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March 2016

Bursting the bubble… Will Osborne’s fizzy drinks tax boost character education?

The proceeds of a new sugar tax on fizzy drinks could help strengthen the character of a generation of virtuous young people.

At least that appears to be the hope of George Osborne and the Conservative Party hierarchy. Education took centre stage in the Chancellor’s Budget, with controversial proposals to force all schools to become academies grabbing the media headlines. However, a subsidiary announcement, regarding lengthening the school day, could potentially play a significant part in addressing moves to promote character education.

The money recouped from the tax on sugary drinks will be used to expand sport in primary schools while secondary schools will get additional cash to extend after-school activities, including sports, the arts and debating.

Hot on the heels of Mr Osborne’s announcement, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan reaffirmed the political establishment’s commitment to promoting “character-building opportunities” in secondary schools in the White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere.

The paper also outlined the expansion of the National Citizen Service (NCS), hailed by the Government as a “life-changing programme” aimed at promoting the social, moral, spiritual and cultural development of pupils. The Tories have pledged to channel more than £1 billion into the NCS to make it the biggest scheme of its type in Europe, covering 60% of 16-year-olds by 2021.

But can taxing the likes of Coca-Cola, Fanta and Sprite really help boost the character and virtues of students and create “flourishing” citizens for the 21st century? Or is Mr Osborne’s “pop” tax being used to sugar-coat an unpalatable truth about the nation’s education policy?

One needs to examine the purpose of extending the school day and the notional extension of extra curricula activities. The worry is that the additional funding will merely enable schools to put on even more extra tuition classes to simply “hot-house” students in core academic subjects like maths and English. Thus an opportunity to widen and enhance education will be used to extend the narrow curriculum that shackles many students – and their teachers – in schools throughout the country.

Head teachers should be encouraged to use the extra time and money to diversify their educational offer, not further restrict it, and invite students to take part in enrichment activities that promote good character. These include the myriad of better-known activities such as sports, drama, music and dance as well as more obscure but equally effective pursuits including origami, country dancing, gardening and baking. In addition to being enjoyable, such activities enable young people to both develop and “test” their virtues.

After-school activities play a crucial role in character development because that effectively is the raison d’être. There is no academic goal, no box to tick, so there is no temptation, as there is in some teaching, to go for a “quick-win” and progress at break-neck speed to the next curriculum topic. As the Jubilee Centre’s research report on Character Education in UK Schools makes clear, almost 80% of secondary school teachers and 75% of primary school teachers believe the assessment system hinders “the development of the whole child”. Testing is so pervasive – and time-consuming – that other “educational goods”, such as character development, fall by the wayside. When schools run extra-curricular activities, there is more time and space to address children’s key character strengths such as honesty, self-discipline and courage.

The report found that students who were members of a group dedicated to music/choir, drama, art or photography performed better than their non-member peers when they were presented with moral dilemma choices. Of course, it is difficult to say if appearing in the school play improves character, or if children with good character are drawn to tread the boards. However, the correlation deserves our attention.

There is no doubt that after-school activities provide a test-bed for real-life situations; students are able to face challenging choices and embrace new experiences in a supportive environment. Crucially, they learn about character regardless of whether they win, lose or draw. Learning through such experiences, including school trips, residential visits and outdoor activities, is vital for developing the practical wisdom of young people.

By taking education out of the classroom, students also get the opportunity to put different virtues to the test in unfamiliar surroundings. Speaking in front of fellow pupils takes courage but the challenge takes on a different dimension when it involves addressing a public forum such as a community meeting.

Activities that take place outside the academic timetable develop all types of virtues in young people, not simply the performance virtues that impart resilience and self-confidence and encourage learners to hit targets, whatever the targets. Mr Osborne and Mrs Morgan should be equally concerned about nurturing the moral and civic virtues of pupils because it is these that provide the foundations for enriched communal life.

Joining the football or netball team may encourage students to become better leaders and team players while strengthening their resilience, but it should also encourage them to think about what it means to play fair while displaying humility and sportsmanship. Ensuring these activities are character-building, in the most expansive sense, is dependent on the teacher or facilitator running them. There should also be opportunities (which means time) for students to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the virtues they have shown. And time, as we know, is a precious commodity on the exam-factory timetable.

