Enter the Dragon: The grit, resilience, character and mindset death match

I felt very proud to have my first article appear in UKEdMag this month. A jolly, upbeat piece about implementing a new course in my school – the main aim to bring together PSHE, Citizenship and engage learners in thinking about themselves, their learning and so on. My pride has been slightly short lived as I have been keenly aware of the growing momentum against the explicit teaching of ‘qualities’ and character, and have read some fantastic blogs this weekend voicing these concerns, trawling Twitter to gather as full a picture as possible.

I am not overly surprised that the idea of explicit Character Education has got so many people in hot and bothered. It’s a politicised rolling pin to once again beat teachers with. But coining a new name has simply made us forget that schools have been doing this to a greater or lesser degree for a long time – what else are assemblies, tutor time, vertical tutoring, mentoring, PSHE, Citizenship and extra curricular clubs for?

Below is what I have concluded about what seems to be of value and how it can be brought into the curriculum so far. I will avoid using the term Character and Character Education, as I think it’s a divisive term, preventing meaningful debate. Before I do, it may be useful to set out my stall, so to speak. I’m an English Teacher and Head of Media. I like the rigour of tests at KS4 & 5. In my dojo of teaching, expert subject knowledge and good behaviour management are king. So, I agree with much of the criticism against fad ideas and know enough to think ‘this year’s brain gym’ is already sounding like a cliche.

1) The rationale behind the programme we have implemented seems sound. The key focus is on developing articulate learners, able to clarify and justify opinions. Students debate, present, discuss and problem solve. This underpins the lesson activities. This does develop ‘qualities’ desirable in young people. Surveys of desirable skills in employees frequently ranks communication, team work and problem solving in the top 5. Developing a culture in the classroom which values and promotes these skills should lead to greater competence in these areas.

2) Martin Robinson, whose writing I admire very much, http://martinrobborobinson.wordpress.com/2014/12/06/forget-character-passports-and-embrace-eudaimonia/ argues that what is really needed is to teach young people the ‘stuff of importance and value, the best that has been thought, said and done, give them time to question it, think it, argue it, debate it, agree or disagree about what is ‘the best’. Allow them time to develop enthusiasms, to enthuse – from en theos the Ancient Greek for ‘With God’: give them time to practise’ . I wholeheartedly agree here. The big problem for the current curriculum, what with gathering assessment data, hitting levels and targets, is that the life blood has been squeezed out of every subject. Where do teachers have time to allow students to debate, argue and enthuse? It sometimes can feel as if thinking (teach, memorise, teach!) only really occurs at A level and even then, teachers frequently wail ‘why don’t they just think for themselves?’ A course, even an hour each week, off assessment, is a gift surely? Especially if it has been developed with genuine thought and overview.

3) Chris Chivers, another person I much admire, argues ‘grit, determination and resilience are internalised, personal to each and every one of us. Some have more than others. This can be our ability to tolerate discomfort or pain, in different forms, mental or physical. We sometimes don’t know what we can endure until we are tested…..Making learning challenges such that effort is needed, over time, so that grit, resilience and decisions are in-built, might just offer a greater chance of success.’
http://chrischiversthinks.weebly.com/blog-thinking-aloud/grit-and-resilience It is perhaps this that causes people the greatest degree of nagging doubt, that any course claiming to teach Grit or Resilience cannot really do that. Again, I wholeheartedly agree. Whilst we can teach students about grit and resilience , and their role in achieving success through anecdotes of great triumph, we cannot teach grit and resilience. The key must be in the course and activity design. Let students find out for themselves. Isn’t that what great lessons do? Rather than telling students what these qualities are, give meaningful opportunities to encounter them – problem solving, initiative exercises, team tasks with end objectives. One of my most powerful memories from school, and I was by no means a high achiever, is still an enterprise day group task. I was flooded with feelings of success as we achieved that thing we set out to achieve. Not content, not subject.

4) I loved @DisIdealist ‘s blog ‘ Telling Penguins to Flap Harder’ http://disidealist.wordpress.com/2014/12/05/242/ and I recommend everyone to read it. The arguments against a ‘no excuses’ culture are strong. Telling children they aren’t winners because they didn’t want it enough is profoundly wrong, but is this really happening in schools? I would hope education, in it’s real terms of teachers interacting with students, amounts to more than a collection of inspirational PPT slides on grit, resilience, growth mindset or character. These are the dumbed down headlines, not the reality of what is taking place hour after hour, day after day. The operation of schools cannot be condensed into soundbites, even if books, theories and research can. Schools are complex, institutional systems, with governance on many levels and a thousand human interactions taking place every minute.
With this in mind, as well as @DisIdealist ‘s parting statement that although penguins can’t fly, they are expert swimmers, do we not then owe it to young people to offer the richest experience possible, ‘to educate’, during the years of school, so that they can find out what they do do well?

If anyone is keen to know more about our Core Programme, please contact me via Twitter @evenbetterif or via this blog.