Embedding character in the curriculum

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
Photo: MA Education

As we near the publication of new, government-backed character education resources, Matt Bawden pulls together the broader themes to have emerged from the work that has gone into their creation

In my SecEd article next month (April 21), I hope to be taking you through the Teaching Character Through the Curriculum project that the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues has developed for the Department for Education.

We are now close to reporting our findings and have developed a guide as well as resources to help teachers create their own materials around character education for the classroom.

These resources cover 14 curriculum areas at secondary level and are adaptable both in terms of ability and age group. They have involved a lot of expert subject specialists from around England, have been trialled and evaluated until we are now confident they offer something really inspiring for any school and teachers of all subjects, anywhere.

So, in anticipation of this, I will draw upon here some of the broad themes from this project and show how character education is increasingly relevant in our classrooms.

As a teacher, I have long felt I am there to do more than impart an understanding of my subject area. I can remember being interviewed for my first post and the headteacher wanting to know what else I could bring to the life of the school. I remember being more than a little flummoxed by the question – naïvely thinking a love of learning was all that was required and panicking a little about organising sports teams or clubs in my first placement.

In fact the headteacher was more than happy to hear how I wanted to enthuse my students, and to show them how my subject might help them flourish in the wider world. A student who enjoys finding out about the finer elements of one topic might learn to feel the same in other areas, and to eventually make such inquisitiveness a habit. Really this must be the purpose of education, to enable our young people to flourish, to involve elements of education beyond knowledge and understanding, and to dwell on the development of the person and their character.

Intellectual qualities such as the curiosity and focus needed to develop inquisitiveness mattered as much then as they do today. Every teacher strives to develop these in their students, seeking to engender a love of learning and a sense of subject purpose in their students whether aged four or 14.

Back then, as now, performance qualities mattered too. I have lost count of the number of resilience assemblies I have experienced, or the amount of advice I have heard given to trembling year 6 and 11 students as they approach their milestone exams.

We also stress perseverance and drive, motivation and ambition perhaps not so much to make our students better able to pass exams, but more to help them raise their own children well, find jobs that make them happy, and create ways they can give back to the community. Such a desire is often a reflection of our wish for students to have a sense of community and neighbourliness.

It is perhaps in the area of moral qualities where schools most need to recognise their affective role. All too often they can be assumed in school life and become less consciously focused upon either in the school’s policies or even wider political rhetoric.

We may always have been great at instilling the sorts of qualities mentioned above, yet more recently schools have needed to develop an enhanced familial role to pastorally offer and develop such things as tolerance, respect, integrity and honesty.

So much of this happens in wider school life already, but we have found in our Teaching Character Through the Curriculum project that these are also strongly visible in subjects as diverse as mathematics, art, PE and English.

The moral domain often helps us to moderate the effects of other qualities; it helps both students and teachers to use their creativity, curiosity, resilience, and tolerance in ways that benefit others, rather than cause harm.

It would, after all, be terrible to create whole generations of resilient megalomaniacs, or conscientious murderers. The honest and respectful 14-year-old is the ambition and there is evidence to show resources such as those in the Teaching Character Through the Curriculum project help.

In a way, this is what one of our teachers, Chris Drake, from Sir Winston Churchill School in Woking, meant went he spoke about making some of his harder classes a pleasure to teach. He found that by asking students to think about leadership, community spirit and neighbourliness that they settled quicker and applied themselves to their work quite readily and in very focused fashion. By the end of the trial period they were even reporting that they had taken these qualities on into their other lessons. They said they appreciated the contribution the subject was making to their lives.

Over the course of the project we found different subjects gravitated to different qualities. Some saw their subject as a method for delivering focused work on a particular quality, others that their subject might be better served by stressing the need for a quality in order to produce excellent classwork.

Many made the qualities link so seamlessly to their area it became impossible to tell where the subject finished and character education began. As one of our expert mathematics teachers, Chris McGraw, from Aldercar High School in Nottingham, said: “Really this is just good teaching, it’s what we have always done, we are just bringing it out.”

Indeed character education, at its best, is exactly this, it is what we have always done. Good teachers have always sought to develop good students.

The Caterpillar Process, which I outlined in an earlier article (Character education: A Caterpillar Process, SecEd, November 2015: http://bit.ly/1RsJ110), is one method for making what we have always done more explicit, offering a sense of direction, and ensuring we offer opportunities for young people to develop their character in a structured manner.

Many of the resources we will publish in April use this process either in the background or as a clear feature of their materials. Each of our expert subject teachers has created a series of lessons to help bring out two, three or even four qualities. Some have seen the process as a reflection of their own subject – two that will be worth looking out for are in science and design technology. Others keep the process more in the background and use it as a framework for developing their subject content, perhaps the history and languages resources best sum this up.

We are currently completing the evaluation of our findings and next month’s article will explore character education, and our project in particular, in relation to three evaluative questions.

The first centres on the need for any approach to be flexible enough for teachers and schools anywhere to use it. The second that the materials should be intelligible for the students. Finally that there must be the potential for impact on whole-school priorities.

As a centre, we do not see character education as instrumental, in that we are not aiming to instil character to alter attainment or employability. However, as Professor Kristján Kristjánsson explained when our project began, “when the main value (is) seen as lying in the intrinsic value of the virtues for the flourishing life of which they are constitutive” then “behaviour and grades will also improve”.

I am looking forward to outlining our findings in my next SecEd article, due out on April 21, and will happily respond, where I can, to any questions you may have.

It is certainly worth keeping an open eye to the press in the next month or so as many organisations will also be reporting their own work on projects to help young people develop their character.

  • Matt Bawden is teacher-in-residence at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham. Visit www.jubileecentre.ac.uk

Further information

A Framework for Character Education in Schools is available from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at http://bit.ly/1MrLgEj

Character education series

Matt Bawden’s next article will be out in April. To read previous articles in this series and for SecEd’s other best practice articles relating to character education, visit http://bit.ly/1OvQtqv


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