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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.

Deadline looms for the virtuous journalist

The view from my bedroom at Windsor Castle takes in St George’s Chapel, the final resting place of eleven English monarchs.

My near neighbours include Henry VIII, Charles I, George III and The Queen’s father, George VI. With the mortal remains of kings and queens so close, it seems appropriate to consider the much-heralded demise of my estate, the Fourth Estate.

I have worked in journalism, predominantly newspapers, for a quarter of a century. In the course of my work, I have stayed in lavish hotels but my modest room inside the world’s oldest inhabited castle trumps the lot.

I am at the royal palace for a consultation on the professions held by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues. Academics from the Centre and attendees representing diverse fields, including medicine, education and finance, are gathered in Vicars’ Hall, where Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” was first performed in front of Elizabeth I.

There are discussions about moral practice, wisdom and service. As a former crime reporter, I tell myself to park my prejudices at the castle keep. Do lawyers and accountants contribute to the public good? Really? Always? Do hedge fund managers act as touchstones for human flourishing? In fact, are the bosses of banks and retail conglomerates professionals at all? And what of journalists? Oh, just don’t go there…

Go there, however, is exactly what we must do. Otherwise, what is the point? The industry in which I ply my trade is not known for its riches, not as far as employees are concerned. According to the National Union of Journalists, one in five of my fellow newsmen and newswomen earn less than £20,000 a year. The salary of a senior journalist could be £35,000 to £40,000 but job responsibilities might include managing reporters, a task akin to herding cats. I should know; I’ve done it.

This means there must be other reasons for entering the profession such as the desire to safeguard human rights, democracy, the rule of law and social justice. Admittedly, there is a smidgen of ego at play in the pursuit of a byline. Bankers get six-figure bonuses; reporters get their name on a story. We are easily pleased.

There has never been a better time for self-reflection and self-analysis in journalism. The explosion of free content via the internet, allied to the newspaper industry’s implosive reaction to the commercial threats posed by the web, has led to the collapse of circulation figures, the withering of advertising revenues and the closure of titles. The newspaper where I cut my teeth, the Chatham News, sunk without trace in Kent’s former naval port in 2011.

Who has taken over the territory vacated by reporters on papers like the Chatham News? What are their professional credentials? And who are their paymasters? If you can get hits on a website publishing lists like “The 15 Top Places to Buy A Crisp Sandwich,” why bother sending a journalist to cover the local magistrates’ court or the council’s general purposes sub-committee? The latter costs money, not just in time commitment but also in training reporters so they understand the importance of libel law, contempt of court, corroborating sources, grammar, story construction and all that boring non-crisp sandwich stuff.

Today, it is the bloggers, vloggers, tweeters and “citizen journalists” who are the new media stars. Much has been written about their innovative messaging, communication strategies, audience engagement and the speed of transmission. There is much for the traditional media to learn in this regard.

But what training do the digital communicators, list-disseminators and news-regurgitators receive? What is their motivation? What is their moral outlook? And, perhaps crucially, are they answerable to anyone other than an algorithm?

The new generation of “content creators” is unsullied, as yet, by the corruption scandals that have dogged the UK’s newspaper industry. Phone-hacking, illegal payments to public officials and collusion between the police and the press have damaged public perceptions.

In light of these upheavals, it is timely to assess the professional state of play in journalism. What are we to make of the 24/7 digital behemoth that has seized the information vacuum vacated by local, regional and, in many cases, national newspapers?

Such questions run through my mind at Windsor Castle. Rigorous debate centres on the need for professionals to extol good character and virtuous conduct. I am still working on my virtue literacy, but I get it and, most importantly, I see the value. I understand the need for honesty, compassion, resilience and courage. Humility is really hard for a journalist but I am getting there, too.

It is right that I am candid. One phrase that re-appears at the Windsor consultation troubles me. It is the concept of the professional as a “moral agent.” Morality is a biggie. In journalism, it is usually associated with its opposite, namely moral duplicity and its odorous bedfellow, hypocrisy. Take the politician who parades his family for a photo opportunity only to be revealed as a “love cheat.” Or the popular children’s entertainer who is exposed as a paedophile.

As far as reporters are concerned, morality is a bear-trap. And yet it seems to me, post-Windsor, that the time is ripe for journalism to turn the light upon itself and illuminate its own professional practices. It might just be the one thing that saves the Fourth Estate because character, or the lack of it, goes to the heart of what we do.

Richard McComb

Freelance Journalist

 

Character Education and Homelessness

For the past three years, I have come into contact with many homeless people whilst working in the City Centre of Birmingham. This experience stirred something within me to help, leading me to join a homeless outreach community group that supports people on the streets. The group distributes free food and hot drinks, and encourages its volunteers to develop relationships with those they help. I have been working with them for 18 months and over this time I have begun to understand the complexities of life on the streets; a life where there are no rules or accountability, and from which one might find it increasingly difficult to escape.

