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The Virtuous Poker Player: Is There Such a Thing?

The Godfather of Poker, Doyle Brunson, once said, ‘Poker actually isn’t about winning or losing; poker is about making the right decision.’ In my opinion, this is a very versatile saying. For example, if you were to substitute the word poker for life, you would have a quote worthy of an inspirational fridge magnet. Such is the nature of poker. It is a brooding, philosophical game; a microcosm of the peaks and troughs of life. This is why so much poker terminology permeates our language… it’s the fall of the cardswhen the chips are down… I’m going all in… Even Voltaire employed the poker/life metaphor in his writing, ‘Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.’

I find it interesting that poker is so often used as a vehicle to deliver life advice in spite of commonly being understood to be a vice. Certainly vices are present in poker; greed, envy and pride being the most obvious; but as Shakespeare said: ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ With this in mind, the rest of this blog post hopes to give ground to the idea that poker could in fact, in part, promote virtuousness and good character by exploring its relationship with the virtues of wisdom, temperance, justice and humanity.

Wisdom

In his vindication of Martial Arts as a means of becoming more virtuous (The Way to Virtue in Sport), Allan Bäck acknowledged that ‘People—even philosophers—often claim that practicing a sport improves moral character’ and that even ‘Plato advocated education of the body as well as of the mind: gumnastike as well as mousike.’ Now you’re not going to achieve a six-pack playing poker but I would argue that, like sports, games like poker can constitute an education of the mind, i.e. cultivate intellectual virtues.

In order to learn a game like poker you are going to need, or need to develop, a love of learning and curiosity, two of the five character strengths that comprise the virtue of wisdom according to the VIA Classification of Character Strengths. For beginners, just the rules of play can be difficult to grasp, and beyond this there are the endless annals of poker strategy in print and online. The successful player has to be interested, engaged and willing to learn. They will need to develop the grit and resilience expected of any serious sports player.

Judgement and perspective, also constituents of wisdom, are essential for the developing poker player. In my experience of playing poker, it is those players that develop a sense of entitlement that are those quickest to stagnate. This stagnation can lead to bitterness and cruelty (online poker comment boxes are a treasure trove of profanity, usually players mourning themselves and cursing others.) It takes an open-mind and a rational perspective in order to prosper as a poker player.

As Michael Austin writes in his article Sports and Moral Development, ‘A child learns how to play soccer by imitating those who are good at the sport. Similarly, a child can learn how to be virtuous by imitating those who are morally good.’ Just as football has its goodies and baddies, its role models and bad examples, so does poker. Fortunately, the game of poker has a vibrant community of players and tutors that encourage, through discussion and training, what Austin calls the ‘proper habits of the practice’.

Temperance

In the film Rounders (a film that is generally acknowledged as the greatest poker film of modern times) – Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), in an argument with his non-poker-playing girlfriend, exclaims, ‘Why does this still seem like gambling to you? Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table at the World Series of Poker every year?’ The point Mike is trying to make is that, though poker is fundamentally a game of chance, the player has the potential to put the odds in their favour. Thus the game becomes not solely about luck, but also a contest of skill.

Any poker strategy guide worth its salt advocates strict bankroll management. It is arguably the most important part of poker strategy and based on temperance. Bankroll management essentially requires you to have the prudence and self-regulation to play only at a level financially viable to you. You keep your poker bankroll divorced from the rest of your finances and you only ever play with a small fraction of it at a time. Doing so should hopefully mean that your losses are small enough not to affect you mentally and financially and also that you will be able to outlast any periods of negative variability.

Interestingly, the reason why Mike McDermott is in such hot water with his girlfriend is because at the start of the film he was a victim of his own intemperance, losing everything on a single hand of poker. This is why actively practicing the virtues is so important if you are going to play poker. Despite what Mike McDermott tells his girlfriend, poker is a game of chance, it is gambling, and gambling can be, and in many cases is, insidious. For those poker players who struggle to exercise control over gambling, the right decision would be to not play at all, or to play without the involvement of money, purely for the love of the game.

