A School For Tomorrow


The call to character is best answered through the expression of a framework for education: We believe that the best starting point for embedding the desired culture of a school of character within everything that it is and does should be this notion of a framework for education.

This set of fundamental educational documents should be based on a structure of guiding questions and concepts that integrate the knowledge, skills, character, and learning habits required for an authentic 21C education for character into a series of specific competencies and overarching meta-competencies that should influence, inform and instruct the whole learning activity of a school. In seeking to embed such a framework of thinking behind contemporary and future education for our young people, schools should first seek to create the leadership and governance that both understand and nurture the challenge of constructing a compelling narrative that links yesterday to today to tomorrow. This can position them to construct systems and processes that develop the capability of people to derive educational solutions based on predicted future needs for the education of our children. Only then will they be best placed to address the learning at the ‘chalkface’, and, therefore, to build cultures of excellence in learning in communities of inquiry and practice that balance evidence with wisdom in creating better character education.

It was an atypical English midsummer day. To start with, the sun was shining and London was reeling from that strange type of heat that feels like it’s in the high 90s, when it’s really only in the low 70s on the Fahrenheit scale. The educators gathered at the City of London School in July of 2011 had just been treated to a highly entertaining speech by an English politician who had ridden onto the stage on a push-bike and delivered a rapid-fire collation of opinions, bon mots, witticisms, and provocations about the role of values and character, amongst other things (including the importance of the classics), in the education of boys.

As the attendees moved onto the luncheon area to chat amongst themselves, we lingered in the foyer area over some mediocre coffee and started musing over what we had just heard. Brad Adams was at that stage the Executive Director of the International Boys’ Schools Coalition, a collection of hundreds of schools for boys from all over the world who gathered together regularly in a community of practice and discourse to investigate and advocate for the best outcomes in boys’ education. Phil Cummins had recently acquired Creative School Management, a leading educational consulting firm based in Australia, and was beginning the process of re-establishing it as CIRCLE – The Centre for Innovation, Research, Creativity, and Leadership in Education. Brad and Phil continue their work together through a School for tomorrow.

CIRCLE is an executive agency in education that is passionate about helping schools to develop the organisational, professional and personal competencies to align their performance with the needs of 21C society. We do this because of our unwavering commitment to improving outcomes for more learners. CIRCLE works with hundreds of schools (as well as school organisations like the IBSC) to build cultures of excellence in leadership and learning that equip more students with the character and competencies needed to thrive in their world. In doing so, we seek to assist schools to become evidence-based communities of inquiry and practice that are focused on educating fit for purpose 21C citizens. We do this in multi-year, longitudinal partnerships that involve a combination of research, development, and management consulting in education, supported by a large network of like-minded schools and their educators. 

The conversation we had on that day in July 2011 honed in on the concept of character that the earlier speaker raised. Character education, a topic of great interest in the United States from the 1980s onwards, had been a matter of particular interest for schools around the world for at least a decade or so. We agreed that many schools took it for granted that what they did added character to their students, and lauded their merits accordingly in their publications, prospectuses, websites, and other promotional materials. Yet, in Brad’s words, “How would they know?” It seemed to us that there was a clear gap in the understanding at the ‘chalkface’ about what an education for character might be and how its impact might be measured in the value added to the education of the students. 

We began to explore the opportunity a little further, teasing out how this gap might be filled, before the events of the day took over and we were called away to other duties. Over the course of the next year, Phil began to think this through further, bouncing ideas off Brad, who created space in the program of the next annual IBSC gathering in Richmond, Virginia, where a group of schools emerged from a well-attended workshop in which an investigation into the measurement of character education outcomes was proposed. This initial study was formalised in 2016 into a large-scale two-year research project, sponsored by the IBSC and 49 participating schools, and involving thousands and thousands of stakeholders – teachers, leaders, parents, and (most importantly) students – whose opinions about what an education for character might be and how it might be measured. 

In the background to this specific work in character education, our work in developing a synthesis of much of the leading literature on the culture of 21C learning had already led us to refine our existing theory of domains and criteria of school improvement into a sharper knowledge architecture. At roughly the same time, out of the small group of IBSC schools who demonstrated interest in this work from 2012 onwards, emerged in 2015-2016 a group of schools internationally who wished to enter into a partnership with CIRCLE to take part in what some have come to call a “deep dive” longitudinal research-driven work in how best to frame an education for character within the specific context of their communities. This gave us a unique opportunity to add to our understanding a series of intimate portraits of communities from the perspectives of families and practitioners. 