‘Homelessness’ is an emotive word that commonly causes people to picture one of two things: the tramp walking the street, smelly, dirty and hungry; or the alcoholic, obnoxious, loud and drunk. In reality, one could become homeless for a multitude of reasons; there is no set formula as to a cause or a solution. To view all homeless people in terms of these stereotypes is to do many an injustice[1]. Stereotype profiling can warp a person’s view of someone, and then of themselves, causing low self-esteem and self-worth, and we are more likely to believe and support situations that conform to our social stereotypes than those that contradict them[2]. Using my own experience, I shall briefly explore the three broad categories that bring people on to the streets and will consider the situations in which engagement with character education, from my understanding of the subject, could be of value. I shall be considering the effects on those who have been homeless for 6 months, from a perspective that assumes no prior knowledge of their state of character or their experience of character education.

Firstly, the cycle of addiction can force a person into homelessness and can be detrimental to their character over the short or long term. Addiction to drugs or alcohol can often be one of the reasons why someone is on the streets and can also provide a coping method for the challenges they face. Their addiction eventually becomes more important than anything else in their lives, including their home and family[3]. This may be the result of a ‘weaker’ character, such as unwillingness to take action themselves, lack of commitment, minimal willpower. However having a perceived ‘strong’ character does not necessarily mean a person has what it takes to survive on the streets. ‘The person of good character is he who does the approved thing at the right time and does not break the rules when he faces inner temptation’[4]. In this context, developing particular virtues could have a positive influence on an addict, by giving them the willpower and self-discipline to resist the temptation to relapse, for example.

Someone could become homeless due to unforeseen circumstances that can be difficult to prepare for, such as, losing their job, a family split or financial problems. Can the development of particular character virtues place someone in good stead to be able to tackle such situations as they arise, ultimately avoiding homelessness as the outcome? I believe it can – one who has experienced character education in some form, in my opinion, would be more likely to be able to prevent or resolve a situation that may force someone into homelessness. ‘Aristotelian character education makes it clear that character education is about the cultivation of virtues as specifically human excellences’[5].  I have seen for myself an example of this in someone who the group supports: Mark (aged 45) injured his back working, developed a heavy alcohol dependency and became homeless. After continuing this cycle for a number of years, he is slowly getting himself back on his feet. From meeting Mark at this point, having no prior knowledge with regards to his character, I feel some form of character education could be beneficial to his development and rehabilitation. Phronesis helps individuals to get things right using practical wisdom: it is what helps individuals to make the right judgement in any given situation[6]. I feel that with the correct teaching, character education could transform someone like Mark, who is perhaps in a less complex situation, to make better, more informed decisions.

Caplow (2009: 51) defines homelessness as: ‘a condition of detachment from society characterised by the absence or attenuation of the affiliative bonds that link settled persons to a network of interconnected social structures’[7]. A conscious decision could be made by the individual to ‘live on the streets’ due to various personal reasons. They may have chosen to do this for moral reasons, such as to escape domestic abuse or perhaps out of protest in a certain situation. At this point, there could be mental health and social issues amongst other things in the person’s past which would influence their character. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics II, he suggests that character state is concerned with choice and a mean between two vices[8]. However, I would challenge their motivations and would suggest that living on the streets is not conducive to a flourishing life. Character education helps people address the complex nature of the decision-making process, the weighing of values and beliefs to make value-laden decisions[9]. With exposure to character education I feel that someone who is willing to change could find value in this. It could help them to make a more appropriate decision to seek help through other avenues, with the ultimate aim of getting off the streets.

John Bauckham, Administrator, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

[1] Ravenhill, M. (2016) The Culture of Homelessness. Oxford: Routledge. p.6.

[2] Salinas, M. (2003) The Politics of Stereotype: Psychology and Affirmative Action. California: Greenwood Publishing. p.74.

[3] Stearman, K. (2009) Taking action against homelessness. USA: The Rosen Publishing Group. p.20.

[4] Loeb, M.B (1951) ‘Social relationships and the development of character’, in J.A. Lauwerys and N. Hans (eds), The Yearbook of Education, London: University of London Institute of Education and Evans Publishing. p.58.

[5] Arthur, J., Kristjansson, K., Harrison, T., Sanderse, W. and Wright, D. (2016) Teaching Character and Virtue in Schools. London: Routledge. p.27.

[6] Harrison, T., Morris, I. and Ryan, J. (2016) Teaching Character in the Primary Classroom. London: Sage Publications Ltd. p.41.

[7] Tipple, G. and Speak, S. (2009) The Hidden Millions: Homelessness in Developing Counties. London: Routledge. p.51.

[8] Homiak, Marcia. (2016) Moral Character. The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy., http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2016/entries/moral-character/ .

[9] Wilson, R.W. and Kolander, C. (2003) Drug Abuse Prevention: A School and Community Partnership. London: Jones & Bartlett Publishers. p.312.

A multi-component view of gratitude

In this vlog, Research Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, Dr. Blaire Morgan, explores the moral value of gratitude and how it contributes towards a flourishing life. Examining gratitude within an Aristotelian framework, Blaire talks about the intrinsic value of being grateful and the multiple components that make up the virtue of gratitude.

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. As part of this project a new measure of gratitude, the Multi-Component Gratitude Measure, which Blaire explains in this video, has been developed.

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

 

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

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 l.z.gulliford@bham.ac.uk

 

 

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