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What do we want? Character! When do we want it? Soon!

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

A few days ago I had a very thought-provoking and productive lunch with my friends Becky Carlzon and Adrian Bethune. Becky is the guiding spirit behind Learning Pioneers and co-author, with me, of Powering Up Children: The Learning Power Approach to Primary Teaching. Adrian is founder of Teachappy (“Happier Teachers, Happier Children”), and a great ambassador for mindfulness in education.

I came away fired up about how important it is to build education around a clear specification of the kinds of young people we are aiming to develop: what do they really need to know; be able to do; and be like in their attitudes and mindsets? And saddened, yet again, at the astonishing level of intellectual lethargy displayed by society at large. Where are the urgent debates about what an education fit for the 21st century should be like? Almost nowhere. (Even Radio 4 only dips a superficial toe into this shark-infested water every now and again.)

So on the train back to Sussex I bashed out the following. What do you think?

What we need is a shared vision of education as empowering young people with the knowledge, values, capabilities and character strengths to be a force for good in the world, and thus find the continuing fulfilment of a life well lived. This means:

  • Giving young people opportunities to explore many different potential avenues of excellence (both within 'school' and beyond),and discover the interests and occupations that may give their lives purpose, meaning and the kind of quiet happiness with themselves that is so different from complacency.

  • Giving them a diet of escalating challenges that will engage their energy and effort, the exercise of which will naturally lead them to develop a background 'mindset' of generalisable character strengths (aka 'positive learning dispositions' or 'qualities of mind') such as these "12 Pillars of Fulfilment":

  1. presence - being alive to all the features and complexities of significant situations

  2. discernment - having a reliable moral 'nose' for that which is fulfilling, nurturing and 'wholesome'

  3. self-care - creating their own social and physical ecology - habits of rest and recreation, sources of nurturance, support and advice - so that they can bring their full energy and intelligence to the pursuit of their passions

  4. critical thinking and bullshit detection - discerning and calling out that which is sham, shallow, specious or seductive (a la Greta Thunberg)

  5. self-awareness - an honesty and vigilance about the habits, beliefs and insecurities that might be their Achilles Heels or lead them astray

  6. craftmanship - being dissatisfied with anything but their best; willing to practise, draft, revise and respond to feedback

  7. adaptability - having the awareness and resourcefulness to change tack and adjust as they go along

  8. collegiality - having a friendly and open attitude that makes it easy for them to find and join teams and communities that support their core purposes

  9. buoyance and resilience – being able to bounce back from frustration and setbacks and recommit to their goals

  10. self-discipline - prioritising and devoting energy and perseverance to that which is truly important to them

  11. curiosity - a judicious keenness to engage with and investigate novelties, challenges and uncertainties that bear on their values and projects

  12. imagination - the ingenuity to create fresh possibilities of thought and action that further their purposes

I see these as constituting the trunk – the ‘common core’ of a viable character - out of which can grow all the varied branches – the interests, passions and idiosyncrasies that make everyone unique and special.

  • Seeing mindfulness-like practices as on-going practical supports for developing all these qualities of mind – as the evidence indeed suggests it is. Organisations like the Mindfulness in Schools Project need to present mindfulness as much more deeply valuable than just helping to reduce stress. It is an all-purpose fertiliser for the growth of a strong and supple mind.

  • Equipping youngsters with the starter kits of knowledge and skill that will enable them to make progress as both actors and learners. This is hard but vital. Why Trigonometry rather than Neuroscience? Why the Tudors rather than the critical analysis of Fake News?

  • Enabling teachers to embrace their role as coaches and guides, and to develop their own resources and sensibilities, in the service of their students' journeys. An army of teachers who were keen to grow and extend their skill and insight day-by-day would transform children’s experience of school.

  • Enabling teachers and school leaders to harness (and if necessary resist or subvert) external pressures and requirements on them and their students that threaten to derail this vision. Innovation will come from brave and ingenious school principals and their staff, not from Whitehall.

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