Is Character the Essential Student Outcome?
I recently wrote a post about how a singular ‘all eggs in one basket‘ three hour examination would have a negative and narrowing effect upon our curriculum and, of course, our students. After thinking about what prospective assessments we can look forward to, or not, I thought about our purpose beyond helping students make the right moves along the conveyor belt of passing exams. Before I came to thinking about what assessment model would be more appropriate, I thought about starting with what type of students we are aiming to develop. We often focus upon the quantifiable outcomes in school: league tables, international measures and evidence based outcomes of cognitive ability, but we too often neglect those non-cognitive learning dispositions which will see our students flourish in a rapidly changing world. We ignore the less easily quantifiable aspects of an education – such as developing character: dispositions like resilience, perseverance and self-discipline. How do we value those aspects in a system so bent on measurement and examined assessments? How do we go some way to balancing cognitive development with character development?
As we teach the International Baccalaureate at my school, alongside A Levels, it occurred to me that their ‘learner profile’ was a good place to start to investigate a fitting school curriculum, with a functional assessment model, which purport to have that aim of engendering confident, flexible and resilient learners who will thrive in a future abound with complexity and challenge at their core.
International Baccalaureate Learner profile: http://www.ibo.org/programmes/profile/documents/Learnerprofileguide.pdf
The aim of all IB programmes is to develop internationally minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world.
IB learners strive to be:
They develop their natural curiosity. They acquire the skills necessary to conduct inquiry and research and show independence in learning. They actively enjoy learning and this love of learning will be sustained throughout their lives.
They explore concepts, ideas and issues that have local and global significance. In so doing, they acquire in-depth knowledge and develop understanding across a broad and balanced range of disciplines.
They exercise initiative in applying thinking skills critically and creatively to recognize and approach complex problems, and make reasoned, ethical decisions.
They understand and express ideas and information confidently and creatively in more than one language and in a variety of modes of communication. They work effectively and willingly in collaboration with others.
They act with integrity and honesty, with a strong sense of fairness, justice and respect for the dignity of the individual, groups and communities. They take responsibility for their own actions and the consequences that accompany them.
They understand and appreciate their own cultures and personal histories, and are open to the perspectives, values and traditions of other individuals and communities. They are accustomed to seeking and evaluating a range of points of view, and are willing to grow from the experience.
They show empathy, compassion and respect towards the needs and feelings of others. They have a personal commitment to service, and act to make a positive difference to the lives of others and to the environment.
They approach unfamiliar situations and uncertainty with courage and forethought, and have the independence of spirit to explore new roles, ideas and strategies. They are brave and articulate in defending their beliefs.
They understand the importance of intellectual, physical and emotional balance to achieve personal well-being for themselves and others.
They give thoughtful consideration to their own learning and experience. They are able to assess and understand their strengths and limitations in order to support their learning and personal development.
The IB ‘Learner Profile‘ is emblazoned about my school, and although in reality we have a relatively small cohort in the context of the whole school, the learner profile sparks my interest each time I walk past it. It makes me think how the IB constructs its aims and shapes it curriculum around its students. The IB is rightly lauded by Gove and he is critical of our qualifications not stacking up against such international models, but I am yet to be convinced that he is leading an authentic shift towards our core purpose being centred around our students and their future. With the IB Diploma foregrounds qualities, such as ‘open mindedness’, they are fostered in real terms by having the ‘Theory of Knowledge‘, at the core of the diploma, a philosophical exploration of knowing, with a rigorous focus upon the domains of knowledge in each other subject area of the IB Diploma. It is placed alongside the ‘Extended Essay‘ – a genuinely independent piece of assessment that requires students to devise their own thinking and undertake real inquiry, supported by expert teachers. Not only that, with the ‘Creativity, Action and Service (CAS)‘ assessed element of the qualification, active citizenship is made real. The ‘Learner Profile‘ isn’t just window dressing – it underpins the philosophy and aims of the qualification – shaping the assessment model to fit those aims.