Justice and Humanity

Poker is a game that promotes sophisticated decision making. Players who do not exercise temperance and wisdom will quickly find themselves exiled to the spectator’s rail. But the virtuous character strengths developed through playing poker also have other applications; poker can develop a practical wisdom (phronesis) that can contribute to societal flourishing. Thus, to borrow from Allan Bäck, ‘it purports to be a serious part of life—and to transcend contests’. Raising for Effective Giving is a charity founded by poker players that uses a poker philosophy to maximise their philanthropy. As World Champion, Martin Jacobson, is quoted as saying on their website:

“Contributing to charity in any way, shape or form is really important for me and I have found REG to be the superior option. Their rational strategy to effective giving is something I can relate to because I use the same approach to maximize my potential as a professional poker player.”

Considering this, the versatile sentiment of ol’ Texas Dolly, Doyle Brunson, can even be applied to the character strengths of social intelligence, kindness, fairness and citizenship, strengths comprising the virtues of justice and humanity: ‘Poker actually isn’t about winning or losing; poker is about making the right decision.’

Vice or Virtue?

In this blog I have proffered that poker players who exercise the virtuous character strengths of wisdom and temperance are the most likely to succeed, and presented a shining example of charitable action taken by poker players (of which there are many), but is this enough to claim that poker itself, on the whole, is virtuous? You could argue that the game of poker is a morally neutral construct and it is each individual’s interaction with the game which is virtuous or not. However, poker is a zero numbers game, which means for every win there has to be a loss of the same amount. The circumstances of the game therefore directly promote the vices of greed and envy: greed because in order to win you must engage rapaciously in the pursuit of material possessions and envy because that which you covet is your neighbour’s chips. So is the gentrification the game has enjoyed in recent years merely a virtuous veneer atop a cankered core? Tell Shakespeare I am still thinking about it…

Richard Hughes is Research Administrator at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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Have NHS Pressures Caused UK Nurses to Lose Their Moral Compass?

A new research report, launched on September 28 by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, reveals that NHS pressures are hindering ethical practice and caring among UK nurses. The new research reveals that eight in ten nurses face barriers to working in a caring and compassionate manner, and that staff reductions, time pressures and ‘pen-pushing’ are leading to moral disengagement and compromising professional practice.

 The study, Virtuous Practice in Nursing, provides a moral snapshot of the profession at a time of unrivalled pressure on the NHS. It reveals that experienced nurses face serious challenges staying true to their moral character and values due to the demands on their time. The factors preventing nurses from ‘living out their own character’ on the wards include staff shortages, time constraints, bed management and administrative tasks, all of which stop them spending the time with patients they feel is required for good professional care.

More specifically, many nurses reported that they felt that conflicting demands on their time left them feeling as though they were not able to offer care in as compassionate way as they would like to, and that shortages in nursing numbers negatively affected their ability to care for patients.

The context and nature of the study

Motivated by the negative media coverage of the current state of nursing and the well-known 2013 Francis Report of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry, this research project explored the ethical dimensions of contemporary nursing education and practice in the UK. The findings are drawn from survey and interview data from 696 participants across three-cohorts: first-year undergraduates in nursing, final-year students about to enter employment at the end of initial training, and established professionals who had been in practice for five years or more, as well as from interviews with educators from UK Schools of Nursing.

The Jubilee Centre has conducted a large body of work with students and professionals in a range of professions (lawyers, teachers, medical doctors) in recent years. As the Principal Investigator on this project, the present author was particularly struck by the finding that nurses stand out among all the experienced professionals we have surveyed. They are the only professionals where reliance on their own character compass does not pick up as they gain more experience. More specifically, we looked at the extent to which nurses rely on virtue-based reasoning (e.g. justifications about what is the compassionate thing to do) when facing ethical dilemmas in the workplace. While students entering nursing education rely heavily on such reasoning, during the course of their studies those considerations are overtaken by rule-and-code-based reasoning, and this trend continues among experienced nurses.

From the point of view of virtue ethics, which is gradually becoming the moral theory of choice in nursing ethics, this is a worrying trend. The tenets of professional ethics theory seem to be becoming increasingly irrelevant to actual nursing practice.

