Classroom Practice in Brief – The Importance of Character

Personal attributesOnce teachers have grasped the idea that academic success is dependent upon non cognitive skills the next question is how can we influence these.  A recent paper by James Heckman implicity makes the point that most successful interventions have been with younger, primary aged pupils and not older ones.  However the problem with such programs in the US – and elsewhere – has been their sustainability.   Culturally – in the west at least – we seem eager to start new ventures but less keen to sustain them.  There is a consequent need therefore to do something for secondary age pupils – but what?  Emotional intelligence and resilience programmes have come and gone and again suffered from sustainability. Ahost of more modest local attempts at improving pupil skills comprising nurture groups, motivational programs and the like have likewise swept through our schools. So, it is not as if such approaches have not been tried.  They have.  But what is missing is evidence of a programme that works consistently with challenged adolescents.

There are broadly three reasons I think for this which need to be addressed if we wish to make a difference and begin to teach character skills in an effective way.  These are school culture,  school data and curriculum. 

School Culture

School cultures are complex. Teachers lead very busy lives and operate mostly in their own in classrooms.  Introducing new ideas to 60, 70 or 80 or more people and expecting them to implement these successfully on their own is difficult.  We are probably expecting too much in continuing to believe in this model.  In most places work is a group activity so change can be implemented more easily when a team of people try something new.  They can support one another and problem solve difficulties more easily.  Less so teachers working in isolation.

So to generate the change we are seeking we need to establish a  team of teachers who want to do this and set them up as work group. In an ideal world the school principal would lead this and generate the kind of team culture that is needed by developing a team approach across a school.  The first thing the team needs to believe in is the point made by Carol Dwek (see Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential),namely to act upon the belief that intelligence (both cognitive and non cognitive) is plastic and open to change.  Dispersing this idea consistently to adults and students in a school provides a framework within which we can start developing a character model of learning.

School Data

In many ways schools are quite data light.  Descriptions of schools tend to focus on the age and sex of the students and perhaps a statement about how many of them have special educational needs of one sort or another. But within a group of 1000 or more there must be many sub groups but at present the use of business intelligence techniques to understand these groups remains limited.  Businesses are able to describe their customers in quite sophisticated ways.  Less so schools.  It is not a matter of software but it is a matter of building a culture that asks questions rather than relies on simple judgements.  This is a vast topic but within the realm of character development teachers could use the Angela Duckworth ‘grit’ survey as a means  of finding out which students in a year group may suffer from difficulties with work ethic – a key social and academic skill.

This simple technique is one starting point for developing an inquiring approach to student skills and results in a schema of different groups.  Rather than focus on a long list of social skills which is largely unmanageable, I suggest focusing on building skills with regards to work ethic (grit and resilience), self management and ability to work with others.

Talk to students about their Grit scores and suggest the need to improve.  A remediation program outside of the classroom might focus on habit formation through sports or any activity (cooking, acting) that requires effort and consistency.  There is evidence that skills learnt in one area have a positive impact more generally.  To reinforce the program think of providing feedback to students every lesson.  In each lesson a student receives a default of one point for each of our three domains (grit, self management and working with others).  This is itemised in a spread sheet.  Those students who default in one of those areas lose a point in whatever domain they are deficient in.  From this we can then calculate the class average and feedback to those who have not achieved it their own average.  If information is collected across all classes then a profile of students’ social skills can be built up over time and it gives the teacher an objective way of talking to students causing concern.  In an ideal world feedback would be provided privately on line and this is something that might be worked towards.


Social skills are obviously best taught within an embedded curriculum model.  This requires attention to be paid to the skills that are being learnt in any one topic and ensuring that students work together as appropriate.  Key is the providing of feedback and assessment regarding skills.  A useful starting point might be departments agreeing on their approach to this important topic.   The best advice is start small  but think big. Writing reports that include our three skills will naturally generate a student culture that begins to regard them as important.  In schools it really is all about the language of expectation that we use.


This topic is vast and I have only skimmed the surface in suggesting ways forward for class room practitioners.  Mostly my own work is with whole schools in designing approaches to skills development.  If you would like more help please email me at:


Chris Gerry

January 2013


0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply