virtue insight

conversations on character


August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WGD-3544Schools’ Reaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Virtue, spirituality and the possibility of spiritual virtues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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