But there are some positives

We identified several positive findings about the profession. In particular, student nurses consistently name moral motivators like care and compassion as the principal reasons for joining the profession. Both student nurses and established professionals view the job as a vocation. Moreover, despite significant institutional pressures, nurses feel they can work autonomously and feel supported by colleagues. They also believe it is possible to maintain a level of emotional engagement with patients and their profession, which is encouraging given the motivational role of compassion and care in recruiting the nurses of the future.

The report recommends that moral role modelling is placed at the heart of nursing education. In the absence of adequate role modelling, the tendency will be to ‘go by the book’, circumventing individual reflection and responsibility and doing uncritically whatever the rules or standards of practice say.

In publishing this report, the Jubilee Centre calls for a greater emphasis on ethical theory in the education of student nurses, helping trainees to relate values and virtues to practice. The Centre also recommends a ‘robust approach’ to character evaluation at interview stage to assess the suitability of candidates for nursing, and to monitor the development of their character throughout the programme.

Food for thought

 This report shows that, given the challenges of nursing in the UK today, there is an increased pressure on nurses to get each decision right, under constraints of time and resources. To choose the option that is the best clinical one for patients, but also ethically correct, requires careful deliberation and the capacity to exhibit professional wisdom. The ability of the nurse to make such decisions on behalf of patients goes right to the core of what it means to be a nurse, whose first responsibility is to the patient. This study highlights ways in which shortcomings in the working and learning environments limit trained nurses’ and nursing students’ development of core values for nursing practice. It offers practical recommendations for improvement and paves the way for a fuller discussion of issues that are likely to be with us for quite some time.

Professor Kristján Kristjánsson was the Principal Investigator on the project ‘Virtuous Practice in Nursing’ report. The report was co-authored by  Jinu Varghese, James Arthur, Francisco Moller and Matt Ferkany. The full report can be viewed here

Students at UK Business Schools Value Financial Rewards Over Honesty

A new research report, launched on September 27 by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, identifies honesty and integrity as important virtues for experienced business professionals, but finds such an awareness lacking among undergraduates, for whom financial aspirations trump any references to moral virtues or the common good.

There has been a steep rise in the number of papers highlighting the importance of specific business virtues in business journals over the past few decades, and the publication of Springer’s 2017 Handbook of Virtue Ethics in Business and Management indicates that the movement has become mainstream. Within UK companies, a values-driven agenda, often highlighting bespoke business values such as integrity, seems to be gradually superseding a narrow rule-and-code driven agenda. However, as these ‘values’ are rarely understood as personal traits of character (namely ‘virtues’), it would be premature to say that virtue ethics has yet dramatically altered ethical conceptions in the UK business world. The report indicates that this new agenda has at least had very little practical effect on business education in general and business ethics education in particular.

The context and nature of the study

The findings in this report – written in the wake of a series of high-profile corporate failures and financial scandals – are drawn from survey and interview data from 790 UK participants across three cohorts: first-year business school students, final-year business school students, and business school alumni with at least 5 years’ work experience, as well as data drawn from interviews with educators in UK business schools.

The research found that business students value career competencies like time management and communication skills as important character strengths,. However, honesty was considerably less prevalent as a valued character strength and there was virtually ‘zero growth’ in virtue-based reasoning between the first and final year of students’ time at university, as judged by responses to ethical workplace dilemmas. In contrast to the students’ responses, honesty as a personal virtue was clearly identified by experienced professionals in interviews. Honesty was often mentioned alongside integrity. For example, there were over 30 references to honesty and over 50 references to integrity in interviews with experienced professionals. Moreover, when presented with workplace dilemmas, virtue-based reasoning was more evident in the responses of business school graduates than in those of business school students.

While aspirations to serve the common good – a key goal of any profession – were mentioned intermittently by participants as a motivation to pursue business, financial rewards were more prominent. When asked what motivated them to pursue a career in business and finance, ‘money’ rather than working for the public good was the most popular reward highlighted by students. More than one student simply typed three dollar signs – $$$ – to explain their inspiration.

Some positives also

The report also reveals positive aspects about the contemporary UK business world. Established business professionals link a culture of honesty and collegiality to the formation of a positive work environment. Furthermore, 94% of experienced professionals indicated they feel motivated to work effectively most of the time, and 97% stated they feel empowered to be authentic in the workplace. The report suggests a renewed emphasis on these positive aspects of work could help to imbue business students with a greater sense of ethical practice when they graduate.

