggesting “…there is no morality in that country (USA)”[2].

All this should lead us to ponder the question: what has gone wrong with American politics? Whilst it may be impossible to provide a fully satisfactory answer, two aspects are highlighted here that are particularly interesting from a Jubilee Centre perspective.

Firstly, a consideration of Aristotle’s political philosophy can yield a number of insights into morality and political leadership in relation to the US campaign. Aristotle suggested the principal criteria for political leadership was not wealth – something about which Trump has unashamedly boasted throughout his career – or status and noble birth, or even rule by majority; rather it should be someone “who is pre-eminent in virtue”[3]. By this, Aristotle meant an individual’s disposition to live in accordance with reason, to act in a balanced manner and to do the “right” thing in any given situation.

Putting perhaps the more antiquated elements of this philosophy aside, it must be said that it’s difficult to see the place of reason or virtue in this campaign anywhere. A Machiavellian might argue that Aristotle’s view of leadership is overly normative and unrealistic, describing a system that has never existed. However, it is difficult to see how an injection of virtue into US politics after this campaign would be unwelcome. It may be essential in restoring trust between the electors and the elected.

Secondly, and related, the incredibly personal tone of the public debate has raised a number of questions around personal/professional roles in society and what can be expected of politicians.

It is true that the nature of the American presidential system necessitates a more individualised contest as candidates rather than parties tend to take centre stage. Scholars have written at length on the personalisation of politics in Western democracies, suggesting this stems from the increased media scrutiny of political leaders permitting citizens to “judge them as persons”[4]. However, it must be said that a decent portion of debate in the US still tends to focus on substance and policy, as with the economy and healthcare in both 2008 and 2012.

Particularly after the first two presidential debates of 2016, headlines focused on the “personal attacks” that had dominated both during and after the contests – with Trump repeatedly attacking Clinton and her husband[5].

Ultimately, it seems the campaign epitomises some malign trends seen across Western politics more broadly. If the roles of politicians and public servants come to hold no esteem whatsoever in the public eye, then the consequences for democracy and political representation could be very worrying.

Aristotle may have held a particularly optimistic view of civic life and what political leadership should be; but a revival of virtues such as humility and honesty in political leadership can only be a good thing. Likewise, an emphasis on personal attacks over communities and policies only serves to worsen public perceptions of politics. It is with these things in mind that politicians should perhaps reflect and redouble their efforts to rebuild trust between themselves and the citizens whom they serve, and upon which we might establish healthier democracies.

Joseph Ward, Research Assistant/Impact Officer, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/14/michelle-obama-speech-transcript-donald-trump

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/iran-us-election_us_580cc69ce4b02444efa3e396

[3] Aristotle  (1992), The Politics, 215

[4] Garzia, D. (2011), ‘The personalization of politics in Western democracies: Causes and consequences on leader–follower relationships’, The Leadership Quarterly 22, 698

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/10/donald-trump-bill-hillary-clinton-attacks

Character Education and Homelessness

For the past three years, I have come into contact with many homeless people whilst working in the City Centre of Birmingham. This experience stirred something within me to help, leading me to join a homeless outreach community group that supports people on the streets. The group distributes free food and hot drinks, and encourages its volunteers to develop relationships with those they help. I have been working with them for 18 months and over this time I have begun to understand the complexities of life on the streets; a life where there are no rules or accountability, and from which one might find it increasingly difficult to escape.

‘Homelessness’ is an emotive word that commonly causes people to picture one of two things: the tramp walking the street, smelly, dirty and hungry; or the alcoholic, obnoxious, loud and drunk. In reality, one could become homeless for a multitude of reasons; there is no set formula as to a cause or a solution. To view all homeless people in terms of these stereotypes is to do many an injustice[1]. Stereotype profiling can warp a person’s view of someone, and then of themselves, causing low self-esteem and self-worth, and we are more likely to believe and support situations that conform to our social stereotypes than those that contradict them[2]. Using my own experience, I shall briefly explore the three broad categories that bring people on to the streets and will consider the situations in which engagement with character education, from my understanding of the subject, could be of value. I shall be considering the effects on those who have been homeless for 6 months, from a perspective that assumes no prior knowledge of their state of character or their experience of character education.

