What knowledge do we need to build character?

Yesterday, I attended an event on ‘character vs knowledge’. In a thoughtful address, the organiser, Summer Turner, explained why she had chosen this particular controversial question. As a question designed to be deliberately provocative, it worked, but I believe it’s a false dichotomy – I cannot see a reason for teaching someone knowledge unless you are in some way trying to shape their character.

It seems to me that the fundamental question that Summer posed is whether recent demands for a greater emphasis on character education are asking too much of our teachers and schools. There are those that believe that schools should stick to teaching ‘knowledge’. They argue that this is what teachers do best. Government initiatives to focus on ‘character education’ are likely to set back progress in schools, leading to pointless ‘character’ lessons, unworkable accountability and a failure to sufficiently deliver the concrete knowledge that will actually do most to benefit pupils’ lives, not to mention undue stress on already overworked teachers. I think these are very legitimate concerns.

However, I worry that such a question causes some to retrench; placing themselves in the ‘knowledge’ camp and neglecting to fully engage with the important questions that Summer poses at the end of her article:

What do we mean by character and how can that be taught? What is the purpose of education? Who is best to determine that? How will we be empowered to drive education forward as we see fit?

I think that the purpose of education has to be to shape character, equipping people with certain habits and knowledge that prepares them for life. I can’t really think of any other purpose. And I think it’s important that we examine what character should be and how it should be achieved both because it is our fundamental mission, and because we are better prepared to respond to political intervention if we have a clearer conception of what we are aiming to achieve.

Firstly, we need to think what we mean by character. What exactly are the traits that we want people to have? On the one hand this is a massively complicated philosophical question, but on the other I actually think there’s less disagreement than people think. Few of us would disagree with the elements mentioned by the Jubilee Centre, although of course they are all very vague, and one person’s idea of good sense may not be another’s. But let’s have a thoughtful discussion about character and try and find the areas of consensus.

Next, we need to think about how we teach character. Schools already do a huge amount more than just teaching knowledge to shape character. Children learn from their interactions with their teachers, from the habits that are inculcated by their routines, from socialisation with their peers. School is a huge part of childrens’ lives and for many the support that they receive at school makes up for deficits elsewhere. This is a very important part of what teachers do, and we should try and understand how it works much better.

To work out how to best shape peoples’ characters, we need to improve our knowledge. We need to look at the best evidence from the cognitive sciences about how people develop. More is known than many teachers realise about some of the factors that shape peoples’ development. There are ways that we can anticipate and improve childrens’ developmental paths. How, for instance, do we best teach people self-discipline? There are legitimate concerns about what is acceptable social and psychological engineering, but we already try and teach children discipline. The danger is our failure to engage with the science means that we may not be doing it the best way, and that when our usual methods don’t work, we don’t have good alternatives.

Teachers can’t do everything, but they can do a lot. And just as an understanding of psychology can improve how we teach knowledge, so it can also inform our other roles. We need to be clearer about what we should be doing and what we shouldn’t. What we can change and what we can’t. We need to be alert to the limits of our scientific knowledge, and we need to think of the unintended consequences of our efforts. But the potential difficulties of these tasks does not mean that we should not engage with the endeavour.

Clearly a huge component of character development does come from explicit factual knowledge. Are we always teaching the very best things? Books can teach empathy, but they can also teach narrow-mindedness and bigotry. And to best understand the role that knowledge has to play in development we need to understand the other ways that people are shaped and developed. To teach character, we need knowledge.

What knowledge do we need to build character?