The report offers some constructive recommendations. It points to the importance of students gaining practical experience to learn about moral conduct in the business environment. It suggests the inclusion of real-life scenarios in business ethics teaching could expose students to workplace dilemmas and encourage them to consider virtuous ways to resolve them, hence bringing their modes of reasoning about workplace dilemmas into line with those deemed most productive by experienced professionals.

Concluding remarks

 This report shows that, while there is increased interest in UK business and finance circles in a values-based agenda, a comprehensive virtue-based approach to business practice has not yet taken hold, either in theoretical business ethics or in general business discourse. This is particularly apparent among students of business and finance who do not seem to glean many new understandings of the role of virtuous practice in business during their undergraduate education. This study highlights ways in which shortcomings in the learning environments may limit business students’ development of core understandings needed for virtue literacy and virtue practice. It offers suggestions for improvement and will, hopefully, pave the way for a fuller discussion of issues that are likely to become increasingly topical in a world in which terms such as ‘responsible business’, ‘corporate social responsibility’, ‘sustainability’, and ‘ethical consumption’ are steadily gaining traction.

Professor Kristján Kristjánsson was the Principal Investigator on the project ‘Character Virtues in Business and Finance’. The research report was co-authored by James Arthur, Yan Huo and Francisco Moller. The full report can be viewed here.

New DfE Report on Developing Character Skills Acknowledges the Importance of a Moral Compass

It is gratifying for us working in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues to see how the newly-published Summary Report by the Department for Education on ‘Developing Character Skills in Schools’ (August, 2017) cites our work repeatedly as providing leading theoretical insights into character education in UK schools. Kudos for work well done is always to be welcomed and cherished. However, more important than any ‘symbolic capital’ or ‘impact evidence’ gained by this report is its substantive content, and how well it aligns with Jubilee Centre conceptualisations.

There has been a tendency in Whitehall and Westminster to understand ‘character’ and ‘character education’ quite narrowly and instrumentally – often modelling it on controversial US approaches that aim at ‘fixing individual kids’ by providing them with performative skills to enhance educational achievement and general ‘success’ in life. So while lip service has increasingly been paid in UK political circles to the development of the character of the whole child, it has been difficult to translate it into anything amounting the neo-Aristotelian emphasis highlighted by the Jubilee Centre on the intrinsic value of good character and how it cannot be untethered from the internalisation of moral virtues. Notably missing from previous DfE documents has also been any explicit conceptualisation of what ‘development’ means psychologically or educationally in the context of policies on the development of character skills.

It is, therefore, a cause for great relief to witness the new document’s careful outlining of what character education is, what it aims for, and how it can be enacted through policy and practice on the ground. Many of the designators chosen in this report will be music to the ears of neo-Aristotelian sympathisers. Talk of ‘well-rounded, grounded citizens’, their ideal ‘contribution to society’, and their ‘social and emotional’ as well as their performative skills takes us well beyond the narrow focus on grade attainment and employability that we have come to expect from official policy documents in the past. The crowning glory of this document is its insistence on the need to ‘instil pupils with a moral compass…in understanding and interacting with other people’. This is a leaf taken straight out of the Jubilee Centre book – but again it is not the provenance of the argument that matters but its substantive content. For anyone who thinks that character development is about more than just self-confidence, communication skills, grit and resilience, this focus on the need for a ‘moral compass’ will strike a chord. The aim of character education cannot just boil down to the need to cultivate the resilience of the repeat offender. We must ask not only what character is, but also what it is for.

The new report makes it abundantly clear that while the extrinsic benefits of character education for improving academic attainment and employability matter, what justifies such education in the end is the cultivation of traits that help children make a positive contribution to UK society by their flourishing both as individuals and as citizens.

While the report contains a lot of useful conceptualisations – ‘GPSs’ for educators and parents lost in the labyrinth of confusing terminologies – it also offers significant statistical data about school approaches to character education. On a positive note, 97% of UK schools surveyed seek to promote desirable character traits among their pupils. On a more negative note, perhaps, only 54% were familiar with the term ‘character education’. Command of terminology is not as important, however, as good intentions – and there seems to be no shortage of the latter in UK schools.

