Is Character Education Important?

A blog by Arabella Northey, Director, Thinking Schools Network

The Ofsted framework in 2019 outlined recommendations for schools about the importance of character development. Admittedly, they realise it is a very complex concept, but their guidance framework reduces it down to: intrinsic motivation, positive moral attributes; social confidence; and long-term commitments to the wider community. The evidence gathered by Ofsted, and agreed by many, is that the above characteristics are important for children to be able to adopt as they are fundamental to well-being.

I would suggest that schools do an excellent job teaching children ‘character facets’ through a variety of activities, lessons, rewards and modelling. Some approaches are more successful than others: rewarding compassion and praising it loudly in weekly assemblies models its virtues. If you are like me, a lot of life is about experiencing through trial and error. Can we actually learn something without experiencing it? Correspondingly, how do we know that these characteristics have been internalised and adopted by children?

Character traits

One of our key principles at Thinking Matters, is giving children space to consider their learning behaviours. I love this quote by Epictetus: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Surely, this is the litmus test for character education. By observing, we can see how children react in and out of school and if they are able to consider what traits are important.

Our Big Picture shows the ideal behaviours for the best learning possible. These behaviours are the most important basic elements needed to create resilient, life-long learners with the skills to tackle any problem. The EEF’s guidance report about metacognition (2018) highlights the importance of ‘self-regulation’. Pupils need to be self-aware as they think and learn. Our job is to help them develop their capacity to self-monitor, self-modify and self-reflect as they plan, monitor and evaluate their learning. How they react to the difficulties of a problem along with the sense of satisfaction gained by hard-won achievement.

Intelligent Learning Behaviours

Bena Costa & Art Kallick’s research into Intelligent Learning Behaviours led them to categorise 16 Habits of Mind that were seen in expert problem solvers and highly successful people. The starting point is introducing the 16 habits of mind to children and creating opportunities to consider when they are appropriate or not. When presented with a situation, we want students to pick the ‘habits of mind’ that would be the most useful tool to use for that lesson, piece of homework, project or challenge. Taking ownership through thinking, acting and deploying!

Just like the multiple layers of rock surrounding a diamond help to shape it into the most precious stone, Intelligent Learning Behaviours, supported by research, is another key influencer shaping students towards success. In the same fashion, we are helping then shape and monitor their actions.

Developing Capacity

Of course, a good starting point is to suggest employing the habit of persistence or thinking interdependently to solve a particular problem. However, for some children the word persistence or interdependence are just empty words and mean nothing.

As a matter of fact, the job of the cognitive coach is to model this and share examples with pupils. Using a graphic organiser, like the Y-chart, helps open a conversation about how that behaviour might look, sound or feel like. We are giving time and space for deeper thinking. Perhaps a child is already persistent and just hasn’t realised that they are exhibiting the traits. We want to encourage them to be conscious of their habits and to develop their strategies. Moving from being a novice user to expertise will ensure that each child is equipped with the learning behaviours to meet any future challenge.

Shaping the language

Sharing a rubric (a set of expectations) for one of the Habits of Mind helps unpick that habit and help further extend capacity and understanding. These rubrics target intelligent behaviours and can be created by pupils, by a teacher or parent. The important aspect is to focus on the habit of mind in question and to use the key skills and language attributed to that habit of mind in the rubric. Part of the evaluation process should prompt follow up with a strategy plan for ‘next time’ or ‘moving forward.’

Being a meta-learner is more than thinking about your thinking, it is understanding that you have a range of tools and strategies to rely on when the going gets tough. It teaches a child that learning is always about developing our capacity to move from the novice towards expertise.

Surely, that in itself builds intrinsic motivation?

How do you know that these characteristics have been internalised and adopted by your pupils?

Use the Thinking Matters’ MetaMirror App to showcase your school’s unique focus on developing independent learners.

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