Our study for the IBSC, Character Education in Schools for Boys, was designed to investigate and report on effective practices in boys’ character education. The project aimed specifically to propose a well-researched framework for schools to evaluate current practices, processes, and programs in character education; to sharpen strategy and planning for character education; to develop meaningful and authentic outcomes; to create standards for accountability, reporting, and professional learning; and to communicate this focus and consensus to the wider school community. This framework for character education was intended to be respectful of individual school culture and tradition and thus serve boys’ schools better than prescriptive models espoused by specialist organisations and agencies in character education. We have learned from our work with boys’ schools internationally over recent years that the framework might encompass both a theoretical approach to the content and methodology of an education for character, as well as a pragmatic process whereby ideas are captured, shared, refined and embedded within the guiding documents and practice of a school. 

Another large-scale research opportunity arose contemporaneously with the Association of Boys’ School in New Zealand, whose members had already conducted some significant research into the outcomes attained by boys in boys’ schools. While they knew that boys in boys’ schools outperformed boys in other schools across all benchmarks, what they wanted to know was why this occurred. This two-year project commencing in 2017 drew on thousands of responses, again involving teachers, leaders, parents, and boys from across the whole sector of boys’ schools in New Zealand. 

This work for the ABSNZ, Excellence in Boys’ Education Research Project, was intended to significantly deepen and broaden our understanding about building a framework for excellence in boys’ education by generating substantially more data at a global level to develop and articulate this framework and to document best practices in boys’ schools across New Zealand. The context of boys’ education in New Zealand provides a unique lens by which these standards of educational excellence might be framed and examined, particularly in six key areas by which the culture of a great boys’ school might be assessed in depth: student care and character; learning culture across the curriculum and co-curriculum; student leadership culture; design and delivery of student programs and pathways; the promotion of student voice, diversity and identity; innovation and future readiness. 

At the same time, from the heart of the range of our work beyond these two projects, we were seeing that the future belongs not to any single gender but to people of character more generally. In our eyes, this refers to people equipped with a certain set of competencies with which they graduate school ready to succeed in a world that expects a great deal from them, perhaps more than any generation before them and without any clear road-map of how to fulfil these expectations. We discovered over the past seven years the building blocks of graduate competencies that could help our young people to thrive in their world: good people of integrity; future builders who can negotiate complexity; continuous learners and ‘unlearners’ who grow throughout their lives; solutions architects who provide direction for us all; citizens with local, regional and global perspective; and team creators imbued with the relationality to bring people together with all of this in mind.

We began to see, therefore, that without a clear picture of the articulation, integration, and synthesis of a set of graduate competencies linked to character education goals that are the proper object of the collective labor of a school, schools often lacked the cohesion and clarity required to optimise the schooling experience for all students and to set them up for a life of ongoing meaningful work, learning, contribution, and fulfilment. Let us prelude our understanding of these competencies by considering how we help students explore learning through the experience of their school education. This might seem, at first glance, to be somewhat lofty or abstract in tone, but it quickly becomes very hands-on when we look at what it is that we do when we teach and when students learn.

Schools that systematically go about doing the right things in the right sequence and use evidence to support the efficacy and efficiency of what they do are much more likely to lay down a proper platform for enduring success in character education.

In generations past, many educators who were young in their practice were taught by their colleagues in the fashion that seemed to serve their curriculum well. They separated the knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes specified in our curriculum and taught them discretely. In less enlightened educational settings, it may have been common for students to experience a week where we might, for example, do knowledge on Mondays through Wednesdays, skills on a Thursday, and testing of attainment on a Friday. A windy afternoon brought disruptive challenges to this structure, but such things in a school always seem to get in the way of a well-intentioned plan. Values and attitudes were much less concrete than knowledge and skills, and many of us were somewhat nervous to approach this seemingly more nebulous area; we were reluctant to impose our values explicitly on the students, even while we did our utmost through our own modelling and methodology to do so implicitly. What students believed and the related character that they formed was the unspoken and frequently hidden curriculum. 