Firstly, the cycle of addiction can force a person into homelessness and can be detrimental to their character over the short or long term. Addiction to drugs or alcohol can often be one of the reasons why someone is on the streets and can also provide a coping method for the challenges they face. Their addiction eventually becomes more important than anything else in their lives, including their home and family[3]. This may be the result of a ‘weaker’ character, such as unwillingness to take action themselves, lack of commitment, minimal willpower. However having a perceived ‘strong’ character does not necessarily mean a person has what it takes to survive on the streets. ‘The person of good character is he who does the approved thing at the right time and does not break the rules when he faces inner temptation’[4]. In this context, developing particular virtues could have a positive influence on an addict, by giving them the willpower and self-discipline to resist the temptation to relapse, for example.

Someone could become homeless due to unforeseen circumstances that can be difficult to prepare for, such as, losing their job, a family split or financial problems. Can the development of particular character virtues place someone in good stead to be able to tackle such situations as they arise, ultimately avoiding homelessness as the outcome? I believe it can – one who has experienced character education in some form, in my opinion, would be more likely to be able to prevent or resolve a situation that may force someone into homelessness. ‘Aristotelian character education makes it clear that character education is about the cultivation of virtues as specifically human excellences’[5].  I have seen for myself an example of this in someone who the group supports: Mark (aged 45) injured his back working, developed a heavy alcohol dependency and became homeless. After continuing this cycle for a number of years, he is slowly getting himself back on his feet. From meeting Mark at this point, having no prior knowledge with regards to his character, I feel some form of character education could be beneficial to his development and rehabilitation. Phronesis helps individuals to get things right using practical wisdom: it is what helps individuals to make the right judgement in any given situation[6]. I feel that with the correct teaching, character education could transform someone like Mark, who is perhaps in a less complex situation, to make better, more informed decisions.

Caplow (2009: 51) defines homelessness as: ‘a condition of detachment from society characterised by the absence or attenuation of the affiliative bonds that link settled persons to a network of interconnected social structures’[7]. A conscious decision could be made by the individual to ‘live on the streets’ due to various personal reasons. They may have chosen to do this for moral reasons, such as to escape domestic abuse or perhaps out of protest in a certain situation. At this point, there could be mental health and social issues amongst other things in the person’s past which would influence their character. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics II, he suggests that character state is concerned with choice and a mean between two vices[8]. However, I would challenge their motivations and would suggest that living on the streets is not conducive to a flourishing life. Character education helps people address the complex nature of the decision-making process, the weighing of values and beliefs to make value-laden decisions[9]. With exposure to character education I feel that someone who is willing to change could find value in this. It could help them to make a more appropriate decision to seek help through other avenues, with the ultimate aim of getting off the streets.

John Bauckham, Administrator, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

[1] Ravenhill, M. (2016) The Culture of Homelessness. Oxford: Routledge. p.6.

[2] Salinas, M. (2003) The Politics of Stereotype: Psychology and Affirmative Action. California: Greenwood Publishing. p.74.

[3] Stearman, K. (2009) Taking action against homelessness. USA: The Rosen Publishing Group. p.20.

[4] Loeb, M.B (1951) ‘Social relationships and the development of character’, in J.A. Lauwerys and N. Hans (eds), The Yearbook of Education, London: University of London Institute of Education and Evans Publishing. p.58.

[5] Arthur, J., Kristjansson, K., Harrison, T., Sanderse, W. and Wright, D. (2016) Teaching Character and Virtue in Schools. London: Routledge. p.27.

[6] Harrison, T., Morris, I. and Ryan, J. (2016) Teaching Character in the Primary Classroom. London: Sage Publications Ltd. p.41.

