Character Education: Is it the Holy Grail to Academic Success?

9 Apr

I           Resilience

One of the recent preoccupations of Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has been “character education”.   This is unsurprising, given that Michael Gove, current Justice Secretary and her predecessor, made both, the curriculum and examinations and tests more rigorous causing young people to stress out.  Accordingly, she has been investing time and resources in seeing how children could be made more resilient.

Children in the United Kingdom grow up in a cosseted environment.   Surfaces on which they play must be safe; they are not permitted to go out into the streets to ride their bikes or kick balls in case they are kidnapped and abused by paedophiles or run over by cars.   So outside play is replaced with inside tablets; and I am not talking about pills.   A March 2016 poll revealed that 6-to-11-year-old children spent less time outside than the daily hour allowed to prisoners.

And if they do not know how to look after themselves, children are not developing the character tools they need – such as resilience or buoyancy – to negotiate the hidden dangers on the road of life or to survive failures on the road to success.   They have truly become the “snowflake” generation.  This is why Mrs Morgan is keen to foster resilience and character education.

II         Buoyancy

But what precisely is resilience and what should it be? In a seminal article published in The Times Educational Supplement on 25 March 2016, Marc Smith, a senior psychologist, writes: “Resilience has attracted significant attention owing to widespread concerns about the ability of students to cope with setbacks and potential failure.”

He adds that that not only are we getting “resilience interventions” wrong, but we also should not be targeting it in the first place. Instead, schools should be “strengthening students’ ability to cope with minor but personally significant academic setbacks”.   The characteristic has less to do with resilience and more to do with buoyancy.

What’s the difference between “resilience” and “buoyancy”?   Children, who thrive despite harsh conditions and poor life experiences – children, for instance, of Syrian refugees and the Malala Yousafzais of this world – have resilience.  Buoyancy, on the hand other, has to do with the ability of students to bounce back from less significant negative events such as poor grades, work stress and lousy classroom experiences at the hands of other students and/or their teachers.   The two may be related but are separate.

Smith advises the reader on the five ways of fostering academic buoyancy.

(1)        Start by identifying harmful, negative emotions.   How are these manifest?   Statements such as “I am not clever enough” or “I have done my homework but it is probably wrong” reveal worries related to failure and impair a student’s learning.

(2)        Focus on growth and set attainment goals that are achievable. Always go for the incremental goals that are slightly more challenging than the previous ones and emphasise “personal bests” rather than “better than others”.

(3)        Give constructive feedback relating to personal best goals.  Ensure students understand the feedback and what they need to do next.

(4)        Praise effort over intellect. Reward hard work.

(5)        Reconceptualise failure, probably the most powerful facet of buoyancy.  Failure is part of the learning process and a vital step on the road to success.   There are varying pathways to reaching objectives – not all of them linear.

III        The importance of failing

Failing is an experience that one inevitably has when taking the road to success.    I was once publicly “told off” by a governor who emailed all his fellow-governors in the message he sent to me, pointing out that I, as the clerk, had slipped up on a clerical error I had made in the minutes of a meeting that I recorded.   My reply to him (and the other governors) was to apologise, thank him for pointing it out and stating that “Erring” was my middle name.  I had no response.

You recall the story of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland from 1306-1329.  Edward I defeated him in Battle of Bannockburn. Bruce was forced to flee. According to an apocryphal story, he was on the run during the winter of 1306-7 and hid in a cave on Rathlin Island off the north coast of Ireland.  While there, he observed a spider spinning a web and trying to connect from one area of the cave’s roof to another.  It tried and failed several times before succeeding.   Inspired by this, Bruce returned to battle to inflict a series of defeats on the English.   The story serves to illustrate how important it is to try and try again and again, if first you don’t succeed.

Our American friends across the (Atlantic) pond know how to fail and, apparently, are pretty competitive about it. They hold seminars and workshops on the subject.   Some best-selling titles are Fail Fast, Fail Often and Why Success Always Starts with Failure.

