virtue insight

conversations on character


September 2016

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

Blog at

Up ↑