Given that almost half of schools are not familiar with the relevant core concepts and conceptualisations means that there is considerable work left to do for the Jubilee Centre and other promoters of character development – the flourishing of the whole child – in UK schools. However, the new report paves the way for significant progress in this area, driven by an explicit policy agenda that can now also be backed up by our new Framework, giving schools an easy access to the vocabulary needed to talk more productively about the goals that they already aspire to seek.

 

Kristján Kristjánsson is Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

Gender Differences in Ethical Dilemmas

Throughout the ages there have been debates about gender differences in ethical decision making, from Aristotle to Aquinas to Freud. These arguments generally centre on the different ways men and woman make judgments when faced with a moral dilemma.

Freud claims (1999, p. 237) that ‘in women the measure of what is ethically normal is different than in men. Their superego is never so unyielding, so impersonal, and as independent of its emotional sources as it is required from men’.

However, Carol Gilligan reversed that perspective and asked whether it is actually women that notice something that men cannot see. She claimed men think abstractedly, believe in logic and their own strength, whilst women think more instinctively and intuitively; that women concentrate less on understanding the laws and rules, and attempt to better understand the responsibility for others in certain specific conditions. Whereas men feel responsible for stopping aggression and the will to dominate, women take a more caring approach, which is related to the belief that ‘others are counting on you’.  The question of the moral and ethical subject leads us to the question of difference between the genders.

Therefore, one may concede that there is something that women cannot perceive or achieve; that there’s something that only men can see and attain. Recently gender studies have become a highly diversified branch of knowledge on the subject, or in other words, gender studies pose a different way of questioning the status quo of the knowledge. Hence these questions are philosophical, marked by criticism, reject the obvious, search for the foundations of the knowledge, and become an aversion to superstitions.

Taking into account these considerations, at the Jubilee Centre we have attempted to explore the differences in ethical dilemmas among female and male teachers, doctors, and lawyers by way of a second analysis – in a prior study of ‘Virtues and Values in the Professions’.

So how is this related to Character Education? The answer is simple. On the one hand, the more we understand about the relationship of gender on decision making in ethical dilemmas, the better chance we have to design interventions that improve ethical awareness among those professions in professional education – especially considering the key role that teachers, doctors and lawyers play in the progress of a society.

On the other hand, despite the importance of understanding its relevance in professional practice, there has not been enough research into virtue ethics thus far. It is obvious that in modern practice it is necessary to be more than just competent; one must prove one’s moral and ethical nature as well (The Jubilee Centre, 2016).

Ethical standards are a hallmark of those professions. An important question is what factors affect the ethical choices made by them. Past research suggests that factors such as gender, educational level, age, and work experience may be related to the development of a person’s ethical standards (Nikoomaram, et. al, 2013). Duncut claims (2007) that ethical reasoning and decisions are impacted by a person’s place of employment, work experience, demographic, characteristics of age, gender, and ethnicity. Furthermore, gender and age combined, can also have an effect on ethical decision making (Chiu, Spindel, 2010). Likewise, after controlling for cultural background – gender, age, and home/work influences were also found to be significant predictors of ethical behaviour and decisions (Perryer, Jordan, 2002).

We have also conducted our own investigations into the effects of gender on ethical decision-making; and asked participants to choose a course of action and provide reasons for their choice. The purpose of our analysis was not to evaluate who behaved more ethically; male or female, but to see if there were any differences in the process of resolving ethical dilemmas among representatives of the three analysed professions.

In our initial findings, we have discovered that our research supports the results of earlier studies, which signal that there are gender differences in ethical decision-making (eg. Tilley, 2010, Becker, Ulstad, 2007) and that males are more likely to break the rules than females (McCabe, et. al, 2006) particularly in the case of doctors and lawyers. Furthermore, we also found that female teachers prioritised the moral theories of character (virtue ethics) and consequences (utilitarian) over rules (deontological) when making a decision.

We hope that we will be able to present more findings soon, as this study works to better understand ethical decision making between the sexes across the three major professions.

