Toby Young: Should children be taught ‘character’, as Tristram Hunt wants? All the evidence suggests it’s a waste of time

Following Tristram Hunt’s suggestion that schools should teach character and resilience, Toby Young, writing in the Telegraph, questions whether the evidence is on his side. This is an extract…

…Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College, has been banging this particular drum for years (see here, for instance) and Michael Gove, in urging state schools to duplicate the extra-curricular offers of independent schools, often talks about the link between sports clubs, orchestras and choirs, cadets and debating competitions and traits like grit and the ability to bounce back from failure.

There’s a growing body of literature out there on the subject of character education, the latest being Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s The Triple Package which I write about in my Spectator column today. In the past, I’ve even emphasised these soft skills myself and at the West London Free School we insist that all children stay behind for an hour after school every day to participate in one of our extra-curricular activities.

But the evidence that “character” can be taught is threadbare, at best. The American educationalist E D Hirsch, who has an unerring snake oil-detector when it comes to these things, is pretty withering on the subject in this review of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by the journalist Paul Tough. Hirsch acknowledges that there’s a link between traits like “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence” and success, defined in terms of academic achievement, employability, earning capacity and mental and physical health.

But where the advocates of character education go wrong is in contrasting these non-cognitive skills with cognitive abilities and claiming that teaching character is more important than book learning. Hirsch points out that longitudinal studies, like the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey–Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K1992), which traced the fortunes of 2,700 children over a decade, show that the single best predictor of later academic success among young children is how much general knowledge they possess. “After general knowledge, the next best predictor is fine-motor skill, which is correlated with the development of ‘executive function’, a cognitive ability,” writes Hirsch. “In third place come the non-cognitive features that Tough emphasises in his book.”

Hirsch refers in passing to the psychologist Jerome Kagan, a retired Harvard professor and one of the pioneers of developmental psychology. Kagan’s research shows that a person’s temperament – their ability to defer gratification, for instance – is usually apparent in infancy and is unlikely to change over the course of their lifetime. This suggests that the character traits that Tristram Hunt, Michael Gove, Paul Tough and others want children to be taught in schools are largely innate. That is, they are hard-wired into children’s DNA. In light of this, it looks as though Anthony Seldon and other public school headmasters who stress the importance of educating the “whole child” are congratulating themselves for teaching characteristics that children at their schools already possess in abundance…

Character isn’t destiny. Knowledge is destiny – and unlike character, knowledge can be taught.

More at: Should children be taught ‘character’, as Tristram Hunt wants? All the evidence suggests it’s a waste of time

Does Toby Young make a fair point: character is important but, unlike knowledge, it cannot necessarily be taught? Please let us know what you think in the comments or via Twitter…

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Categories: Teaching.



    SchoolsImprove Please don’t suggest a character curriculum – lessons on character with a tick list at the end. It isn’t how it works!

  2. pod_education

    SchoolsImprove ‘All in moderation’. Knowledge is cultural capital, but Character is social capital for survival in tough, economic climate.

  3. masyomo

    SchoolsImprove only idiots see learning about character as somehow in competition against knowledge. I guess idiocy is a characteristic too


    CathyWood55 SchoolsImprove yes and what sort of character will be pushed as exemplar for us all. Narcissistic maybe

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