virtue insight

conversations on character

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


Why our cash-hungry national game needs a slice of humble pie

This year has seen some terrific football triumphs as underdogs Leicester won the Premiership and Wales out-performed England at the European Championships.

But the last week of September 2016 will go down in English football infamy. Newly-appointed national team manager Sam Allardyce left his “dream job” by mutual consent after only 67 days in post, having been caught on camera attempting to secure a £400,000 business deal and touting advice on how to get around player transfer rules.

The story, a shocking example of the greed of the elite in English football, plumbed even greater depths as “Big Sam” took to his doorstep to speak to reporters camped outside his house. Whilst Allardyce admitted that his actions were “an error of judgment,” he blamed media “entrapment” and failed to offer a meaningful apology. Indeed, he later said, via a “source,” that he denies any wrongdoing.

Allardyce took over from Roy Hodgson on a £3 million-a-year contract, reaching the pinnacle of any English football manager’s career as the national team languished at its lowest ebb in living memory following the ignominious defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016.

The former Sunderland boss took over the role at a time when there has never been more money in the English game. The cash washing around the Premier League, the Football Association and professional football generally is so vast it is beyond the comprehension of ordinary football fans. Immense wealth has created such levels of expectation, arrogance and demand amongst managers, players, agents and owners that rather than setting about building confidence in both his players and in fans, changing personnel, or developing a style of play, Allardyce has been caught trying to inflate his salary further – that’s a salary which is already the highest of any national team manager in the world.

A simple deconstruction of the language of Allardyce’s impromptu press conference last Wednesday highlights a lack of humility, absence of remorse, and failure to admit to any serious wrongdoing. Allardyce paints a picture that he isn’t sorry for what he did – he is sorry he was caught and that it cost him his job. Of course he is deeply embarrassed, but Allardyce’s attempts to trivialise the nature of his indiscretions as a “silly thing to do” suggests there has been no serious reflection on his actions. The absence of any redeeming morals or virtues epitomises the amoral word that elite footballers and football managers live in. There was no sense of modesty, of reticence, nor reserve. Allardyce paraded himself and his ego in front of the television cameras at the first opportunity, making sure his words were heard swiftly and finally – departing the role by “mutual consent”, but leaving the country very much on his own terms.

Allardyce is not the only high profile figure caught up in the Daily Telegraph exposé last week, and he is not the only one to have lost his job. In his Financial Times article last week, Simon Kuper writes of the affair revealing “a clash between two views of football”: the view of the “insiders,” those in the game who treat their work like any other “job,” and the view of the fans, who “see football as something rather higher;” an “industry” with a moral purpose, whose leaders are role models of good character for fans.

The idea of “players showing character” is a cliché of managers’ post-match interviews. Usually “character” is used as a synonym for on-field “resilience,” “determination” and “bouncebackability;” in other words, performance virtues, with no moral tether. This is the “win-at-all-costs” mentality. Indeed, elite professional football is so amoral that when instances of immorality are highlighted, it is hard to summon up serious moral indignation at the transgressor. For football to return to truly being “the people’s game” there is a desperate need for a complete re-examination of its values.

For English football to regain any sort of footing on the world stage, it needs to look at itself, long and hard. It needs to realign its character, from top to bottom, from the boot room to the manager’s dug-out.

Aidan Thompson, Centre Manager, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Teachers as Role Models: a classroom quandary

What is the most important moral lesson in a school’s character curriculum? According to American educational psychologist Thomas Lickona, it is the idea that teachers can only cultivate children’s character if they display it themselves.

While we have all heard the mantra that virtue is first “caught” and then “taught”, I doubt whether the meaning and radical consequences of Lickona’s advice are always understood well. The ideas that teachers should be moral role models and often are role models to pupils are often taken for granted to such an extent that it prevents us from thinking about this complex, demanding and rather mysterious pedagogical device.

Let’s put my cards on the table. I think that a kind of character education that emphasises the importance of role modelling should first of all focus on the quality of the pedagogical relationship between teacher and student, instead of on the use of didactical interventions.

Yes, the amount of useful teaching materials that have been developed for teachers and schools to foster virtue and character is impressive, just as are the attempts to empirically prove their effectiveness. It is important that such teaching materials are available now, in particular for already exemplary teachers who are looking for means to “teach” character in other ways. My worry is that all these projects, sample lessons, formats and assignments are not going to be very effective if the teachers who use them are not virtuous.

