‘Character education’ is currently being offered as the latest panacea to Britain’s persistent education gap. Ruth Powley explores the debates and research, offering tips and calling for a focus instead on academic buoyancy.
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Ruth Powley and published with kind permission.
The original post can be found here.
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‘Character education’ is currently being offered as the latest panacea to Britain’s persistent education gap (see here).
7 Key Truths about Social Mobility published by an all-party parliamentary group, argues that, “personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link… social and emotional ‘skills’ underpin academic and other success – and can be taught”.
Their Character and Resilience Manifesto emphasises the part that, “Character and Resilience can play in narrowing the unacceptably wide gap in life chances between children from different backgrounds…We know that permanently closing the opportunity gap… will require more than raising test scores… A child will not benefit from ‘academic’ learning unless they are in a position to be able to access this learning and [this]…is directly linked to a base of skills including motivation, curiosity, conscientiousness and application to task. Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that so-called ‘soft’ skills may often be as closely associated with levels of educational attainment as IQ scores.”
Similarly, journalist Paul Tough argues in How Children Succeed that, “character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.”
Are they right?
Grit makes PART of the difference…
Dweck states here: “It’s not either-or. It’s not nature or nurture, genes or environment…. People may start with different temperaments and different aptitudes, but it is clear that experience, training and personal effort take them the rest of the way”.
Duckworth et al. found in Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals that, “achievement of difficult goals entails not only talent but also the sustained and focused application of talent over time.” They found that, “grit accounted for an average of 4% of the variance in success outcomes, including educational attainment… our suspicion is that grit, like IQ, is of ubiquitous importance in all endeavors in which success requires months or even years of sustained effort and interest. To the extent that the temptation to give up is greater for individuals of modest ability, grit may matter more, not less.”
Research here on self-regulation found that, “a number of effects were specific to high-poverty schools, suggesting that a focus on… self-regulation in early elementary education holds promise for closing the achievement gap.”
However, Disappointed Idealist warns here against the reductionism of: ‘talent = hard work + persistence’ and the risk of Dweck’s research “metamorphosing…into a vacuous slogan.” Duckworth et al. point out that, “IQ may account for up to one third of the variance in some measures of success”, while Hirsch’s research here places the impact of non-cognitive skills below general knowledge and fine motor skills.
Similarly, research reported here found that the impact of practice on high-level ability was limited: Practice time, “had almost nothing to do with ability in academic classes… Although the authors wrote that they could not yet be sure what other factors contribute to high-level ability besides practice, they thought natural talent, general intelligence and working memory most likely play important roles.”
There is a socio-economic element…
The Character Factor, assessing ‘drive’ and ‘prudence’ found, “family income and maternal education are positively associated with higher levels of performance character strengths.”
American educator, Larry Ferlazzo, expresses concern here about a “Let Them Eat Character” strategy that underplays the extent to which poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity.
However, as David Didau argues here, “Of course we are constrained by our backgrounds and the circumstances of our birth… But do we also need to be constrained by our beliefs of what is and isn’t possible?”
‘Character’ lessons don’t work…
- Research here “did not yield evidence that … Social and Character Development Programmes… improved students’ social and character development.”
- DFE research here did not assess the impact of military ethos alternative provision on pupil attainment.
- Research here found that: “There is little evidence that working directly on changing students’ grit or perseverance would be an effective lever for improving their academic performance …[compared to] attention to academic mind-sets and development of students’ metacognitive and self-regulatory skills.”
- What Makes Great Teaching criticises addressing issues of confidence and low aspiration before teaching content: “evidence shows that attempts to enhance motivation in this way are unlikely to achieve that end. Even if they do, the impact on subsequent learning is close to zero… the poor motivation of low attainers is a logical response to repeated failure. Start getting them to succeed and their motivation and confidence should increase
Focus instead on academic buoyancy
Marc Smith here identifies four strategies:
- Develop students’ positive Academic Self Concept: this is domain rather than trait specific. ASC can vary across subjects based on past learning experiences.
- Improve students’ emotional regulation so they reframe failure positively.
- Believe that intelligence is malleable.
- Set growth goals focused on ‘better than last time.’
He suggests: “it’s less about teaching resilience and more about encouraging those factors that allow resilience to flourish.”
This benefits both sexes. Kenny-Benson suggests here that girls succeed over boys in school because they self-regulate better, however boys are more performance-oriented: “The testing situation may underestimate girls’ abilities, but the classroom may underestimate boys’ abilities.”
37 ideas to grow ‘gritty’ learners
1. Give students a sense of value for and belonging to the learning community
Don’t dismiss academic learning as “boring stuff.”
“People enjoy mental work if it is successful. If schoolwork is always just a bit too difficult for a student, it should be no surprise that she doesn’t like school much.” Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students like school?
Martin Robinson criticises “ersatz character lessons” here. He suggests here: “The best way of developing and celebrating character? …Teach them stuff of importance and value, the best that has been thought, said and done, give them time to question it, think it, argue it, debate it, agree or disagree about what is ‘the best’. Allow them time to develop enthusiasms, to enthuse… Help them to express articulately and beautifully… in ways that allow them to experience the feelings of creating excellence… support them to the highest so that they feel able to add to the best that has been thought, said and done.”
- Use big questions to promote curiosity @andywarner78
- Make it Stick: Ideas on memorable explanation from Chip and Dan Heath here and here
- Plan ‘sticky’ lessons @mrocallaghan_edu
- Get students to enjoy knowledge @Improving Teaching
- Help students to choose academic success @Mr Thomas’ Blog
- Mindset students to succeed @Improving Teaching
2. Create a climate that values grit
Research here finds “clear… evidence that students’ mindsets have strong effects on their demonstration of perseverant behaviours… When students value the work they are doing,feel a sense of belonging in the classroom context in which they are working, feel capable of succeeding,and believe they will master challenging material with effort, they are much more likely to engage in difficult work and see it through to completion.”
However, research here warns against positivity without action: “positive fantasies predict poor achievement… because they do not generate energy to pursue the desired future.” Similarly, research here found that positive emotions foster academic achievement only when mediated by self-regulated learning and motivation.
- Limits Assembly @Teaching: Leading Learning
- Develop growth mindset teaching @Class Teaching
- Build habits of self-discipline @Pragmatic Education
- Encourage students to develop their work ethic @Making Our Best Better
- Create a growth mind-set school @HuntingEnglish
- Value students’ work @Reflecting English
- Use school display effectively @Pragmatic Education
- Mindset Stars @Meols Cop High School
3. Use gritty language
As Shaun Allison says here, “Posters, assemblies and pictures are fine – but the way we will really make a difference to our students, in terms of developing their mindset, is the way we interact with them on a day to day basis – in particular, in the things we say to them.”
Carol Dweck’s research found that students given effort-based praise, rather than intelligence-based praise were more resilient.
4. Teach students how to fail with grit
James Theo writes here that, “Rather than run away and hide from anxiety, it is my belief that we should embrace it, understand it and manage it as a vital element of learning… Pupils should find things difficult if they want to learn. For something synonymous with creativity and caution, ‘anxiety’ seems a rather pejorative term for what is essentially learning.”
Research reported here suggests that making errors (and then getting feedback) is a better way to retain conceptual information, whilst research here shows that lack of confidence can improve performance: “testing reduced students’ confidence even while aiding their performance.”
- You can learn anything presentation @Khan Academy
- 20 Ideas on failing to succeed @Love Learning Ideas
For further reading into the dangers of character education Evidence into Practice
What gritty learning looks like…
Thanks to John Tomsett here