Will Storrs article for The Guardian asks whether the new trend towards character in education can actually work: can you teach a child to be better person?
Storr interviews a number of psychologists and, I must admit, in his position I would tend towards the same answer. He interviews one psychologist who refers to children as “mini adults” and uses a token system to reward behaviour she deems worthy. This notion of children as adults was last seen in the industrial revolution, when children were expected to work as adults. And token systems are nothing new either: at worst, these amount to adult-centered systems where children reproduce behaviours with little critical thought as to why. Refreshing? Not really.
Another psychologist Storr interviewed suggests that empathy building classes are benign, but wasted: “If these are initiatives to try to get children to think about identity and prejudice, that can only be a good thing …but I expect they’re doomed to failure. We are, by nature, tribal and we will always form in-groups and out-groups.”
There are flaws in these comments that a simple review of the literature illustrates. For example, humans may indeed tribal by nature. But social psychologist Wade Rowatt points out that “Relatively automatic or learned prejudices might also decrease by using peaceful intergroup contact, mindfulness meditation or by creating feelings of being different, yet part of a special group.” All schools, especially public schools with a non-exclusionary enrolment practices, are the perfect place for these type of experiences. Similarly, whilst the studies of character building for the program Storr mentioned may not be conclusive, there is a growing body of evidnce-based research about positive psychology interventions in the classroom. Suzy Green, Australian psychologist, summarizes some this research.
At New River, we don’t see ourselves trying to make people ‘better’. We reject teaching and consultancy that suggests that there are easy answers – simple behaviours one must do to become a better student, a better leader, a better human. We believe that people are the experts on the changes they would like to see, and have everything they need to start working towards that change within them, and in the people and communities around them.
Can you teach a child to be a better person?
To us, there’s a much more interesting question: If that child was at their best, using their whole self as a resource in the classroom, how might we all be better?
Teachers, what do you think?