We could even go a step further and ask whether a kind of “intervention-based character education” does not precisely make it irrelevant who the teacher is as a person. All the teacher has to do is deliver the scripted lesson – otherwise its effectiveness cannot be guaranteed. This suggest role modelling can actually interfere with character education, or at least a particular understanding of it.

If we give role modelling the place it deserves, I think we should first be concerned about teachers’ own virtuousness and the way this reveals itself in the relationship with children. Somewhat paradoxically, we could say that precisely because character education is in the end about promoting students’ characters, we should not “fix” thembut rather ourselves, as parents and teachers.

How can we be good role models of virtue? An interesting book that discusses what is involved in being a (moral) role model is Bryan Warnick’s Imitation and Education. A Philosophical Inquiry into Learning by Example (2008). The conclusion I draw is that being a role model is more easily said than done. I will give two examples.

First, what does it mean for teachers to be an example of something? Let’s take a look at the figure “1”. It is an example of a figure just as are “2”, “3” etc. So, the figure “1” is as much an example of a figure as all other figures. Nothing more, nothing less.

There is, however, a second way in which we talk about examples. When we say that Lionel Messi is an example of a footballer, he is not a footballer just like any other. What we mean is that Messi is a paradigmatic example, an excellent specimen that shows what “real” football is about.

The problem with teachers as paradigmatic examples of virtue is that we are probably aiming too high.

Warnick avoids these extremes and argues that examples have a virtue in a way that underscores, displays or conveys the idea of virtue to an observer. So, role models are not just virtuous, but they attract students’ attention because they make them notice something extraordinary about virtue.

The second reason why being a role model is complicated has to do with the question of what you want to achieve by being a virtuous role model. You may want students to follow your example, but does that mean they copy or imitate your behaviour? Imitation, or “observational learning” as psychologist Albert Bandura called it, is indeed an extremely important learning mechanism. However, the problem with treating modelling purely as a non-cognitive form of mimicry is that it does not provide students with the means to question teachers’ moral authority.

What one is after in role modelling is known as “emulation” (Kristjánsson, 2006; Sanderse, 2012). In renaissance culture, artists first translated classical Roman works, then tried to imitate them and finally attempted an emulation, which included improving the original. When a student emulates a teacher, he does not just copy the teacher’s behaviour, but knows what character trait the teacher is a model of, thinks about whether this trait is a virtue or not, and deliberates about what it means for him to exercise this virtue. If this is what we are after, role modelling is more than just “being yourself”, as if the moral lessons to be drawn from your behaviour are obvious.

While I think the moral quality of teachers is fundamental in character education, being a role model is not self-evident or easy. First, simply being your authentic self is not going to make students emulate you. Much more is needed to make teachers more reflective in their own moral behaviour, and enable them to explain to students why and how they teach as they do.

Second, teachers cannot be a role model on their own. Teachers may desperately want to be a moral role model, but if a moral school ethos is absent, no one will recognise their behaviour as an example of virtuousness.

Dr. Wouter Sanderse, former Research Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. Wouter holds a practice-based research chair on Teachers’ Professional Ethics at Fontys Universty of Applied Sciences, the Netherlands.


Rewarding Gratitude in Schools and in Ourselves

Gratitude has become a hot topic to teach in schools

I believe that as adults, we naturally become more grateful as we get older; with the past to reflect on; remembering ‘cringe’ moments that we regret today (fortunately – forgiveness is a virtue!). I doubt anyone could deny that they screamed at their parents ‘it’s not fair’ at least once in their childhood. Let’s face it, as adults, a high percentage of us will probably agree that actually, it turns out – life still isn’t! But after working hard at our studies, with help from our teachers, guidance from our parents, and laughter with friends and family, we can grow to understand and appreciate everyone and everything that has ever guided us and helped us get to where we are today. Or at least it should, right?

I suppose this could depend on what you value and what you want out of life. Maybe those who try really hard but found it hard to accomplish something were more grateful once they did, than those deemed to have been ‘handed it on a plate’, who could be more likely to take things for granted. Or maybe those who try hard might find it more difficult to feel grateful because their focus is more on achieving goals, rather than thanking those who helped them? Or, we could look at it as those who have very little, by way of possessions and commodities, show gratitude more than those who have a lot.

Investigators of gratitude

We at the Jubilee Centre have investigated who and what young people are grateful to and for, and why. We have encouraged young people to think more about gratitude. Research findings from the An Attitude for Gratitude research project revealed that, out of 10,000 people in Britain, 60% believe gratitude is lacking in schools.

