Character Building: the Real Goal of Education?

“Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” – Martin Luther King Jr, ‘The purpose of education’. In recent years, character building has been emphasised in education from primary school all the way up to further education and beyond. Producing students with good morals, ‘soft skills’ and ‘skills for life’ is magnified as an important aim of teaching. In practice, facilitating both character building exercises as well as the national curriculum is a difficult juggling act. One element often falls by the wayside and there is not a clear way of countering the imbalance. More often than not, character education is the forgotten element.

Character building frameworks, like the ‘Six Pillars of Character’ developed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, help to guide our understanding of where to begin when considering character building in students. The Six Pillars are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship which cover off some of the main character criteria which theoretically make students “well-rounded”. One thing is certain, character education in school and preparing students for challenges, that they will face beyond exam papers, is a must.

Educational success, attendance, and positivity correlate with ‘strength of character’. Thus, it is a big plus if schools successfully educate their pupils in ‘character’ as well as helping them achieve good grades. In practice, it is evident that the former directly affects the latter.

We need to think ’emotional intelligence’ as well as ‘academic intelligence’, and ‘mental well-being’ alongside ‘brain power’. It seems that the character and moral education have, until very recently, been the underdog. This is possibly due to very minimal measurement of character improvement and our assumption that it must be improving if academic grades are improving – this is not always the case. There is also a lot less focus on the development of character education lesson plans and resources. Action must be taken to redistribute resources so that both elements of education are being fostered and measured independently.

For example, take confidence and resilience, two valuable character traits for career progression. Students who have developed confidence will deal well with interviews and the prospect of more responsibility within a role. If students have developed resilience, they will deal well with rejection and unforeseen obstacles rather than wasting time worrying about minor failures. The challenges we encounter in life after school are not easy and can often feel like having a net pulled out from under you. Confidence and resilience are two character traits that are essential for success in the workplace. We do not gain comfort from grades achieved in the past in these practical situations, we gain comfort from character traits like confidence and resilience. The knowledge that we are able and grounded. These traits are what help us to recognise that minor failure does not mark the end.

Teachers should feel confident in their knowledge about character building so that they can integrate character building experiences into lesson plans with ease. We must keep moving forward with the effort to prioritise character building activities and development games and to ensure that students succeed in achieving ‘the goal of true education’; ‘intelligence plus character’.