Another school school system celebrated by Gove is that of Singapore. I am interested in the ‘Desired Outcomes of Education‘ in Singapore. Once more, a core focus is centred upon what type of learner their system is looking to develop:
1. The Desired Outcomes of Education (DOE)1 are attributes that educators aspire for every Singaporean to have by the completion of his formal education. These outcomes establish a common purpose for educators, drive our policies and programmes, and allow us to determine how well our education system is doing.
2. The person who is schooled in the Singapore Education system embodies the Desired Outcomes of Education. He has a good sense of self-awareness, a sound moral compass, and the necessary skills and knowledge to take on challenges of the future. He is responsible to his family, community and nation. He appreciates the beauty of the world around him, possesses a healthy mind and body, and has a zest for life.
In sum, he is:
• a confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment, thinks independently and critically, and communicates effectively;
• a self-directed learner who takes responsibility for his own learning, who questions, reflects and perseveres in the pursuit of learning;
• an active contributor who is able to work effectively in teams, exercises initiative, takes calculated risks, is innovative and strives for excellence; and, a concerned citizen who is rooted to Singapore, has a strong civic consciousness, is informed, and takes an active role in bettering the lives of others around him
Lastly, I was interested in another programme praised by Gove, that once more places character development, and a more holistic view of the student, at the heart of its core purpose – of course, alongside exam success etc. – the KIPP programme in America. The debate about KIPP schools fills column inches in America, so a quick Google search will do the job of beginning further research into their system, but I wanted to focus upon their ‘Character Growth Card’. Students are graded on their ‘character’. This may seem anathema to some, but at least it is a recognition that some things are valued in education beyond examination scores.
KIPP Character Growth Card: http://www.kipp.org/files/dmfile/KIPPCharacterGrowthCardandSupportingMaterials.pdf
These qualities best embody what type of students the KIPP programme aims to develop:
OPTIMISM: expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it;
Gets over frustrations and setbacks quickly;
Believes that effort will improve his or her future
ZEST: approaching life with excitement and energy, feeling alive and activated;
GRIT: finishing what one starts, completing something despite obstacles; a combination of persistence and resilience;
Finishes whatever he or she begins;
Tries very hard even after experiencing failure;
Works independently with focus
CURIOSITY: taking an interest in experience and learning new things for its own sake; finding things fascinating Is eager to explore new things;
Asks and answers questions to deepen understanding;
Actively listens to others
SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE: being aware of motives and feelings of other people and oneself; including the ability to reason within large and small groups;
Able to find solutions during conflicts with others;
Demonstrates respect for feelings of others;
Knows when and how to include others
GRATITUDE: being aware of and thankful for opportunities that one has and for good things that happen;
Recognises and shows appreciation for others;
Recognises and shows appreciation for his/her opportunities
SELF-CONTROL: regulating what one feels and does; being self-disciplined
SELF-CONTROL – SCHOOL WORK:
Comes to class prepared;
Pays attention and resists distractions;
Remembers and follows directions;
Gets to work right away rather than procrastinating
SELF-CONTROL – INTERPERSONAL
Remains calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked;
Allows others to speak without interruption;
Is polite to adults and peers;
Keeps temper in check.
The formation of ‘character’ being explicitly linked to an education is nothing new – Plato advocated the telling of stories to help “fashion” the minds of the impressionable young; John Locke had the revolutionary idea that women were equally deserving of an education that developed character. Today, educationalists, such as Guy Claxton, have proffered their own version of such skills; creating a sort of ‘character taxonomy’. I do get slightly suspicious when ‘solutions’ are bandied about easily; particularly if such ‘experts‘ start selling their particular ‘brand‘ of character building. Each school should look at their own context and needs for their students – not buy in some quick fix. I happen to think the whole programme of PSHCE is a rather elaborate sham that doesn’t help create character, as much as reading ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling over and over can do so! Covering topics such as ‘open mindedness’ in splendid isolation from domains of subject knowledge is foolhardy, but having a curriculum where we reinforce and foreground learning dispositions and character traits throughout the curriculum, in a coherent way, with assessment models constructed for that aim, is entirely valid. Perhaps we could use the time freed up from PSHCE in a more productive way?