The Jubilee Centre’s annual gratitude contest –The Thank You Letter Awards – has seen an increase and demand for resources that introduce ‘the recognition of gratitude’ in schools. As a result, I think it’s pretty safe for me to say that gratitude has become a hot topic to teach in schools! We have distributed over 40,000 Thank You Letters across 200 schools in the UK this year. I, accompanied by a box of tissues, shortlisted the finalists from letters that schools had submitted to the national contest, before passing them over to the judges to decide which letters displayed most authenticity, and celebrated with a ceremony at the University of Birmingham to recognise and reward the young people who have shown gratitude in their everyday lives.

But can gratitude be taught? We in the Jubilee Centre certainly believe so, and have created a variety of resources and approaches to teaching gratitude in schools, along with explaining the positive psychology behind it; encouraging teachers to see the importance of implementing gratitude into the curriculum.

Jubilee Centre research shows that the benefits of expressing gratitude help with your mental health and wellbeing. I can see how this would work; if you are never grateful, how would anyone ever feel happy? You may feel let down and neglected. This is why, I think, it is as important to identify that someone is grateful, as it is to be grateful. The Jubilee Centre has attempted to emphasise the importance of gratitude even further, this year, by creating a Schools Gratitude Day teaching pack packed full of fun activities and ideas for exploring gratitude in the classroom. Almost 80 schools from across the UK and internationally took part in a range of activities that promote gratitude.

So who are young people most grateful to?

Findings from the Thank You Letter Awards show that young people aged between 5 and 16 are most grateful to their mothers. I don’t think this comes as any great surprise; most young people are reliant on parents, at this young age, so saying ‘thank you’ to mothers is a fairly obvious choice.

Findings show that male pupils between the ages of 5 and 11 were most grateful to an inspirational person – mainly footballers such as Lionel Messi, whereas female pupils were most grateful to their mothers. The findings proved interesting when split by age groups, as older male pupils (11-16 years) were equally grateful to their mothers and an inspirational person, whereas for female pupils aged between 11 and 16, a clear majority were most grateful to an inspirational person, 14% more than those who were grateful to their mother . Teachers or trainers and emergency services were the next most frequently recognised groups.

Time to compare…

The Thank You Film Awards, which ran as a precursor to the Thank You Letter Awards, ran between 2012 and 2015 as a national programme that asked young people to make a film based on ‘gratitude’. When comparing the findings from the Film Awards with the Letter Awards, it is motivating to see that not one young person thanked a material item in the Letter Awards, whereas many did so in the Film Awards. Thanking family members is a consistent feature of both versions of the awards.

It is important that children understand the importance of gratitude, over social status, possessions, etc, and understand that a kind gesture should be recognised and appreciated, rather than just taken for granted.

Should I have expressed more gratitude back when I was at school? Would it have made me a different person, or, more so, a better person than the one I am today? I cannot say for sure, but it might have made me a happier person, with greater life satisfaction.  So, what have young people got to lose, ey ? The Jubilee Centre promotes positive character development in all, so let’s work not just on helping other people become more grateful, but ourselves as well. It’s never too late.

Victoria Hogan, Development Officer, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

What does character education offer marginalised young people?

Figures from the Office of National Statistics suggest more than one in 10 of all 16-24 year olds in the UK are not in education, employment or training (NEET).

That is a total of 853,000 young people who are in some ways disengaged from mainstream society – the equivalent of a city twice the size of Bristol, and above the average percentage of population for other OECD countries.

Despite the many different circumstances of these young people, they are too often portrayed as feckless, irresponsible and lacking in ‘character’. Their ‘grit’, or lack of it, is called into question in bombastic headlines that generalise and stigmatise.

However, the Character and Values in Marginalised Young People project underway at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues aims to challenge these assertions and develop learning resources that young people themselves consider worthwhile.

A series of structured interventions, developed with young people and practitioners, is central to the project. As active participants, the young people are encouraged to engage in critical self-reflection with the help of group activities and one-to-one sessions.

The educational programmes comprise five ‘banks’ of resources, which overlap in content or theme. Organisations are encouraged to use the activities that are best suited to their groups or individuals and there is freedom to select activities from several banks.

The content is varied and is pitched at different levels of understanding. For example, a game of ‘virtue matching cards’ requires players to match virtue names to virtue definitions and will appeal to young people who are unfamiliar with the virtues. A game of ‘virtue dominoes’ calls for the name of a virtue to be matched to a description of an action that describes it; the actions can be linked to a number of different virtues so a deeper exploration and understanding of the virtues is encouraged.

