Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Restoring Character to Its Rightful Place

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Restoring Character to Its Rightful Place

Article excerpt

Mindfulness has been dismissed as modish claptrap by many, yet resilience and virtue were pillars of learning in ancient times

It has been refreshing to read recent pieces in these pages laying siege to various education fads. In a profession that can be more trend-conscious than an East London hipster, such scepticism and a demand for evidence are welcome.

We all know the appalling damage that has been wreaked on schools by progressive teaching philosophies, neologisms with a scant evidence base that have dominated British education and led us to be the only Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development country where the literacy of 16- to 24-year-olds is no better than those aged 55-64.

The bar for widespread innovation in teaching practice ought to be set high, and changes should be based as far as possible on scientifically verified research. It is for that reason that Frank Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, was wrong to dismiss the potential of mindfulness - and with it, implicitly, character education as a whole - to improve pupils' academic performance and well-being ("Mindfulness is a fad, not a revolution", Comment, 18 April). For a start, Furedi fails to furnish us with any evidence of his claims that mindfulness is happy claptrap.

Others are more thorough. Interventions such as the Penn Resiliency Programme have been shown to have positive effects on well-being and standards. And I am involved with the Developing Healthy Minds in Teenagers project, a randomised controlled trial of more than 30 schools that will establish the impact of a set of programmes, including mindfulness, on academic and mental health outcomes. There is no toolkit yet on how to close the performance gap among disadvantaged pupils, but the evidence base of effective practice is growing.

To be sure, there is plenty of hokum in this field. In her wonderful, acerbic book Smile or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich takes on the extremes of the positive thinking movement, castigating the appalling absence of humanity or scientific rigour among those who believe that positive thinking is a panacea for any illness or problem, no matter how serious. She powerfully records the despair of cancer sufferers, whose bogus gurus blame the progress of their illness on insufficiently positive mental attitudes.

I take her critique very seriously, and anyone promoting the potential of character education or positive psychology in education needs to be extremely careful about the extent of their claims. Genes, upbringing and environment are powerful influences on how our lives will turn out. But the idea that our paths are not totally predestined or tied to circumstance, that positive change is possible through education, is an ancient one.

The classical conception of education begins with the Greeks, Aristotle in particular, and in it the purpose of schooling is twofold: to introduce young people to the best that has been known and thought, to use Matthew Arnold's phrase, and to prepare them with the strength of character to live a good life.

As Clare Jarmy eloquently argued in TES last week ("Aiming to please", Feature, 20 June), this conception has been a feature of Western civilisation for millennia. While she traces its decline to the Enlightenment, I believe the real turning point was the emergence of postmodernism. The post-war crisis of adult authority and the growth of moral relativism shunted out of classroom practice the idea that schools should develop a range of virtues in children. …

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