[7] Tipple, G. and Speak, S. (2009) The Hidden Millions: Homelessness in Developing Counties. London: Routledge. p.51.

[8] Homiak, Marcia. (2016) Moral Character. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy., http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/moral-character/ .

[9] Wilson, R.W. and Kolander, C. (2003) Drug Abuse Prevention: A School and Community Partnership. London: Jones & Bartlett Publishers. p.312.

A multi-component view of gratitude

In this vlog, Research Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, Dr. Blaire Morgan, explores the moral value of gratitude and how it contributes towards a flourishing life. Examining gratitude within an Aristotelian framework, Blaire talks about the intrinsic value of being grateful and the multiple components that make up the virtue of gratitude.

The Jubilee Centre has been engaged in an examination of gratitude since 2012 and has explored, through the ‘An Attitude for Gratitude‘ research project, how gratitude is conceptualised by the British public. As part of this project a new measure of gratitude, the Multi-Component Gratitude Measure, which Blaire explains in this video, has been developed.

From functioning to flourishing: an ambition for special needs education

“A few years ago, I was speaking at one of my very first autism conferences, and a parent came up to me with one question: ‘What will happen to my child when I’m gone?’ For me, this became the million dollar question in our autism community. While this father was crying, asking me this question, while his son was just right there, non-verbal, I thought to myself: this is why I do what I do. When these kids become adults, I want to see them live the best lives possible and to go after their dreams, just like me.”

Autism advocate Kerry Magro gave this TedTalk: “What Happens to Children With Autism When They Become Adults?” in February. Magro was non-verbal at two-and-a-half years old and diagnosed with autism at four. He attributes his remarkable professional achievements (award-winning speaker, best-selling author, film consultant) to the support of his parents and the 15 years’ of occupational, physical and speech therapy he undertook following his diagnosis.

As Magro acknowledges, every single parent asks the “million dollar question”: “What will happen to my child when I’m gone?” Typically, this is followed by: “Will they have support? Will they progress? Will they be able to live their dreams?”

The ultimate aspiration of any parent is that their child will realise their ambitions; and education should ensure a successful preparation for adulthood so that children with special needs can lead happy, independent and fulfilled lives.

As the Government places an increased emphasis on life outcomes in the latest Special Educational Needs and Disability Code of Practice, the requirement for educators to prepare special needs and disability (SEND) pupils for life after secondary school has never been so pertinent.

So how can we help these young people reach their goals?

Developmental disorders such as autism are unforeseeable and the onset of the condition represents a transition in a child’s development over which the parent has little or no control. Access to integrated provision through the newly-introduced Education and Health Care Plans (EHCPs) can give parents and carers greater scope in choosing and funding the provision that best meets their child’s needs, but the “million dollar question” still speaks of uncertainty and the fear of disempowerment.

Perhaps we underestimate the role children can play in shaping their future. As Magro reminds us: “…we need to teach these kids as they grow into adults how to advocate for themselves.” External interventions are only one aspect of SEND provision; and while they are valuable in training pupils to function within the social and moral frameworks that govern society, it is arguably only through internal empowerment that we may enable all children to flourish.

Department for Education statistics suggest pupils with SEND are struggling to meet national benchmarks of attainment at primary and secondary levels. We can interpret these findings in two ways.

First, we need a different approach to SEND interventions: namely, one that explicitly seeks to empower children. There is an emerging view that social skills interventions should seek to foster “self-awareness” and developing this capacity is linked to social motivation, social awareness and mental health. Literature suggests character skills such as social motivation are a principal determinant of adult outcomes.

Second, we might interpret the DfE’s statistics as giving too much weight to standardised measurements of attainment. Research by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (The Good Teacher: Understanding Virtues In Practice) suggests character strengths such as motivation and determination predict academic success better than cognitive indicators. Such findings not only call for educators to reconsider their neglect of non-cognitive factors; they also support the need for SEND interventions that explicitly target the affective attainment of pupils.