Activities specifically developed for young people in formal yet adapted education outside mainstream settings look at the virtues of courage, justice, compassion and empathy, curiosity, honesty and humour. For example, young people might consider when humour is appropriate – and when does a ‘joke’ become offensive?

In activities involving video and short role-play, young people look at good and bad choices, practical wisdom and the barriers that exist to doing the right thing. For instance, how might they behave if they saw someone lying in a busy street, apparently unwell? Would they go and help? And would they make a different decision if the person were young, elderly, dressed in a suit, or homeless?

At all times, the young people are encouraged to look at their own character strengths and virtues. Through reflection, they are asked to consider which virtues they already possess and think about what might be stopping them from being the person they want to be.

The Character and Values in Marginalised Young People project has already completed a survey of 3,000 young people aged 11 to 18 to look at their understanding of what it means to live a ‘good’ life and what influences those ideas.

The new interventions are being rolled out this month in 10 organisations working in non-mainstream settings. The groups, comprising 480 young people, include pupils excluded from mainstream schools, those attending youth groups, and individuals on both the margins of criminality and some already involved in criminal activity.

All the settings are unique and support young people from a variety of disengaged backgrounds. The participants often feel they have not been listened to and the educational programmes are designed to give them a voice.

The initial programme runs until December 2016 and feedback will be used to refine the interventions. A short questionnaire, focus groups with participants and session observations will aid impact evaluation. Short questionnaires completed by the young people before and after the interventions will seek to discover their ideas about living a ‘good life’ and how confident they are about their future goals and how they might reach them.

Clearly, character education is not a panacea for the multiple and complex challenges faced by young people on the margins of society, but it is the hope of the Jubilee Centre that this project and the new learning interventions will help to support young people in combatting today’s challenges and enrich their lives.

Dr Sandra Cooke, Director of Partnerships

Jenny Higgins, Research Fellow

Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues


Why classroom character and virtues should be in Justine Greening’s in tray

Over the coming weeks and months, it will be interesting to see how the new Education Secretary Justine Greening lays out her vision for schools.

Ms Greening’s previous incumbent, Nicky Morgan, stressed the importance of “building character and resilience in every child” in the White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere, published in March. The paper noted that such traits not only boost employment and social opportunities but also underpin “academic success, happiness and wellbeing” – qualities that can be a factor in an individual making an active contribution to society.

It is a fundamental conviction of the Jubilee Centre that an over-emphasis on exam grades and league tables to the detriment of character leaves our young people badly served for both their time in the classroom and for life outside the school gates. The Jubilee Centre’s A Framework for Character Education in Schools emphasises that education should be concerned not only with performance virtues but also moral virtues – those virtues such as courage, gratitude and compassion that allow young people to live a truly flourishing life.

It now falls on Ms Greening to deliver on the Government’s pledge to promote character education including the allocation of “significant additional funding,” outlined in the White Paper, to support secondary schools to “develop new provision for all of their pupils.” There are proposals to extend the school day so students can benefit from a wider array of activities than those offered purely via the academic timetable. It will be vital to look at the evidence of what works in character education to make sure this funding is spent wisely.

The Jubilee Centre’s Schools of Virtue project aims to highlight the benefits of placing character and virtues at the heart of school life and embedded within the curriculum. Central to the approach of this understanding of character education is that it can be “caught” through the school culture and ethos, as well as “taught” in the classroom. What makes the project distinctive is the holistic approach that we are taking, looking at both “taught” and “caught” methods and how each creates an impact within a school.

The project is capturing teachers’ views on what works in character education, answering, for example, how has their school implemented character education? What impact has it had?

We are also looking at the views of students, to explore the impact of a virtue-based outlook in the timetable, asking what virtues do young people think are most important? How do students respond to moral dilemmas? What do students want to see in their ideal school?

The project involves three beacon schools in Birmingham; one is a primary and other two are secondary schools. They include the University of Birmingham School, where the school ethos and provision is underpinned by character education and enrichment. By the time we report our findings, we hope to shed new light on what a successful school committed to character education could look like. We will also be looking at the impact of different interventions to support students to develop their character.

Teaching interventions will be phased in across the three beacon schools with a completion date of July 2017. One of the interventions will look at the development of good sense when using the internet. Young people face an increasingly bewildering set of online moral dilemmas, from cyber bullying to plagiarism. This intervention will explore how students can be supported to identify the moral dimensions of problems they may face in our digitally connected age.