Dr Marcin Gierczyk is a Teaching Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

The Head, the Heart and the Hand

In this vlog, Professor Thomas Lickona discusses the teaching of character education to children and the challenges that teachers face. Drawing on his own experiences, Professor Lickona uses the story of one troubled boy to illustrate how a service to others can have a positively transformative effect on the behaviour and outlook of young people.

Professor Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and Professor of Education at the State University of New York at Cortland. He currently directs the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) and is a frequent consultant to schools on character education.

Aggression and Morality in Adolescents

It is often claimed that the world in which we live is full of cruelty, ruthlessness and violence. Media reports on violence among students often paint a bleak picture of teachers and the school environment struggling to cope with manifestations of aggression among young people. It was such a news story, which reported on an incident in a school in Poland recently, which prompted me to examine and reflect on this topic. In the incident, two girls beat their schoolmate in front of other students outside the school building – interestingly, none of the students watching intervened, most observers cheered on the aggressive girls, whilst the rest filmed the violence on their phones. I deliberately use italics here to emphasise the point that acts of violent aggression, contrary to accepted views, are not solely restricted to the male domain. Nevertheless, the issue of aggression, from a gender perspective at least, is not the subject under discussion here.

Something I have discovered, through working at the Jubilee Centre, is that wilful aggression and lack of a moral compass can be associated with each other. Therefore, a question arises as to whether the girl’s behaviour in the media report can be traced to the absence of internalised moral norms that trigger aggression against another human being.

Aggression is in direct opposition to values such as building interpersonal relationships or respecting the natural right of everyone to self-determination. Interestingly, in recent years more attention has been devoted to examining the relationship between moral thinking and aggressive affirmation, raising the question of whether a link exists between a tendency towards aggressive behaviour and the level of moral development.

Today, there are many theories that attempt to explain aggressive behaviour. These can be reduced to three main theoretical assumptions:

  • The theory of instinct, which presents aggression as an innate behaviour, determined by the biological need to unleash aggressive energy.
  • The frustration-aggression theory, which maintains that all aggression is the result of frustration, and that all frustration is prone to aggression.
  • The social learning theory, which states that aggression is the result of learning through instrumental conditioning and modelling.

The social learning theory is very interesting. An important factor in the development of aggression  may be the amount of violence that children and young people are exposed to on television, which acts as a model of behaviour. Unfortunately, even in many cartoons aimed at young children, there is already more aggression than love, and the constant exposure of the child to acts of beating and killing, which are presented on television, may lead to an indifference towards human suffering and to moral distortion.

Moreover, in the case of aggressive young people, the problem may also lie within the family environment. For example, in one case, where parents were asked by the media as to why their child behaved in a particular way, they responded by giving them the ‘middle finger’. Such conduct is demonstrative of some parents’ attitude and lack of concern towards their child’s aggressive behaviour.

Returning again to the interesting relationship between morality and aggressive behaviour, it’s particularly noteworthy to mention those theories explaining aggression as a result of specific characteristics in the processing of social information – which is related to the development of moral thinking. It is believed that experiencing unfriendly relationships in the social and family environment during childhood may lead to the development of a perception of the world as hostile and threatening to the individual (Krahe, 2005), which, in turn, can lead to aggressive behaviour.  As Emma Palmer (2003) points out, moral reasoning can be one of the elements in which to understand aggressive behaviours, and a lack of moral understanding would surely contribute to a dam of ubiquitous aggression among the adolescent.

Reverting to  the previously-posed question about whether a lack of internalised moral norms may allow for aggression against another person, there is certainly evidence to support the claim that a link exists between the tendency for aggressive behaviour and the level of moral development. However, we do need to be cautious here; as Stanislaw Wojtowicz emphasises, ‘It is not always easy to distinguish situations in which morality makes us not choose aggression from the situations when we refrain from using it for economic reasons’.

Therefore, the world in which we live creates the need to provide moral backbone to young people through both formal and informal teaching. In other words, for educators to demonstrate and explain, through proper instruction and example, what is right and what is wrong. This does not mean that they must be experts on moral development, but through their well-methodically chosen methods of conduct, the student should be able to develop the ability to exercise certain attitudes and moral values. Moreover, the teacher should be competent in this vision of building and articulating an ethos in a school where confidence, respect and empathy are the key prerequisites for stimulating moral development. Moral development, in this perspective, constitutes the basic building block of human development, which is capable of counteracting wilful aggression. Moreover, in the Jubilee Centre we work on the Aristotelian assumption that the ideal moral development has to do with the cultivation of a virtuous character.