I do not doubt that development of domains of core knowledge are essential (this article by Daniel Willingham brilliantly sums up the importance of knowledge here), but whilst I agree that our choice of what knowledge is important (which is currently up for debate), it should be balanced with what dispositions of character we are seeking to develop in our students – such as the resilience to tackle challenging new domains of knowledge. Of course, assessment matters. What we assess skews how we teach, whether intentionally or more indirectly. If we create a narrowed curriculum of summative three hour exams alone we risk losing the opportunity to promote a rich range of skills integral to learning new knowledge. With robust and reliable speaking and listening assessments, for example, such as recorded public debates, presentations or a viva voce based upon their research, we can harness and hone communication skills so crucial in the formation of self-confidence and resilience. If we were to raise the profile of guided research and inquiry skills, bound to specific domains of knowledge, in our assessment, such as the IB style ‘Extended Essay’, or portfolio based projects, we could better foster resilience and perseverance, whilst honing skills appropriate for a future where information will only proliferate still further.
In our obsession for easily measurable outcomes (easily packaged, replicable and cheap to administer and judge of course!) we are forgetting that assessment can work in our favour, if we work backwards from the point of what we want students to know and how we want students to approach their pursuit of knowledge. Jean Piaget’s view of intelligence is appropriate: “Intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do.” The US Department for Education are looking to address this balance between cognitive and non-cognitive dispositions, focusing upon dispositions such as resilience (indeed, resilience is included in the ‘Common Core Curriculum’ for mathematics). It is summarised in this very useful report: http://www.ed.gov/edblogs/technology/files/2013/02/OET-Draft-Grit-Report-2-17-13.pdf. I think the report is outstanding and the recommendations it poses should frame our curriculum development. Two such recommendations stood out:
“Educators and administrators interested in promoting grit, tenacity, and perseverance should draw on key research-based best practices, for example, (1) provide students with opportunities to take on higher-order or long-term goals that are “worthy” to the student—goals that are “optimally challenging” and aligned with the students’ own interests, and (2) provide a rigorous and supportive environment for accomplishing their goals.” (Page xii of report)
“Administrators and educators need professional development, curriculum materials, and technological supports. Other potentially high-leverage strategies may be restructuring school days to have longer periods and increasing school staffing so that teachers can give individual students more thoughtful feedback and attention.” (Page xiii of report)
Is there a whiff of jargon about the whole business? Yes – and we should be wary of creating a new pseudo-subject akin to PSHCE. Are schools solely responsible for character building? Absolutely not – parental role models trump teachers every time – as John Hattie’s states: “The effect of parental engagement over a student’s school career is equivalent to adding an extra two to three years to that student’s education”. Should we do our best to reinforce dispositions that help (both students and parents) with learning and foster the qualities of character that make our students happy and more healthy citizens? Yes. Should we place character development at the heart of our model for a future curriculum, including, crucially, how we shape our assessment model – I think we should. That does not mean ramming our sense of morality in the faces of our students in the vain hope they will make significant changes to their character, but it is a positive belief that if we enhance our curriculum (keeping it richly broad) and tweak our assessment models towards a holistic and a more authentic range of outcomes that we can do a better job of developing rounded young adults ready for the future.
Finally, I would like to end with this quote from Novel Laureate Professor of Economics from Chicago University, Dr James Heckman, from a Boston Review article – see here:
“First, life success depends on more than cognitive skills. Non-cognitive characteristics—including physical and mental health, as well as perseverance, attentiveness, motivation, self-confidence, and other socio-emotional qualities—are also essential. While public attention tends to focus on cognitive skills—as measured by IQ tests, achievement tests, and tests administered by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—non-cognitive characteristics also contribute to social success and in fact help to determine scores on the tests that we use to evaluate cognitive achievement.”
See here for an excellent research piece by Heckman on ‘soft skills’.
Note: I am aware there are debates about the selectivity of KIPP schools and the ultimate success of their graduates. Singaporean education has also been criticised for being highly conformist and hot-housing students to succeed. I do not believe simple education tourism works, but that we should consider carefully our new curriculum aims and our assessment model – reviewing international models as a point of reference, not as a quick fix.