THE CHARACTER OF CHARACTER
The character of character is ultimately best defined by the ethos of a community. We believe that the values, ethos, and associated cultures of a school community are essential for its sense of identity and drive the development of its maturity as a school of character.
The strategy by which a school goes about selecting and working towards its preferred future is likewise very important in helping it to be the best version of itself that it can possibly become. Evidence of learning within a community of inquiry and practice is also an essential component of a successful school. Finally, if character is the whole work of a school, we believe that when it comes to the shaping of the school’s purpose, nothing is more critical to a school’s understanding of its purpose than its conception and experience in all respects of its fundamental preferred outcomes for the character of its graduates, the virtues in which this is displayed, and the competencies that surround this whole understanding – what the students know, can do, feel, believe and are disposed towards. In other words, it is when the quality and consistency of character education drives the attainment of the desired graduate outcomes of a school that we might reasonably consider it to be a school of character.
In the light of this widely accepted imperative for the role of character in education, let us now establish what our research and consulting practice has taught us to best define the key concepts in this field. Just before we move through the next section, it is worthwhile noting that the notion of character appears before us on many different levels. It is an all-embracing rationale, as well as an inherent design feature and a singular field of practice, just as much as it is a holistic lens through which we might observe and evaluate what we do. It does not fit easily into just one place in a neat diagram – believe us, we have tried!
Character refers to how people live their lives in terms of their sense of belonging to their civic institutions, the fulfilment of their potential, and their fundamental beliefs about what is good and right for them to do. It is seen by stakeholders in school as a multi-layered idea that refers to the mark and measure of people – a notion that encompasses their characteristics and idiosyncrasies, the extent of their resilience and robustness, and their capacity to model and lead through their virtues and qualities. This character is the result of processes that help people to realise their own character, while also replicating the character expected of them by others in terms of their civic obligations, performance standards, and moral challenges.
We have seen already that a competency is the capacity of students to demonstrate how they have grown in an educational process that asks them deliberately and simultaneously to know, to do, to be, and to learn. Character competency is seen as the cultivation and demonstration of those strengths, qualities, and outcomes that are aligned with the values, dispositions, and actions that are associated with civic character, performance character, and moral character – a sense of belonging developed in response to their meeting civic obligations, the fulfilment of potential through the increasing attainment of performance standards, and the capacity to reflect on what is good and right for them to do in their lives, especially in the light of their ongoing moral challenges.
Civic character focuses our attention on the fundamentals of what every person should and should not do in relation to their obligations to the society of which they are a member. Typically, this begins with meeting minimum standards and expectations characterised by respect, civility and consideration for others, and extends into a much more meaningful question of belonging. Civic character is best measured through a threshold test of behaviour informed by the key question: “Do I belong?” Critical understanding required to answer this question will involve a clear comparison of the behaviours of a student in identified criteria relative to the norms expected of all citizens. Teachers should be prepared to justify the rationale and usage of such norms. Many schools perform with great confidence in this area, yet challenges emerge when the more straight-forward threshold test used properly to assess civic character is applied to other types of character that require more nuanced modes of assessment. In addition, some issues can emerge when schools weigh up the relative impact of cumulative minor negative incidents in the area of civic character as opposed to major transgressions.
Performance character helps us to see the growth in a person in the execution of those fundamental qualities that relate to purpose, persistence, and reflection, and reveals how well they function in the roles that society requires of them. They should assess the extent of their performance through a description of drive, growth and the progressive attainment of goals in terms of both process and product informed by the key question: “Am I reaching my potential?” Critical understanding required to answer this question will be based upon evidence and analysis of a student’s formative and summative performance relative to baseline performance in agreed goals areas. Most theories of education now will encourage this reflection to occur within a context of concepts as a growth mindset and a positive or strength-based approach. It is not surprising that performance character and the mode used most commonly to assess it features strongly in school co-curricular activity, especially sport. Many students will point to the critical role that character learning in sport and co-curricular activity plays in their lives. Perhaps the tangible nature of the measurement of performance goals (coupled with what for many is the inherently enjoyable combination of activity, camaraderie, and competition that occurs free from the different type of rigour within an academic program) that allows students to test themselves against both themselves and their peers allows them a much more immediate understanding of their both their short-term and long-term accomplishments. Yet, there is clear evidence that when applied in an academic context, students learn just as well and feel just as good about their performance in this respect.
