Character education: A Caterpillar Process

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
Photo: iStock

Continuing his new series of articles on character education, expert Matt Bawden discusses a method by which teachers might develop effective character-based resources for their subjects

“Pop! Out of the egg came a tiny and very hungry caterpillar.” The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle

In my first article in this new series (Introducing virtue, SecEd 428, November 5, 2015), I explained a little about the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and how we see character, and character education.

This time, I want to look back on the first stages of our Department for Education-funded project Teaching Character Through and Within the Curriculum.

Back in July we ran an introductory course for 29 participating teachers from around England. The project will lead to the creation of a suite of lessons actively promoting character development through 14 curriculum areas.

Once we set out the objectives of the project and defined character and character education, Ian Morris, then on sabbatical at the Jubilee Centre from Wellington College in Berkshire, explained the method by which teachers might develop effective character education materials.

Ian developed this method with the Jubilee Centre and called it The Caterpillar Process, after the work of Eric Carle.

That day we asked the teachers to develop a broad overview of a series of subject-based character education lessons utilising this Caterpillar Process. We offered a template and guidance, encouraged thinking outside of boxes, placed them in mixed subject groups and asked for feedback later in the day.

The focus was on the process and character more than their subjects. We were not disappointed: their ideas were innovative and exciting, included a range of pedagogy, subject themes, and approaches to virtue.

Below I explain how this process works in a little more detail.

Step 1: Stop

This involves having the self-control and discipline to pause to assess the situations we find ourselves in. It marks a shift from being carried along by emotions and situations to making deliberate choices.

Each of us is used to planning excellent lessons, schemes of work, and interpreting subject specifications. We may also feel familiar with some of the terminology of virtue. It is therefore easy for us to plough on and make subject lessons we think reflect this or that virtue.

Only when we stop and pause do we let the world catch up and make the most of Step 2 (Notice). This is also true for our students. They need time to pause to make the most of our lessons. Similarly they need time to clear their heads of previous misconceptions relating to the elements of character that the teacher is about to explore.

Step 2: Notice

This involves being aware of the events that take place both in the world around us and also in our own interior landscapes. It demands that we always strive to gather as much information as possible to help us to decide well.

This second step occurs almost concurrently with Step 3 (Look), but it is important it happens first. It can take discipline but means we see what is happening in situations and take note of all relevant information before we proceed.

When our teachers began planning there were one or two who missed opportunities because they took obvious routes. Some virtues leap out as linked to certain subjects and make sense in that context; many of the students we have approached in schools across England linked curiosity to science, and creativity to art.

However there may be less obvious, but better, opportunities that take time to notice. One of the most interesting ideas, generated by design and technology teacher Wendy Bullen (Holy Family RC and CE College), likened the Caterpillar Process to the way a designer develops new concepts.

Step 3: Look

This involves paying attention to our own emotions and the emotions of others. Our emotions provide us with information about what we perceive in situations and also what others perceive.

Often what we notice depends on how we feel. Sometimes this is a good thing: our emotions warn us how others might feel with our course of action. At other times our emotions cloud our judgement and cause us to ignore, or look past, a better course.

As teachers this can be true of the whole character education field. There will always be some who look on character education as indoctrination and will never be dissuaded.

For them emotions will always narrow their view and prevent them from noticing the modern, academically grounded, open, character education as shown on this project.

Step 4: Listen

This involves examining our motivations for acting: the reasons why we are doing what we are doing and the reasons that other people give for their actions. It involves being critical and adjusting our motivations and feelings so that we might do what is good.

Having paused and noticed, taken stock of our emotions and the emotional investment of others, we can now listen for the impact such things have. Often our motivations are tied up with the implicit triggers coming from our different environments and personal backgrounds.

Here we become our own critical friends. Stepping back provides perspective previously unavailable to us. Jose Garcia encouraged these early stages of the process in a series of geography lessons exploring the virtues employed through arguments for/against urban development trialled at Penistone Grammar School.

Step 5: Caterpillar

In The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the colours of the foods eaten by the caterpillar appear on its wings as a butterfly. In a similar way, our thoughts, speech and actions become our habits and form our character. This part of the process requires the learner to think about the person they are becoming and how their thoughts, speech and actions contribute to that.

The final stage is about more than change. Change can be reversed; change can be fleeting and temporary.

Here the goal is transformation and it can be quick or take forever. An awareness of how each stage has led to the present will inform how the future unfolds.

Character education seeks to introduce lasting transformation to enable flourishing. This is not straightforward, especially as the aim is also to avoid indoctrination. It would be so easy to say the student needs to be this or that, but this is to remove a key element of personal freedom.

Instead the character education materials open doors, showing how the qualities of mind and character, phronesis (good sense), and emotional understanding relate to core aspects of what it is to be a geographer, scientist, artist etc.

Susanna Dyer (Woodrush High School) created some excellent music materials to help the students reflect on their transformation. Here the students keep records of their engagement with the virtues to review in their final lesson. We, at the Jubilee Centre, do the same as we encourage reflection at each stage of the process.

In my next article for SecEd, I will explore how we monitor and assure quality in character education across the DfE project and more widely. In the meantime do explore our website and then, perhaps, contact us with any questions.

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

Further information

A Framework for Character Education in Schools is available from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at

Character education best practice

The next article in this series will publish in early January, to read the first article and for SecEd’s other best practice articles relating to character education, visit


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