virtue insight

conversations on character


December 2016

Why is it so hard to measure virtue?

In this Vlog, Professor Randall Curren, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Rochester, USA, explores the complexities of the measurement of virtue. Professor Curren gives an overview of the particular qualities of virtue that make it such a difficult concept to measure for those researching it. In addition to the complexities involved in acting well, Professor Curren highlights the ethical limitations to obtaining the data needed to progress towards any measurement of virtue.

Professor Curren is an ethicist who works across the boundaries of moral, political, legal, environmental, and educational philosophy. His work in the philosophy and ethics of education focuses on human well-being, motivation, and the nature and aims of education; sustainability and development; educational equity, justice, and rights; and the relationships between education, authority, and law.


When a profession requires the ultimate sacrifice

The British Army, like other professions, expects and requires its soldiers to uphold key values.

Whether they are on operations, in barracks or on leave, all ranks should display courage, discipline, respect, integrity and loyalty.

In this sense, the soldier is no different to any other professional, be they a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher. We rely on professionals to be disciplined and respectful, to show integrity and loyalty and, where appropriate, to take courageous decisions.

In fact, the five virtues outlined here are the bedrock of what the Army calls values and standards.

However, there is an additional value that sets soldiers apart and explains why the battlefield offers a different moral landscape to the GP’s surgery, the courtroom and the classroom. The sixth, and final, core value identified by the Army is selfless commitment.

As the Army Leadership Code states: “Ultimately, soldiers may be required to give their lives for their country, that is true selfless commitment.” Lawyers, teachers and medics are generally not expected to lay down their lives. Soldiers are sometimes required to make the ultimate sacrifice. This distinction makes the Soldiers of Character project, being conducted by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, unique among professions.

In a British military context, the research is unprecedented with the Army offering researchers access to officer cadets and serving junior officers.

The fieldwork, which started in March 2016, was completed in November 2016 and has involved investigating the place of Army Values and Standards among officer cadets, as well as junior officers (lieutenants and captains) from across all parts of the Army. The career stage and rank was chosen to include the leaders of today and tomorrow since some of the participants may be tomorrow’s generals.

More than 200 volunteers, both male and female, participated in a two-part survey. The second part comprised a brief questionnaire looking at their own 24 character strengths (including bravery, creativity and humility); and the first, more substantial part asked the officers to respond to four realistic and detailed military dilemmas.

The dilemmas were shaped by UK and United States Army officer expert panels, having been carefully developed over many years. They included a scenario involving a prisoner and a barracks-based dilemma focusing on personal relations.

The participants were drawn from many different regiments and cap badges including the artillery, infantry, medics, administrators, engineers and the Intelligence Corps. Inevitably, responses were shaped by the officers’ involvement in recent conflicts and operations (such as Iraq and Afghanistan for example) and also reflect experiences of asymmetric warfare, typified by the challenges posed by non-conventional, insurgent forces.

In addition to the survey, 40 detailed interviews were conducted with officer cadets and junior officers, split across the three experience levels, asking men and women to reflect on their experiences of Army values and standards. As with the surveys, the interviews were confidential and anonymous and we are extremely grateful to the volunteers for taking part in this important study.

The results are being analysed and it is the aim to publish the report in summer 2017. We are grateful to the Ministry of Defence and the British Army for granting this work ethical approval. We will be reporting the results to them in the first instance, before writing a publicly available report.

The project needs to be seen in the context of the Jubilee Centre’s wider investigation into character and virtues in the professions. In my view, the Army is fundamentally different because of its unique role and the requirement that officers risk their lives under unique circumstances. That puts special demands on character, values and standards.

Soldiers and their officers are the boots on the ground, operating in physically uncomfortable environments, often at the ends of human endurance; they have to show good character during prolonged exposure to extreme conditions.

The need for character and values in the Army is clear. But the Army is continually assessing important personnel issues such as this and we hope the results of the Jubilee Centre study can contribute to this.

Of course, character and values have always been at the heart of military life; they are integral to it. The Army has a tough role and must sometimes use difficult and forceful methods. In the spirit of Just War Theory, this needs to relate to good and just ends and be carried out in a just manner, otherwise soldiers risk being no better than criminals, murderers or terrorists.

It is our hope that this unprecedented research study will provide new insights into the complexities of character and virtues as they relate to the experience of being a junior Army officer at the start of the 21st century.

Dr David Walker, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Gratitude, Forgiveness & the Role of Educational Interventions

In this vlog, Research Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, Dr. Liz Gulliford, explores the benefits, both intrinsic and instrumental, of the virtues of gratitude and forgiveness. Liz talks about the benefits, for example, of keeping a gratitude journal but also the use of gratitude as a means to an end. Liz also considers the role of educational interventions in developing virtues in young people and emphasises the importance of any such intervention providing room for young people to reflect on the meaning of the virtue being explored.

The Jubilee Centre has been engaged in an examination of gratitude since 2012 and has explored, through the ‘An Attitude for Gratitude‘ research project, how gratitude is conceptualised by the British public. Liz is currently working on the Gratitude and Related Character Virtues project which is investigating the relationship between the virtues of gratitude and compassion through an educational intervention.

Practice makes perfect in a school of virtue

University of Birmingham School principal Michael Roden talks to Richard McComb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Roden is Principal of the University of Birmingham School.

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