Krahe (2005) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ab.20070/full

Plamer (2003) http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0306624X05281907

Marcin Gierczyk is a Teaching Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Encouraging Virtuous Living Through Poetry

Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words
– Robert Frost

In this blog post, I wish to describe my proposed PhD project that I’m undertaking as of this coming autumn. I’d like to begin by briefly explaining the concept of character education, before describing the elements of poetry that are conducive to increasing virtue literacy. Finally, I’ll address, in light of my discussion, whether character education is something that can be taught or caught.

Character education is based on the ideal that certain qualities or character traits can, and should be, developed to a positive effect within the school system. The idea of character education is grounded on the theory that students can be assisted or guided into understanding and wanting to acquire such virtues. Building on the work already carried out by the Jubilee Centre, my PhD research will look to develop interventions in schools that enable teachers to build on the qualities or virtues in question, in their own teaching.

The focus of my forthcoming PhD research is centred on character education through literature. Using stories and narratives as a conduit for teaching virtue literacy is not a new thing. The Knightly Virtues project carried out by the Jubilee Centre successfully utilised classic stories about knights and the chivalric code, in order to increase virtue literacy in 9 to 11 year olds, particularly around the virtues of gratitude, self-discipline, love, service, humility, courage and justice.  Where my research departs from this, however, is that it will take a starting point in poetry.

The students will be taught poetry as (A) a craft, (B) an art, and most importantly (C) as a source of moral reflection. This will entail reading and writing poetry, as well as philosophical discussion and contemplation, which I intend to carry out in the following manner:

1. The students will be given creative writing exercises. The purpose of this is twofold. They will learn to experience the creative aspect of poetry and to trust themselves as having a poetic voice.

2. The students will learn to trust the group when they address poetry in an intersubjective environment, both by opening up themselves to others and by welcoming the poetic voice expressed by others. For instance, when a poem is read aloud, the teacher can ask each student to write down one word on a piece of paper, to express what emotion they might be feeling after hearing the poem. The teacher then writes everything on the whiteboard and, if appropriate, asks some of the students to elaborate on their chosen word. This can be a source for philosophical discussions. It’s also appropriate to read song lyrics, watch music videos, anything that the students can relate with (maybe watch a film like Dead Poets Society, for instance, if the age group is suitable).

3. The students will engage in philosophical discussions about what they read and write. The aim of this is to understand and express the subject matter of the poem in moral or philosophical terms. This will provide the students with a tool for critical thinking.

The elements of poetry that are conducive to increasing virtue literacy, to name a few, are:

  • it induces the imagination, which, in turn, awakens the moral imagination
  • it fosters ethical reflection, helping students to develop the cognitive side of their character
  • it provides the students with a tool for recognising and acknowledging their feelings and emotions
  • it gives the students an effective technique in measuring the aforementioned emotions against ethical concepts, vices and virtues, etc.

Although stories can trigger similar effects, poetry has a unique capacity to unify the pupils’ perspectives and experiences through symbols or language. When engaged with poetry, one enters a region of thought and emotions. When applied to an intellectual process in the face of whatever emotions it may stir, a poem can teach one something about oneself.

My proposed PhD project ultimately seeks to encourage virtuous living through the use of poetry but it does beg one final question; can character education be caught or taught? In reference to what I’ve said and how I view the study of poetry, I’d say that character education through poetry is first and foremost a very rich and creative way for students to connect with, and make sense of their emotions. But, as I’ve described, it helps if this takes place within a group of trust, and, of course, with constructive guidance. In other words, character education can, and should, be taught. But it is also caught, so to speak, by youngsters when their elders, be it their teachers, parents or role-models, set a good example.

Kristian Guttesen is a teacher, about to begin his PhD studies in the Jubilee Centre on poetry and character education.

Telling Stories: Using Cinema for Character Education Part I

The art of cinema is the art of telling stories. For thousands of years we have used the persuasive power of stories to build cultures, imbed morals and to understand what it is to be human. From Jesus’ parables to Grimm’s fairy tales, stories resonate with us on a far deeper level than rhetoric.