Moral character is a much more complex field that asks us to consider the extent to which a person aspires to live a good life informed by a personal code that is most usually characterised by courage, integrity and humility. In terms of measurement, we can track moral development in terms of a person’s commitment to personal and community expectations for values, ethics and purpose and apply judgment to these individually and collectively by interrogating the quality and consistency with which they align their values, actions and impact on the world around them according to the key question: “Am I doing what is good and right in my life?”
We need to be careful of forming inappropriate judgments in this area. It is perhaps most appropriate to encourage students to reflect and make judgments about the integrity of their values, intentions, actions, and impact based on a moral code that they have, to the best of their ability, formed. The challenge in doing this is that we inevitably run up against differing views as to appropriate social codes and perspectives on the role of the school in encouraging and even enforcing them. Schools do this all the time, however, even if they feel uncomfortable in doing so. Some schools move with less confidence in the area of moral character, even though what they do clearly underpins their understanding of what constitutes both civic virtue and also high performance. For those schools and their staff that do not feel ready to address moral character directly, we have learned to encourage schools to pursue an education that focuses (in the first instance) on civic and performance character. We tend to find that if you get these right in the first instance, then the work of educating for moral character more naturally emerges for consideration, discussion and implementation.
Character education is the articulation and application of a school’s whole program of education to build capacity in character competency through the development of rigour in character practice, expertise in character apprenticeship, depth in character leadership, and richness in character capital across the contexts, design and experiences of character learning. Stakeholders in schools want to see the culture of their schools aligned with the principles that sit behind this understanding of 21C character and competency. With this emerging 21C perspective in mind, we need to view character education not simply as a discreet activity that exists in a specific place and time – it is the whole work of a school.
Character practice refers to the community of character practice that acts to test and validate the teaching and learning of character. It is associated with the theory of pedagogy in which we see character education as being directed by deliberate values-rich teaching and learning that requires testing and validation through a community of inquiry and practice in character education.
Character apprenticeship refers to the learning relationships through which individuals move from being novices to experts in character competency and then, in turn, help others develop their own mastery of character. It is associated particularly with the theory of relationships which states that character education is nurtured by connections between individuals and groups that are most powerful when formed through a formative process of character apprenticeship.
Character leadership refers to the specific character labor exercised by leaders in modelling character and developing character competency, as well as reinforcing character education through the signal matters and incidents of daily life that constitute the cultural groove of a school. Character labor refers to the deeds, words and decisions that reveal a leader’s true character and promote the character labor of others and the character capital of the school as a whole. Character education efficacy results from the will and their capacity of leaders to embed a shared commitment to ‘what we want, why we want it and how we do it’ in character education. Character leadership is associated with the theory of culture in which character education is seen to be reinforced specifically by character leadership that attends to honourable traditions, rituals, artefacts, narratives, norms, and models.
Character capital refers to the quantum of character in a community and its relevant expressions in education, practice, apprenticeship, and leadership for this character. It is associated with the theory of everywhere which views character education as occurring all the time in multiple sites that develop character capital across the whole school. Character capital relates particularly to the value of the feelings and perceptions held by the school and wider communities about the character purpose and character strengths of a school. Families want to support and to be involved with schools whose values and character they respect. This in turn creates brand value, reputation and goodwill and results in loyalty, lifetime relationships and referrals. In this way, character capital externalises the shared purpose of relationships. It also internalises the alignment of hearts and heads. The value of families’ character commitments is held in the hearts of the people within a school. It can be seen in the energy and enthusiasm that people bring to support and act upon the values and character strengths of the school. Every relationship that a school has with everyone it touches is an asset and an investment. To build character wealth, leaders must treat their people as investors, because that is what they are – intellectual, emotional and character investors. Every day, they bring their heads and hearts to their character work with students. If they do not do this work imaginatively and with commitment, outcomes for character education will be diminished. Character capital also builds personal value in terms of the level of positive, focused energy about character and character education that leaders invest at work and in their personal life. Leaders may inspire or demoralise others first by how effectively they manage their own character presence ,and secondly, by how well they mobilise, focus and renew the collective character energy of the people they lead.