YouTube was a spectacular failure as a dating site before morphing into the video-sharing forum that it is now.   Odeo closed its podcasting platform and was resurrected as Twitter.  Travis Kalanick filed for bankruptcy when Scour failed.   He did not give up and founded Uber, the taxi company that has caused our black cab drivers (mainly in London) to go apoplectic and some grief because the company has taken away a considerable part of their business.   Uber today is valued at $50 billion.

The Times sports journalist, Matthew Syed, who was once our national table tennis champion, has written eloquently on the subject in his book, Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth about Success where he mentions the strategic importance of failing.

In particular, he turned his guns on the National Health Service (NHS) and its culture of defensiveness, which “leads to avoidable harm on a huge scale”.  In a survey carried out recently, 7,500 people die every year because of preventable mistakes”. The figure is probably an underestimate because of the NHS’s culture of covering up its errors.   While mistakes harm, they must also become precious learning opportunities.

NHS staff members are terrified of admitting mistakes and this is why whistleblowers are treated so shabbily.  A culture of fear and evasion scuppers reform.   If there were openness and honest evaluation, Syed contends, procedures could be put in place to ensure that the same mistake never happens again.

In his book, Syed turns to the aviation industry for inspiration.  The industry is based on openness and continual improvement. Whenever two planes almost collide, both pilots voluntarily submit their reports. These are analysed so that future such events are avoided.  When a plane crashes, the black boxes – in fact coloured bright orange to aid visibility and which every plane is required to carry – contains both, electronic information and records of the conversations of the crew, so that the reasons for the crash can be discovered and lessons learnt for the future –to avoid preventable errors.

Such a culture could not only improve the health service but also transform our schools.   We are obsessed with Ofsted and the thought of failing inspections.  This cascades down from governors and headteachers to the staff of the schools and then to our children who are shanghaied into succeeding time and time again, subjecting them to unfair stress.

We appear to be embarrassed by the mistakes we make. We are terrified about being put down, mocked and vilified. And so, we avoid taking risks.  Failure is seen as weakness.

Stan Wawrinka, the Swiss tennis star who is breathing heavily down the necks of the world four leaders, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, has a tattoo on his left forearm taken from Samuel Beckett’s novella, Worstward Ho: “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Winston Churchill, who defeated (possibly) the most notorious monster of history, said: “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal.  It is the courage to continue that counts.”

A very close, young and brilliant relative of mine achieved top grades in all the subjects he took in his GCSEs and A Levels.   He went on to study Natural History at Queens College, Cambridge, and attained a first class in the first two years of his tripos.   He was lulled by these successes into a state of complacency.  In his final year, he attained a high second class grade which resulted in his passing out as a second-class honours graduate – to him his first failure.   He was furious that he had not achieved a first class degree and decided to study for a Masters at Cambridge.  He worked hard and attained a distinction in his MA.

He was well pleased and decided to train with Teach First to test out his pedagogical skills.   The night before his interview, he went to a party. The result?  He was a wet-rag at the interview and failed – his second failure.   It was devastating.

But there was more to come.  Following a spell of work with venture capitalists, he was a victim of the financial collapse in 2008 and made redundant.   He grit his teeth and, with another colleague who suffered the same fate and was a contemporary of his at Cambridge, decided to set up his own management consultancy company.   He started small, worked hard, developed software to assist companies become better at management and administration.  Today, the efforts of this young man and his business partner are paying off.   He learnt like many of us that the sweet taste of success is that much sweeter if one has been through the bitterness of failure.

Resilience, buoyancy and failure are all important ingredients with which we should be equipping our young people.  And the failure I am thinking about is something from which we learn so that we don’t fail again. Failure, like the Senior Duke’s “adversity” in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, has sweet uses.   Success often has the seeds of failure. Equally, if we have the right attitude and approach to it, failure has the seeds of success.

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