Investing in after-school activities is a step in the right direction and the Government should be applauded for seizing the nettle. However, character education and virtues should form a key part of every child’s education; the subject should not be an “add on” after the school bell; it is too important for that. It is not enough for schools to simply extend the school day. Serious and urgent thinking has to be undertaken by policy makers and practitioners to ensure this golden opportunity is one that truly has an impact on the flourishing of future generations.

Dr Tom Harrison, Director of Education, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Making Virtual Reality a More Virtuous Reality

Almost every week there is a story in the national press about the Internet that has moral implications. For example, in the last week, there have been stories about people facing criminal prosecution if they set up fake social networking accounts for abusive purposes (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-35712772); and police being unable to cope with levels of cyber-crime (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3477857/Police-swamped-online-abuse-cases-new-laws-needed-help-officers-cope-says-force-chief.html).

The response to these stories from policy makers, the police and other interested parties is often a call for increased regulation of the Internet. However, in the cyber-worlds that many of us inhabit, rules and laws are hard to establish and uphold. Website giants such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter find it hard (or are sometimes unwilling) to regulate personal profiles, or impose rules regarding their use. Furthermore, even when the rules are understood, people can easily bypass them they by going online anonymously. Most of us are guilty of dodging any attempts to regulate our Internet use. For example do you read all the legal statement before you join a website, or do you, like me, simply scroll to the bottom of the page and click the ‘accept’ button?  My own research has shown that young people think that the rules are different online then offline and they report they are more likely to bully online, but not face-to-face; plagiarise online, but not from a book; download a film illegally online, but not steal a DVD from a shop.

If we are serious about dealing with the many moral challenges the Internet poises, perhaps it is time to think about new strategies and approaches to educating us all to be ‘wiser’ Internet users.

Surprisingly, the ancient Greek philosophy of Aristotle could help us tackle some of the most salient moral concerns found online today. The strength of Aristotelian inspired virtue ethics is that it emphasises good character as the best guide for ‘doing the right thing’, alongside an adherence to rules. As rules are hard to establish and uphold, and consequences are hard to predict in the virtual world, an approach to dealing with online moral issues that is based on the education of character virtues is perhaps particularly appealing. Such approaches should aim at the development of digitally wise citizens who are able to ‘self-police’ their online activities.

Of course the required virtues can’t simply be taught didactically, they must be learnt through practice, through experience and through the development of what Aristotle called phronesis or practical wisdom: in this case cyber-phronesis. The challenge therefore is to create educational strategies inspired by virtue ethics that can successfully be implemented by parents, teachers, employers and the many other parties who have some responsibility in this area.

The (re)emergence of character education offers a great platform for the development of online practical wisdom. Character education, delivered well, should encourage us reflect on our strengths and weaknesses and assess our actions and behaviour, with the view to moderating them if required. Character education is mostly ‘caught’ through the culture and ethos of a home, school or place of work, however it can and perhaps should be deliberately and consciously ‘taught’ also. For example, at the Jubilee Centre we are helping computer-science teachers to re-imagine the curriculum, so that it aims not simply at making students more computer literate, but also at the development of good digital citizens.

The teaching tools and resources to support this reimagined curriculum could be hosted on websites and include structured online reflection blogs, or online moral dilemma games, where students have to practise making difficult ethical decisions. Such tools would help young people to develop the capacity to acquire cyber-phronesis and take the compassionate / honest / courageous action, even when no-one is watching. Applying virtue ethical principles to the modern world might just make virtual reality a more virtuous reality.

Dr Tom Harrison, Director of Education

Dramatic Moral Conversions: Do They Exist?

In this blog posting, I will be asking you for your views and stories on a phenomenon that intrigues me: dramatic and sudden (in other words, ‘epiphanic’) moral conversions.

On the road to Damascus, Saul – the rabid persecutor of early Christians – reportedly went through an experience that had a profound effect on his life. A light from heaven flashed around him and he heard a voice imploring him to change his ways (Acts 9.3–7). Motivated by this ‘Damascus experience’, the sinner Saul turned into the apostle Paul through a religious conversion and a radical self-change of moral reform. What I am interested in is only the second of those phenomena, namely epiphanic moral conversions, a topic conspicuously absent from most current agendas in moral philosophy, moral psychology and moral education. If broached at all by academics, such (alleged) conversions tend to meet with scepticism or outright denial.