Schools of character demonstrate a shared vision and vocabulary for their preferred future, an agreed value proposition for what the school delivers, and change whose velocity, shape, and trajectory have all been designed and implemented to attenuate the demands and pressures of the school’s external and internal contexts.
Schools of character demonstrate a shared vision and vocabulary for their preferred future, an agreed value proposition for what the school delivers, and change whose velocity, shape, and trajectory have all been designed and implemented to attenuate the demands and pressures of the school’s external and internal contexts. They deliver an excellent education for character that is founded on fit for purpose 21C graduate outcomes, associated qualities, key competencies (character, communication, change readiness, creative and critical thinking, citizenship, and collaboration), and the expression of these in an aligned curriculum that will shape their educational philosophies, programs, and activities in the years ahead. They see their capacity growing along pathways or corridors that are defined by these outcomes, qualities and competencies, the stages of which are measured according to an organisational maturity model that assesses the journey of a school towards becoming a school of character. This maturity models tracks in particular the character of the school’s climate and culture, the leadership of its educational program, the effectiveness of its teachers, the student educational experience and outcomes that help them to become ‘whole people’, the alignment of operations with strategy, and the state of teacher professionalism within a community of practice. These can be assessed along a continuum that moves from individual practice to strategic awareness to strategic intent to strategic judgment to strategic coherence to fit for purpose competency.
These are the conceptual building blocks on which we might build what we mean by an education for character. Throughout The Way, we examine the eight most important things we have learned:
- We are called as educators to help others to strive for excellence and to develop their character and competency: What is clear to us now from our research is that what makes an education excellent is the quality and consistency of the education for 21C character and competency that underpins it. In other words, when the character of an education is defined by, framed within, and aligned with a community’s aspirations for its graduates, then we begin to see what an education can really do. It’s more than just a series of learning activities pursued for their own sake – our research seems to show that the fundamental purpose of an excellent education should be the development of the whole character of the learner.
- Character is why we do school: The development of whole young people of character who wrestle with their own sense of who they should be (realisation) and what people expect of them (replication) in order to belong fully to their civic institutions, fulfil their potential, and live with the integrity of a set of beliefs about what is good and right is the most fundamental reason for any school to exist. It is the purpose of school.
- What educators think about character matters: What teachers think and feel about character and its relationship to their educational purpose shapes and directs the development, attainment, and measurement of 21C civic, performance, and moral character competencies, as well as the expression of these in a set of desired graduate outcomes in a school.
- Character is the whole work of a school: How we think about our character practice and connect this to the context, design, and experiences of character learning across all aspects of a school helps us to locate and assess our work through a coherent model of character education that describes how learning occurs within a community of inquiry and practice that is dedicated to the attainment of a clear set of desired graduate outcomes based on 21C civic, performance, and moral character competencies.
- Character development relies on relationship: The quality of character learning in a school is largely the product of both specific learning relationships of character apprenticeship in which competency is crafted and also the way that those relationships bring together all learners in a community of inquiry and practice that is sharply focused on improving delivery of the school’s graduate outcomes.
- Character education works best when it’s deliberate, targeted and intentional: The consistency of character learning in a school is a reflection of a school’s willingness to embrace the need for strategic educational development that embeds 21C character and competencies into every facet of school life in a deliberate, targeted and intentional way. This requires the adoption of a strategic approach to building the right learning culture, as well as the collaborative development of a conceptual and documentary framework for education that will help a school move beyond being just intentional to becoming a school of character in every respect.
- School leaders show the way forward: School leaders build character capital in a school community through their character labor, especially through role modelling and developing character competency. Character education efficacy results from their will and their capacity to embed a shared commitment to ‘what we want, why we want it and how we do it’ in character education.
- A good school focuses on the education of the whole person – a great school assembles the ingredients of high-performance culture in delivering this education: A great school, a school of character, identifies the ‘secret sauce’ of aspirations, a sense of kinship, and pathways to success, then applies this to a culture of inspiration, challenge, and support. This culture fosters both the pursuit of excellence by young people of character, and the sense of belonging to and engagement in school. It keeps them in their groove and holds them to the educational purpose of desired graduate outcomes based on 21C civic, performance and moral character competencies.