Character and Curriculum

Ian Bauckham is CEO at Tenax Schools Trust 

What is the purpose of education? This is a question which every generation asks itself, and indeed it is being asked anew in our own generation.  Collectively, we are reaching an understanding that getting grades cannot be the sole or even overriding purpose of spending 12 or 13 years in school, if not supported by an understanding that education is a personal and social good in and of itself.  The knowledge pupils master in the years before they take their exams is rightly again the focus of much of our thinking: how it is selected, and by what means it is mediated.

And yet, the kind of people our students will become, their personal and moral qualities, remains a topic of crucial importance, perhaps even more so now that we have understood that it is not just the certificates that matter.  Ask any employer: for sure, they want knowledge and skills, in particular the ability to communicate well in speech and writing, and some knowledge of mathematics.  And qualifications certainly open doors.  But many employers will tell you also that the personal qualities applicants bring to the team count as much as their knowledge and technical expertise. Will they be able to work as part of the team? Will they persist with difficult challenges, or will they panic at the first hurdle? Will they earn the trust and respect of their colleagues? Will they be loyal to their employer?

So how do schools rigorously pursue a knowledge curriculum, and at the same time cultivate the character qualities which are needed not only for successful employment but also, even more importantly, for a fulfilled life?  It is very easy to see this as a kind of dichotomy which sorts the liberals from the conservatives: the liberal left lines up behind the education of the whole person, while the hard right aligns itself with a drily knowledge based curriculum.

This, however, would be a damaging and misleading simplification.  The reality is that the two are inseparable.  Let’s reflect for a moment on the ways in which that interdependence works.  I think there are at least two important observations to make.

Firstly, the character agenda is obviously connected with the co-curriculum, those wider activities and opportunities which schools offer beyond taught lessons.  Just as the mediation of cultural capital is a driver for the academic curriculum, so these wider opportunities can themselves be places where powerful knowledge is mediated and which have a levelling up effect for those who bring least capital to the table.  How many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds will have planned and been on a country walk, using maps, clambering over stiles, and appreciating the countryside around them? How many will have been taught to play rugby or cricket, taken to a match, and given the knowledge to talk confidently about what is going on?  How many will have learnt a musical instrument, properly taught music theory, and become familiar with the classical canon? This is all part of the secret social code that needs to be broken for pupils who are not born into advantage, and schools need to be the code crackers.  This is done most effectively when the selection of co-curricular activities is done with as much care as the selection of curricular content, and when the activities are expertly led, with clear aims, over time, so that participation is sustained and participants grow in fluency and confidence in the activity in question.

Secondly, character is also taught within the academic curriculum itself.  I don’t mean simply through the choice of content, though it can happen there. For example, I can tell pupils about specific character qualities and illustrate how they contributed to the lives of historical or fictional personages in history or English.  Actually, though, character development happens most powerfully when the curriculum itself is organised and taught in such a way as deliberately to develop pupils’ justified belief in their own abilities. The beauty of this is that it works in any subject, because every subject has content to organise and sequence.

For some readers, this may seem a little counterintuitive.  Surely it must be the case, they might say, that pupil-led collaborative project work, which is not hemmed in by outdated subject boundaries, is most likely to build the sort of character, resilience and interpersonal skills our young people need for the 21stcentury?  Except, of course, that desirable outcomes do not necessarily resemble the means of their nurture.  In fact, it turns out that rather than rehearsing the outcomes we want to achieve, we are better off breaking them down into their constituent parts and teaching and practising those building blocks of knowledge and expertise deliberately and sequentially.  The curriculum taught this way may look less like the desired end point, but in fact pupils will achieve that end point far more quickly and reliably.  Not only that, but this approach is far more likely to work for those who have very little pre-existing knowledge or expertise. And, importantly for our purpose, it builds a sense of self belief, self efficacy and academic resilience which pupil-directed, discovery-led, loosely selected and sequenced approaches cannot get near.  Pupils become conscious learners, because when they look back they can see the planned trajectory of learning they have been on and their growing knowledge and ability to apply it.  Thus they are far better disposed to overcome obstacles along the way and keep going towards their goal.

This is how the academic curriculum and teaching for character are connected.  Too often we have seen educators trying to justify extra-curricular activities on the basis of their impact on exam outcomes.  ‘Since we introduced D of E we have seen maths grades rise by 5%.’  Not only is there almost no hard evidence in research for this kind of direct impact, it also crassly instrumentalises character education, as if it were only justifiable if it can be measured in exam scores.  Actually, well planned co-curricular education is valuable for participants in and of itself.  And if the chain of causality does not work from character education to academic education, it certainly works the other way around: a well planned knowledge based curriculum which identifies component parts and sequences them towards a coherent whole, and which is well taught, certainly builds self efficacy, and ultimately gives pupils a huge boost in the sort of resilience we want them to have both for their lives and for their role in society.