Today, stories have become a central part of character education and there is a long-standing tradition of regarding literature as conducive to the teaching of character. Research by the Jubilee Centre in our Knightly Virtues project has already demonstrated the positive effects on virtue literacy that adapted stories from classical literature can have, in terms of helping educate Key Stage 2 pupils about the qualities of virtuous character. The Centre is also investigating how poetry can also be used in similar ways with Key Stage 3 pupils and an affiliated PhD student is beginning to look at the character-cultivating properties of painting and sculpture.

As a self-confessed cinephile, I would argue that cinema, and in particular popular Hollywood cinema, also deserves further consideration as a conduit for teaching character. Cinema is now our primary medium for storytelling and in our digital age our access to films has never been greater.  Using film as an aid for teaching character is not a new idea and resources are available, however, more light could be shone on this, particularly into the effectiveness of using film for improving virtue literacy. Whilst there is no denying that Hollywood film is produced primarily for the purpose of mass entertainment, I would assert that  a close reading of many popular films, particularly when done so through a character education lens, can show that cinema has a greater capacity for moral self-reflection and critique than one might imagine. If students are taught the methods in which to critically evaluate and reflect on the nature of virtuous character, then popular cinema can be edifying as well as entertaining.

As the dominant visual culture, cinema is incredibly persuasive. Film theorists have long understood films to be socially constructed, ideologically driven, coded texts. Over the course of the last hundred years cinema has helped reinforce prevailing cultural norms and legitimised dominant institutions and social values such as patriarchy, capitalism and class. Equally of course, cinema has also been used to critique those existing structures.

Whilst mainstream cinema is ideological and therefore unavoidably political, research has shown that like other narrative forms it is also psychologically transportive. By this I mean the process through which the reader (or spectator in this case) is emotionally immersed into the world of the narrative to such an extent that their beliefs and attitudes are changed. An engrossing story has the potential to temporarily remove us from the reality of the physical world and takes us into the fictional world of the story. A consequence of this, according to research, means that narrative transportation is likely to create strong feelings towards story characters; the experience or beliefs of those characters may then have an enhanced influence on the reader’s beliefs.

Processing films this way means that the stories we watch in the cinema have the power to connect with us and possibly change our beliefs in a far greater way than any other narrative form. This may be because cinema is a great communicator, it is fast, effortless and absorbing in a way that the written word just can’t be or indeed need be. Cinema has the capability to mirror the forms of people’s lives, or at least the form needed for us to find those lives meaningful in a context that is familiar and that we understand. Even the struggles and dilemmas of anthropomorphised creatures in animated films become identifiable with our own experiences, even when they don’t necessarily match our everyday existence.

Like the great authors, the skillful filmmaker has the power to create the kind of quality stories and compelling and believable characters that can move us, shape our perceptions and make us think differently about the world.

This emotional investment has great implications for character education. It is important that we continue to explore new methods in which to help young people develop moral values and a sense of civic responsibility, and cinema offers a wonderful opportunity to observe and discuss moral dilemmas in interesting and engaging ways that are easily relatable.

There is no shortage of appropriate films for a younger audience that embody and reinforce virtuous themes such as courage, honesty and temperance through characterisation and plot. In the Disney film Frozen, for example, the actions of the central character Elsa, and her decision to ostracise herself from the community so that she is free to wield her powers, has severe implications for the people of her kingdom. It is not until she learns self-control over her powers that she finds happiness and the world is put right again. In the forthcoming second part of this blog I would like to provide further specific examples of how such character virtues are transposed in popular films.

By using films to encourage discussion around moral dilemmas, we can provide young people with unique and exciting opportunities for intellectual and moral growth. Cinema provides us with an invaluable opportunity to see the world differently through the eyes of the film protagonist. The kind of problems or difficult situations they face, the values they demonstrate, and the actions they take show us how human character reveals itself in recognisable contexts, which in turn invites us to ask questions about what sort of person we ourselves might aspire to be …even if the protagonist we identify with is a talking toy or a princess with magical powers.

Mathew Butcher, Communications and Web Officer, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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