While we may have been able to achieve some good public examination results by drilling and skilling in knowledge, our ability to help students form a whole picture of their learning, their world, and ultimately their place in it was most likely hampered by our approach. This was because then (as now), students do not live in a body and use a mind that divides these things up discretely – they form whole ideas and try to apply them in order to live a whole life. Our humanity is complex and defies our attempts to simplify or to streamline it, no matter how much pressure we are under to present the two-minute pitch or to summarise it all in a page with a few dot points.

Helping students to build an economic analysis of History, for example, without contemplation of the moral dimension of education is a very dangerous thing. It encourages a view that we can and should objectify History (or any other discipline) dispassionately in the pursuit of a morally unacceptable end. We can allow ourselves to take the humanity out of the story of people and dissect the parts of our story with an almost macabre and certainly dispassionate coldness. We can lose the relevance in pursuit of the rigour which, as Bill Daggett and the Model Schools movement based in the International Center for Leadership in Education would remind us, results in further alienation of students from the learning process, and further isolation of schools from the societies in which they exist. We need both rigour and relevance in our lives, and thus we need both in our education. If character, as we have come to believe, is the true work of 21C schools, then we need to ensure that we have grounded our practice in character education that is both rigorous and relevant.

We need to recognise and educate students both for and also in step with the holistic nature of the character and competencies that most effectively express the best of humanity in our times. Our approach now, therefore, is informed by the theoretical and practical understandings that a quarter of a century of much improved educational research and thinking has brought to us. We no longer try to split what we do into discrete components; we understand that education is a values-rich environment that must be shaped and explained if it is to have both integrity and quality for all learners. 

Our thinking internationally is being shaped by models that ask us to contemplate how we integrate the essential knowledge, skills, character, and learning habits required by school graduates into everything we do. This means that the work of character is so often about the building of this type of holistic competency. In practical terms, in any given lesson, rehearsal, training session or the like, we cannot teach the knowledge without the skills, we cannot pretend that we are not forming character, and we know that we must incorporate reflection on this overall process if we are to optimise learning. 

Recent models for 21C education propose an intersection of complex educational purposes within an integrated everyday learning practice of every teacher and the experience of every student. However, the challenge of expressing the holism of an education for character is best demonstrated, we believe, by the Center for Curriculum Redesign’s four-dimensional model for education. This model for learning is rapidly acquiring significance for educators and educational systems all over the world today in their thinking about the aims, purpose and practice of education. Since 2016, it has proposed a four-dimensional model for education that now sits at the core of what we believe is most relevant in the best thinking about character education.

Four-Dimensional 21st Century Education, Center for Curriculum Redesign (2016)

This four-dimensional model calls on us to approach education, specifically education for character, differently to the more diffused modernist mode to which we referred above. It puts knowledge (what we know and understand based on traditional disciplines, modern ideas such as entrepreneurship and themes including global literacy) together with skills (how we use what know based on using essential 21C competencies such as creative and critical thinking, communication, change readiness, and collaboration) and character (how we behave and engage in the world through concepts such as mindfulness, curiosity, courage, resilience, ethics and leadership), all the while overlaying meta-competencies that relate to reflection, understanding of process, adaptation, and growth (which themselves might be framed within a competency of change readiness). 

Thus, we hold the view that the process of educating for character is expressed best through a set of graduate outcomes and is developed through holistic competencies. The way students learn, what they know, can do, and are disposed towards are drawn from the four-dimensional model of education advocated by the Center for Curriculum Redesign. These graduate outcomes and their enabling competencies can be articulated in a framework that can shape the educational enterprise of a school and align it to the most important work of a school – the character of its students. 

In other words, the ‘rush to agency’ where people seek to enact change that addresses and improves the practice of teachers or the outcomes of the students without first undergoing the reflective work of looking into and identifying the whole character of a school and its approach to character education is unwise. From what we have seen, it is more likely to lead to initiatives that might look efficient and even effective on the surface, but fail to improve meaningful educational outcomes for more learners. On the other hand, schools that systematically go about doing the right things in the right sequence and use evidence to support the efficacy and efficiency of what they do are much more likely to lay down a proper platform for enduring success in character education.