We hope that we can learn from these schools, who have placed a focus on developing students’ characters at their heart; show “what works” in both “caught” and “taught” approaches to character development; and continue to build on the growing evidence-base supporting positive character development in schools.

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

Compelling stories can solve the measurement conundrum for character and virtues

How should I measure character, virtues, or personality more generally?

To a methodologist, these seemingly straightforward questions aren’t easy to answer. Any helpful response requires careful consideration of the aims and scope of the proposed study. As with any measurement question, there is typically a compromise between the researcher’s interests and available methods. There is the need to balance current standards in the field, specific areas of interest and the characteristics of the target populations.

There is a range of methodologies that are more or less suited for studies of morality and the virtues. For instance, the in-depth interview provides an ideal methodology for assessing the ways in which virtuous concepts are embedded within personality. However, this technique is less appropriate for studies asking normative questions and may not be particularly helpful in younger populations who may not be as reflective about the self.  Additionally, a reliance on verbal performance may be a limiting factor in marginalised populations.

To counter some of these shortcomings, the questionnaire has been successfully adapted to measure reasoning about, and attitudes toward, virtue and moral concepts. Paper and pencil (and now web-based) measurement systems are often used when time is at a premium and the researcher is interested in broad population trends.

However, consumers of this research often wonder whether the responses are truly reflective of participant capacities and express concerns about the test-taking set of the respondents. Do the participants take the measures seriously, or do they simply regurgitate what they think is expected?

The latter concern is pertinent when measuring concepts on which society places a value such as moral/character/virtue considerations. Although this is not a new problem and there are design elements in questionnaire studies to limit the impact of these concerns, the issue of honest responding remains.

I have come to appreciate a third option that uses short stories or dilemmas to highlight the application of concepts. Typically, the stories describe situations in which the protagonist must decide on a course of action. The participants place themselves in the protagonist’s shoes and decide what he or she ought to do – and why.

Much like word problems in mathematics instruction, story approaches ask participants to consider the concept of interest within a realistic context; stories engage the concept rather than simply reacting to item statements in a piecemeal fashion.

The story or dilemma approach represents a methodological middle ground. It provides more context and nuance than the traditional questionnaire approach and yet is adaptable to mass distribution (the questionnaire’s primary advantage). Additionally, dilemmas tend to minimise the effect of social expectations on participants’ responses as the focus shifts from the self to the fictional protagonist.

The success of a story-based measurement system hinges on whether the dilemma engages the participant. A story that is implausible, awkward or obvious is distracting and leads to a lack of focus.

The most straightforward way to ensure the story’s relevance is to enlist members of the population you wish to assess and get them to act as co-developers of the measure. For example, my colleagues and I developed a measure of the ability to apply the virtues within adolescent populations. We used focus groups of mixed-age adolescents to identified stories that emphasised a particular virtue.

Each story was tested multiple times with different groups and deemed realistic by the adolescents. We also collected the informant’s ideas about what the protagonist ought to do and why.

Once this process was completed, we arrived at a set of stories and a corresponding list of items representing the most frequently suggested actions and justifications.

As expected, some of the choices and justifications seemed plausible and appropriate while others seemed, at best, incomplete.

An expert panel well-versed in moral psychology and adolescent development confirmed our perceptions. The use of experts allowed us to develop and justify a key from which we could judge whether the participant applied the virtues using choices consistent with an established viewpoint.

Armed with our finished measure, we decided to assess the participants’ ability to identify best and worst choices and justifications. Respondents achieved high scores if they were able to identify items in much the same way as the experts. However, if the participants selected “bad” items as best and “good” items as worst, their scores declined.

In this way we were able to identify adolescents who had a good grasp of the targeted virtue concepts (at least insofar as they reflect the prevailing norms) and those who did not.

More interestingly, we were able to tease out which specific judgments were more or less difficult for adolescents and for whom. That is, we could address whether adolescents find it easier to identify appropriate choices as compared to good justifications, or whether they find it easier to identify good choices and justifications rather than worse ones, and whether these patterns change across the adolescent period.

Compared with other objective measurement systems, the range of information generated by a story approach provides a more detailed picture of how adolescents apply the virtues and offers the potential for more informed educational curricula and evaluations.


Steve Thoma

Professor of Moral Psychology & Psychometrics at the Jubilee Centre

Global Values, Human Rights and Character Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Perks, UN Human Rights Diplomat

and Senior Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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