Shape the environment, not the individual (2 of 4)

SecEd recently published a piece on Character Education I'd written while I was still Education Manager at Keep Britain Tidy. It is quite long, so I've split it into four parts to post here. You can read it in full over on Sec-Ed. This is part 2 of 4. You can read part one here.

Across two books, How Children Succeed and Helping Children Succeed, Paul Tough has explored how character develops in children, especially those from poorer backgrounds. The key insight is the emerging belief that qualities like grit, resilience, conscientiousness and optimism do not readily develop in schools that follow traditional teaching styles and modes of classroom organisation.

Research shows that character is developed in more subtle ways by the forces that exist in the home and school environments children inhabit. A key environmental factor is the presence or absence of stress.

Children, especially when they are young, who grow up in stress-filled environments find it harder to respond in calm and measured ways to demanding circumstances; they have been neurologically conditioned to be in a state of high vigilance, prepared to fight or flight their way out of tense situations. In contrast, children growing up in calm, reassuring environments, are better able to remain composed, consider their decisions more carefully and maintain concentration. 

Tough explains further in a recent article in The Atlantic:

When children and adolescents misbehave, we usually assume that they’re doing so because they have considered the consequences of their actions and calculated that the benefits of misbehaviour outweigh the costs. So our natural response is to increase the cost of misbehaviour, by ratcheting up punishment.

One of the chief insights that recent neurobiological research has provided, however, is that young people, especially those who have experienced significant adversity, are often guided by emotional and psychological and hormonal forces that are far from rational. This doesn’t mean that teachers should excuse or ignore bad behaviour. But it does explain why harsh punishments so often prove ineffective in motivating troubled young people to succeed.

Tough cites the work of Turnaround for Children, a charity supporting schools in the most deprived areas of north eastern USA, as a leading example of what can be done to transform the school environment.

Although Turnaround for Children does offer one-to-one support for children who have acute behavioural and emotional problems, the approach to character development focuses at a more macro level. It is based on understandings of the wider drivers of bad behaviour, what works best to develop character and how children develop what Tough terms “academic perseverance”.

In intervention teams of three of four, Turnaround first helps teachers to develop a calm atmosphere of belonging and engagement in the classroom. For example, teachers are trained in techniques that help them to defuse confrontations, rather than escalate them.

Building on this, Turnaround helps teachers to develop teaching styles that are more cooperative. There are fewer lecture-style sessions, less dependence on repetitive worksheets and more emphasis on group learning, problem-solving and longer term project work, where pupils work together in teams towards common goals. 

In the UK, programmes like Philosophy for Children (P4C) are gaining popularity. P4C focuses on the development of children’s ability to form and discuss philosophical questions. It does this through various group exercises and, most commonly, through sessions known as “community enquiries”. 

During an enquiry, participants develop a philosophical question in response to a stimulus material such as a picture, short film or a story. They are then facilitated to explore that question in a semi-structured way. In groups of five to 20 pupils, children are taught to be respectful, thoughtful and helpful; they are not trying to win a debate, they are collaborating in a process of critical thinking – it is a dialogue. P4C has been shown to bring benefits to children in terms of self-esteem, listening and speaking skills.

It is also having a positive impact on attainment, especially among disadvantaged pupils. Teachers find value in these more cooperative teaching and learning styles, both in terms of children’s learning, but also in terms of behaviour as it fosters a sense of belonging and mutual respect between pupils that is conducive to a stress-free learning environment.

Re-shaping teaching styles and classroom organisation in this way can be challenging for teachers and they may initially resist approaches like P4C and Turnaround for Children. However, giving pupils more autonomy and more power to shape their own learning seems to be working, attainment and behaviour are both on the increase.

Two more ways to think about Character Education:

From setbacks to success (part 3 of 4)
Nurture empathy (part 4 of 4)


Morgan Phillips