In his book, Religion for Atheists, the philosopher Alain De Botton writes: “Announce that you are working on your body, and you will attract envy and respect. Declare that you are working on your character, and you will be thought insane.”
Of course there will always be learning by osmosis in any school, but as a teacher and primary school head I have found that a child’s moral literacy is enhanced when they acquire the building blocks of good character such as consideration, truthfulness, courage and honour; qualities which are commonly known as virtues.
Why virtues and not values?
Qualities such as courage, honesty and justice are universally admired. In contrast values are often culture-specific and can include anything from individualism to competitiveness to the golden rule. When values education is discussed, there also tends to be a debate about the source and acceptability of these values and who gets to choose them. This continuing debate may lead to a stalemate where the very important work that many do in the name of ‘good values’ cannot become widespread.
My experience has been that the teaching of virtue causes little controversy among parents, whatever their beliefs or values. Who would object to children understanding respect or honesty? When we ask a question, do we not hope for a truthful answer? Do we not wish to be treated justly by those in authority? So, what possible objection can there be to our children learning, exploring and practising these concepts in our schools?
I personally find that exploring a virtue over a two week period provides a simple and coherent programme that allows for the creative input of both teacher and student and a chance for the virtue to embed itself. Once a lesson on a virtue such as truthfulness has been completed we need to allow time for children to practice this concept just as would be the case with fractions or verbs. Allowing children to role play a scenario such as making up excuses to cover a mistake can be enormously engaging, and the drama can be frozen allowing the protagonists to be questioned about their feelings and motives. It’s also a safe way for children to experience for themselves how a lie usually spirals out of control. To finish, the drama would be repeated with everyone being truthful.
The school assembly is a good place to introduce a virtue like tactfulness, the partner of truth. We often expect honesty from our children but give them no guidance in how they might tell the truth as appropriately or as kindly as possible. Children might be asked to prepare a role play where one friend asks the other their opinion of their strange new haircut.
On a more serious note, RE themes are very compatible with virtue based learning, after all the major world faiths spend a good deal of time exhorting their followers to be virtuous as is recorded in the sacred books of Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, to name a few.
I provide each of my classes with a Virtue Box where children can post a Virtues Voucher as an acknowledgement of the virtues that they see in others. These are shared out in circle time as a form of peer assessment that also keeps the class teacher informed of the extent to which virtues teaching is having an impact upon character and attitude.
“But we can’t fit any more into a jam-packed curriculum,” I hear a thousand overworked teachers saying – but the daily interaction of staff and pupils within our schools provides much of the teaching and practice that students need in order to develop their characters, so it’s not a question of doing more. Our role as educators is to look for opportunities to help our students as they attempt to strengthen their characters. This requires us to use the vocabulary of virtue rather than naming and shaming.
For instance when a student thoughtlessly disturbs the calm atmosphere of the library instead of a response such as, “that was really disrespectful and selfish of you!” we draw out from them the required virtue: “When you’re walking through the library, what virtues do you need to use?”
Perhaps we might highlight a student who got it right: “Thank you for practising courtesy”.
When something goes wrong we guide the young person to the virtue that will prevent a reoccurrence thereby avoiding the how and why questions which sap our time and energy and often lead nowhere but to the endless peeling of the layers of motive.
Of course all the usual rewards, boundaries and sanctions of any institution need to be in place, and more serious forms of behaviour may necessitate interventions beyond the scope of this article, but if we are to produce young people that will become trustworthy and honourable citizens then our schools, homes and public life require the teaching, understanding and practice of the universal elements of good character: the virtues.
This post originally appeared in The Guardian Online 28th March 2013 Originally entitled Character Caught or Taught