It is not good enough to make character education implicit and believe pupils with SEND will simply absorb abstract notions. It is important that teachers and teaching assistants are educated in delivering and differentiating a character curriculum through interventions that focus explicitly on developing character strengths.

Empirical evidence from a small pilot project I conducted for the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (Reflection and Practical Wisdom in Special Needs Education) suggests children with SEND, particularly those with autism, struggle to acquire a virtue vocabulary. For example, a SENCO suggested virtue language was “too abstract” for autistic pupils. She suggested explicit pre-teaching of individual virtues – perhaps with a speech and language therapist – prior to attempting any larger integrated character-based intervention.

If, as the literature above suggests, character skills are vital to flourishing in later life, then deficits in these skills has a profound impact on attainment and impedes children with SEND. Arguably, it is only by giving equal importance to the affective side of learning, by concerning ourselves as special needs educators with who the child is and what they might become – and not simply measuring what they know, can do and understand, as the National Curriculum dictates – that we may enable these young people to realise their dreams.

Kyle Davison, Teaching Fellow (2016), Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. Kyle has a professional background in Special Educational Needs in secondary schools

 

Thank You Letters Awards targets record entries from children

The dying art of letter writing and the simple act of saying “thank you” are being revived in a national award scheme for children run by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

The Thank You Letter Awards encourage primary and secondary pupils to put pen to paper and express gratitude to an inspirational group or individual. In the past, youngsters have chosen to write to Harry Potter author J K Rowling, football star Lionel Messi and actress Angelina Jolie as well as medics, relatives, the armed forces and a pet dog.

Last year, more than 200 schools across took part with pupils aged five to 16 contributing 41,000 letters. As the scheme gets underway for 2016-17, the Centre hopes to build on the success and sign up many more schools, generating more than 70,000 letters in a huge outpouring of national gratitude.

The schools can run their own competitions, which can be broken down into year groups or classes. The Jubilee Centre provides book vouchers to schools for taking part.

Schools submit their top five entries to the Jubilee Centre’s national awards and the winners will be invited to a special prize giving at the House of Lords in the summer.

Jubilee Centre Development Officer Vicci Hogan, who co-ordinates the awards, has read hundreds of children’s thank you letters and is always impressed by the dedication of the young scribes. Vicci says the scheme is about celebrating gratitude and developing the character of young people rather than an academic exercise in linguistic dexterity, so it is the substance and tone of the letters that matters.

Vicci says: “We have created age categories taking into consideration literacy levels so we don’t compare across huge age divides. We are interested in what the pupils are writing about and the way in which they express gratitude to others.

“The recipient of the letter might be someone they know well such as a family member or it could be a person in an official position, such as a teacher, a sports coach or a doctor. The range of people and organisations is really varied and we have had letters dedicated to strangers involved in acts of kindness.

“It is always a pleasure to read the letters and it is great to see school children expressing genuine sentiments of gratitude so thoughtfully.

“So what makes a good thank you letter? I think it is just being genuine and giving good examples of things people have done.”

Dr Tom Harrison, Director of Education at the Jubilee Centre, helps to judge the awards.

He says: “The proliferation of digital communication, such as email and text, as well as social media platforms like Snapchat and Facebook, means letter-writing has become something of a dying art. There will be young people at school who have never composed a handwritten letter, let alone a letter expressing thanks.

“Yet anyone who has ever received a thank you letter will know how powerful and enriching it can be. Saying ‘thank you’ to someone is a simple act but it can have such a profoundly positive effect on both the recipient and the person giving thanks.

“Gratitude is one of the key virtues. When a young person understands what it means to give thanks, it also encourages them to start to thinking about what they might do to give back – it is therefore associated with being an active citizen, someone who pro-actively seeks opportunities to help other people.”

Here are some examples of pupils’ thank you letters from 2016

 

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