Character versus Knowledge? What is the purpose of education? Knowledge reigns supreme, and yet…

Character versus Knowledge? What is the purpose of education?

Knowledge reigns supreme, and yet…

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a fascinating conference entitled ‘Character vs Knowledge? What is the purpose of education?’ Summer Turner, Carl Hendrik, Heather Fearn, David Weston, Andrew Old, Martin Robinson, Ty Goddard, Sam Twisleton, Katie Ashford, David Perks, Marcelo Staricoff, Dennis Hayes, Louise Johns-Shepherd, John Blake, Jill Berry – a stellar line up of the great and good from the worlds of teaching, teacher education, academe, educational consultancy, educational advocacy, lobbying, blogging, tweeting, commenting; to say nothing of the luminaries in the audience.

I should lay my cards on the table – I have spent the last 30 years learning and teaching the languages, the art, the architecture, the history, the literature, the culture of the Greeks and the Romans. This has been and remains my passion. It is my belief that it is just as worthwhile for the students of today as it has ever been to know about the classical world. Not because this knowledge will enable students to obtain better jobs (though it may well!) nor because it will in some way enhance their characters or make them better citizens (though it may well!). This knowledge has intrinsic value for its own sake. Currently, I teach at a progressive school – there is no uniform, teachers and students call each other by their first names, we are avowedly ‘child-centred’. I don’t know where this places me on the progressive/traditional spectrum – am I a progressive traditionalist or a traditional progressive?

Back to the conference – as ever on these occasions I was somewhat dazzled by the depth and breadth of the reading and knowledge displayed by the speakers and panellists. I offer my thoughts with all the humility due of a novice in these matters!

Explicit attempts to teach character in the same way we teach Mathematics, English or History are highly problematic in that they are potentially reductive, simplistic, often based on the latest ‘cargo cult’ and there is little or no evidence of their effectiveness. Such programs use up valuable curriculum time and ask teachers to perform tasks for which they have often had inadequate or no training. There is a danger that teachers and schools will be held accountable for ‘character development’ in the same way as they are held accountable for GCSE grades in English and Maths. The ‘law of unintended consequences’ can come into play, with worrying effects – e.g. current thinking seems to be that teaching children about the dangers of self-harm may in fact encourage some to explore and adopt this behaviour. In my own school days, compulsory sport far from teaching me grit or resilience, taught me to be subversive and devious. The factors that influence character are myriad, complex, incompletely understood and often completely out of the control of teachers or schools.

And yet, and yet…

Education until 17 is compulsory and this education takes place in institutions. Attending school is not a neutral experience – either inside the classroom or outside of timetabled lessons. We inevitably teach character traits and impact character development through the experience we give children of being at school, positive or negative. The primary responsibility of schools may be to enable children to leave with qualifications that will offer the broadest range of options and choices for them after they leave school. However, while we have children in our care, do we not also have a responsibility to provide them with as many opportunities as possible in as many ways as possible to discover who they are as human beings and to learn the character traits that will give them an opportunity to survive and thrive and contribute to our society. Is this not part of the reason why the state insists on compulsory education? Isn’t this part of the ‘social contract’ we have all signed up to. In the maintained sector and certainly in the independent sector schools advertise themselves to prospective parents on the basis of the character with which they claim they will imbue children and have always done so. It seems only right that this is done in an explicit, transparent, coherent and evidence informed manner. If Aristotle is right when he says ‘…we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts…’ – we should look at what opportunities we provide for children to act out the character traits we want them to develop. Of course, those opportunities will have a greater or lesser impact on an individual basis. After all, Aristotle tutored Alexander the Great and look how he turned out! Similarly, as teachers we need to be aware of the importance of modelling – do we demonstrate the behaviours, character traits we want our students to develop? Also, in my view, the relationship between teachers and their students can be hugely significant in their motivation, in the quality of their experience of being at school, in their well being and in their ‘character’ learning. I speak simply from my own experience and observation. It is impossible to legislate or predict where those significant relationships will develop – it may be with a Form Tutor, a Maths Teacher, a football coach, the director of a play or the dinner lady or no one at school. Schools can’t make these relationships happen but they can create opportunities for them to happen. Martin Robinson noted the need to be wary of turning schools into ‘orphanages for children with parents’, Dennis Hayes has written about the dangers of ‘therapeutic education’ and I agree with both.

So in conclusion, I have no answers but I do believe that we are right to continue to explore, investigate and question character education. To paraphrase Martin Luther King – perhaps the goal of true education is neither knowledge nor character but knowledge and character – each requiring the other at least to some degree but each having its own intrinsic value.

Huge thanks to the fabulous speakers and to the marvellous hosts – The East London Science School and The Education Foundation.