Character education, character employment
Stephen Carrick-Davies, founder of Facework, reflects on the importance of Character within employment and training and argues that far from being a personal ‘nice to have’ is increasingly the ingredient which will change our relationships in work for the better.
Have you ever done one of those free online character profile tests? You know the sort which after an interminably long set of questions provides you with a score and set of top character traits. It’s easy to be cautious about online tests however, they can be extremely helpful at reminding us that all of us possess good character virtues. Indeed, when I recently ran a test with a 16-year-old, it helped him uncover precious innate qualities he didn’t at first realise he had.
But whilst Character Education is a buzz phrase in some education circles, it is sad that few schools have the space in the curriculum, or the resources to develop innovative approaches. As Martin Luther King Jr reminded us “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and critically. Intelligence, plus character- that is the goal of true Education.” Yes, some schools teach it by stealth, or see it being shaped on the sports pitch or enrichment activities, but we could be doing so much more. In a fiercely competitive world, knowing one’s inner strengths and virtues can make a tremendous difference not just in school, but importantly in equipping young people in the transition from school to work. Indeed, I would argue it is the most important thing in helping someone not just get a job, but getting the right job.
As employers we used to say, “recruit for attitudes; train for skills.” The inference was that many skills can be taught, but attitudes and character qualities are things you arrive with. We are told that qualities such as honesty, kindness, bravery, and gratitude are things which someone innately possesses and are therefore harder to teach and grow, certainly in the short-term. I am not so sure. Of course some things like authenticity or self-regulation can be difficult to teach, but given that a lot of these qualities are caught (rather than taught) we could be doing more to model, affirm and reward the new 21st Century Character skills. Indeed, what if our employability training included a greater emphasis on helping a young person discover their top character strengths and we developed better exercise programmes which honed the ‘muscles’ and memory to increase these character strengths? Would this lead to better work places and more rewarding work? I believe it would, here’s why:
Firstly, knowledge is power. When I showed my 16-year-old student his strengths and we discussed why he had scored Social Intelligence, Gratitude and Kindness among his top three attributes, he quickly recognised that, yes, these were things which he was able to demonstrate and very quickly we were able to explore why he was motivated to use them with others. Soon we started talking about the sort of jobs where he could be paid for using these strengths. Within a short time, he was able to acknowledge these attributes that made him unique and – although there is no GCSE in Kindness or Gratitude - he was able to see how he could excel in these areas and be rewarded. In my work I find that it is so often the very simple positive reinforcement exercises, coupled with specific feedback which makes a difference and empowers a student. It’s no coincidence that the leading Character Education programme in the USA is called KIPP– Knowledge is Power Programme.
Secondly, experts in this field strongly argue that these are character strengths, not traits. Strengths can be grown and like any exercise routine this requires us to be intentional, rigorous and disciplined. It also helps if you have a coach, enabling you to develop your technique. Many of the young people I work with come from unsupportive homes and sadly may never have been given praise for the positive character strengths they possess. We need skilled practitioners who can help them ‘flip’ their thinking, and we need to challenge terms like ‘snitching’ or ‘banter’ which can be used to distort and dilute the importance of honesty and kindness. Young people don’t consume media, they inhabit it and for character education to be effective it needs to be delivered through and in the virtual living rooms and corridors of the online world. How important it is then for coaches to design new character ‘gymnasiums’ where old habits can be challenged, new techniques can be taught and character instructions can be implemented. No-one says it is easy, but tell me an exercise regime which is.
Thirdly, Character Education is needed now more than ever. Far from simple ‘nice’ personal traits, good Character Education is becoming mission critical in our complex world where the biggest challenges are not to choose between a virtue or vice, but to find the right balance between two competing virtues and situations where it seems almost impossible to be both honest and considerate at the same time. Take for example the scenario of what should you say to a friend who asks you for your opinion about a tattoo she is considering, but which to you looks ugly? The ancient Greeks called this character strength phronesis; the overall quality of knowing what to want and what not to want when the demands of two or more virtues compete.
You don’t need to have seen the powerful film by Ken Loach called ‘I Daniel Blake’ to realise that our society, and the systems within it, need leaders who can wrestle between the conflicting needs of the individual and the system with grace and integrity. In our increasingly fractured world, many public servants and educators are doing amazing work in supporting those who have been pushed-out, either from education or employment through no fault of their own. We are seeing more and more brave workers who have become incapacitated, or have been left high and dry as the changing industrial tide has receded from these shores. However, as I sat watching ‘I Daniel Blake’ I was deeply moved as the protagonist, a gracious 59-year-old unemployed carpenter, sought to take on the Kafkaesque bureaucratic ‘system’ so he and others could simply do the right thing. Despite being robbed of the ability to show his practical work skills in employment (because of a heart-attack), he was nevertheless able to demonstrate enormous character strengths of creativity, compassion, kindness, social intelligence and grit, when faced with the indignity of being treated like a number, a beggar, a service user, or a blip on a screen! It was through his character strengths that he demonstrated change. It is his story, lived out by many all around us, which is the cry for a simpler humanity and dignity. Don’t we want these values for our children? Isn’t this Character Education as important as academic GCSEs?
Indeed, it’s not just young people going into the world of work who can benefit from Character Education. As George Eliot, another wise, creative soul reminded us many years ago, “It’s not too late to be the person you might have been.” When we find the courage to dust off ‘honesty’ from the top shelf, and blow away the cobwebs, we find that it is not too late to unlearn old roles and attitudes and re-learn ancient approaches shared and tested through the ages. Work is a profoundly spiritual experience and although today’s challenges can seem more complex and there appears to be more conflicting pressures in our age of austerity we need, like never before, young and older workers of good character to do the right things. Characters, like diamonds, are formed under pressure. Now is the time to help young people see the value of these precious jewels.
 See for example the one I use at https://www.viacharacter.org
 See http://www.kipp.org/ programme which today is run in over 200 public charter schools serving underserved communities for success in college and life.
 See a brilliant 50 second Character education clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWJut7KQhI4
Founder of Facework