The lingering scepticism is perhaps not an unreasonable scholarly response. For example, while Aristotle’s and Kohlberg’s theories of moral development and education are often presented as proverbial anti-theses, both suffer from a similar difficulty in accounting for epiphanic moral conversions. Kohlberg’s trajectory of moral development is a slow one, through well-defined stages; and Aristotle is often depicted as an early-years determinist who does not envisage much hope of moral reform for people ‘brought up in bad habits’. Late in life, Kohlberg suggested an additional ‘Stage 7’, of peak moral experiences; and Aristotle’s virtue of ‘contemplation’ does offer some reprieve for intelligent agents who are blessed with good friends who can gradually help them to reform. Yet we are no closer to explaining what happens when amoral/immoral people undergo sudden conversions towards morality, for example in the wake of near-death experiences or other radical ‘Damascus events’.

What we deal with on a daily basis in the Jubilee Centre is research into gradual/incremental moral progress, for example in the wake of character-education interventions in schools. That is obviously the bread and butter of all character development. It seems, however, that many people have also heard of abrupt moral conversions in others or had ‘Damascus experiences’ themselves. When I ask my students every year about such experiences, only a few – but always a few – say they have had a moral conversion, or at least experienced formative events of intense moral enlightening. The challenge is to make sense of those experiences while responding satisfactorily to the academic misgivings.

In the field of education, the topic of epiphanic moral conversions is sometimes brought up in connection with a popular, if somewhat cliché-ridden, theme of a charismatic teacher who successfully challenges students to reform. Recall, for example, Jaime Escalante in the film Stand and Deliver, John Keating in Dead Poets Society or Jean Brodie in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Some ‘charismatic’ teachers may be accused of a degree of superficiality, and the self-change they bring about in students may, similarly, turn out to be short-lived and superficial. Be that as it may, Escalante, Keating and Brodie all seem to turn their students’ self-conceptions upside down in ways that are morally relevant.

The closest I have come myself to a moral conversion is when, as a first-year undergraduate, I got to know a German PhD student in theology who was suffering from terminal cancer. Accepting his predicament with incredible equanimity, he decided to spend his last months engrossing himself in what he liked most, philosophy and theology, and working on the thesis he knew he would not complete – never apparently complaining or despairing. Since this experience, I feel I appreciate life much more and have a markedly reduced tendency to fuss about trifles. This ‘conversion’ shares many of the characteristics of an epiphanic conversion, but it did not originate in a single ‘Damascus event’, and although it happened over days rather than months or years, it may be moot whether to call it ‘gradual’ or ‘abrupt’.

Fascinating questions abound: Do sudden moral conversions exist? How frequent are they? What triggers them? How can they fit into a plausible account of moral development? Is there a difference between conversions in childhood and adulthood? Are conversions reversible? – and so forth.

I want to hear from you whether you have had a moral-conversion experience yourselves. If yes, what triggered it: a charismatic teacher, a perspective-changing life event – or something else? Or are we just kidding ourselves when we feel we have changed morally in a flash?

Prof. Kristján Kristjánsson, Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre

Tackling Character on the Rugby Field

A recent BBC News article reported that ‘more than 70 doctors and academics are calling for a ban on tackling in rugby matches played in UK and Irish schools.’ The rationale behind this call is that the potential long-term damage of head injuries, concussions, and repeated ‘high-impact’ collisions occurring in rugby practices and matches can have long-term consequences for the health of young people playing the sport. The open letter, sent to government ministers, calls for a move to non-contact and touch rugby in schools in England and Ireland.

The counter argument presented is that playing full-contact rugby builds character in young people, and that reducing or watering down the version of the game played also reduces the potential enjoyment and challenge that playing rugby provides.

As someone who played rugby at school and university, and who is part of the Jubilee Centre and involved in the research into character, I find this a very compelling debate. I thoroughly enjoyed my rugby-playing ‘career’, with highlights including representing my Borough at U14 level, and travelling to Western Canada on a school rugby tour at age 16. I was also part of my university halls team which won the inter-mural trophy in my first undergraduate year. I was not a great rugby player, by any stretch, and had to learn to love a sport that I didn’t understand when beginning secondary school. However, I can reflect now that the game taught me a lot about teamwork, about facing challenges, and about determination and resilience. I made great friends on the pitch, many of whom I still socialise with today. I also experienced my fair share of injuries, including a serious concussion during the aforementioned Canadian rugby tour.

The repeated ‘heavy hitting’ of tackling practice and in-game contact were accepted, and often relished, as part and parcel of the game, and as school pupils, we put our trust in the teachers and coaches to train us how to tackle properly so that we didn’t injure ourselves with every tackle that we attempted. This took practice and training, and required self-discipline and courage, but it was never perceived to be dangerous nor damaging, either by me as a player, or by the coaches. I do not have any medical qualifications to support or dismiss the claims of the 70 academics and doctors who have put forward this call today (2nd March 2016), but given that rugby has been taught and played as a full-contact sport for decades in schools across the world, it seems on first view to be an over-reaction.

The paradox, however, is that so does the claim that rugby builds character. Research conducted by the Jubilee Centre (Character Education in UK Schools) reported empirical evidence to contradict widely held beliefs that sport builds character. ‘British students claiming to participate in sporting activities did not perform better than those who said they did not practise sports when asked to respond to moral dilemmas.’ (P. 5). It is important to add that the research only looked at participation in sports in general, not individual sports. Other extra-curricular activities often attributed to building character, such as debating, also failed to significantly influence the results of the moral dilemma tests conducted in this project, whereas pupils who reported to be involved with music, choir and drama activities made moral dilemma choices that were closer to those of the expert panel (p. 16). As the research only looked at sporting activities in general, it is possible for some sports to assist the character building of players, although this correlation is diluted when looking across all sporting participation.

With character development and flourishing a life-long challenge, perhaps that any positive benefit to one’s character through playing challenging sports such as rugby is not realised in the moment, but on later reflection, in a not dissimilar way to any delayed effects of heavy concussion or repeated ‘heavy contact’.

Comments welcomed.

Aidan Thompson, Centre Manager

A View From the Centre

Welcome to ‘Virtue Insight’, the Jubilee Centre blog. On this blog, we, the staff of the Jubilee Centre, will be posting reflections on issues that are close to our hearts and to the work that we are undertaking across the field of character and virtues. We will also regularly take the temperature of the public, social-media and academic discourse on character and character education and respond to it when necessary. We look forward to the active involvement of you, the readers, in response to what we write.At the time of writing this blog, we are one year into our current grant, which forms our second phase of work. As one does at such milestone points, we are taking the opportunity to both reflect on what we have achieved to date, and re-focus on our goals and targets for the coming months. Our current research projects are now well under way, with resources and interventions being piloted, surveys beginning to be completed and participants being recruited, the Centre is a hive of activity. Not that we have been particularly passive previously, of course! The growing reach and scope of the Centre’s influence and impact is being seen every day. For example, the Lucas & Hanson (2016) report on ‘Learning to be Employable: Practical Lessons from Research in Developing Character’, published at the end of February, references the Centre’s work, particularly highlighting the Centre’s definition of character and the virtue typology found in our Framework for Character Education in Schools. Whilst misappropriating the use of the word ‘trait’ in respect to character virtues to the Centre (p.19) (the Centre has never intentionally referred to virtues as traits through its work), the report is an example of the practical applications of the Centre’s philosophy and research conducted to date.

As part of the reflections and taking stock at this point in our current grant schedule, we have also looked to our website, as the primary medium for correspondence with the wider public, and are delighted that we have received more users in the 12 months of this grant (1/3/15-29/2/16) than the whole of the previous period since the website launched in December 2012. Our free online course ‘What is Character?’ recently ended its third iteration, with over 15,000 learners having subscribed to one of the three versions over the past 13 months. We are delighted with the debates that take place on the message boards around matters of character and virtues, and reporting figures show that our courses are engaged with by ‘social learners’ at a rate which far exceeds industry averages for online courses of this type.

Looking forward to the immediate future, we continue to develop the network of schools that we work with. We have a number of current projects which are currently developing important resources designed to cultivate the character and virtue literacy of pupils in schools, which are underpinned by robust academic research. These resources, once published, will appear online and are free to download and use (just let us know that you’re using them!). We continue to explore and advance our international partnerships; our work with UNICEF in Montenegro and the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia have both published recent reports.

I hope this first offering has been of interest, and do stay tuned for much more.

We have also begun this blog, which we hope will become both informative and a source of great debate. New posts will be published on a weekly basis, and readers are encouraged to engage, react and contribute as much as possible. Posts will be provided from all members of the Jubilee Centre team, which will hopefully provide an insight into the scope and range of interests held both professionally within the Centre, and beyond.

Aidan Thompson, Jubilee Centre Manager

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