Guy Claxton invites debate on his eight character strengths and virtues for the learning age

We seem to live in a morally bashful age. Perish the thought that anyone might try to ‘impose their values’ on anyone else. Education colludes with this squeamishness by pretending that the only serious questions it faces are technical ones. How are we going to raise standards? What are the most appropriate methods for testing students, and when, and how much? Should we have 14-16 diplomas, or a six-term year? But words like ‘standards’ and ‘appropriate’ merely finesse the underlying moral questions. They have merely the appearance of neutrality, for we have only to ask ‘Standards of what?’ and ‘Appropriate to what end?’ and their value-laden nature is hauled to the surface. Only if we assume that ‘standards’ refer, self-evidently, to performance on national tests – with a sprinkling of statistics about ‘attendance’, and ‘exclusions’ – do the moral questions subside. But that assumption is looking increasingly flimsy. If, after 100 years of tinkering and innovation, half of all young people still don’t get a clutch of good GCSEs; if millions of school-leavers still can’t read well; if thousands of students vote with their feet every day – not because they are inherently lazy or stupid, but because they can see no value in what school is offering – you might have thought that a slightly deeper look was timely. The idea of ‘personalising learning’ is the latest from the stable of Morally Weasely Ideas. Who could be against ‘choice’? Surely you do not prefer bondage? But choice of what? Choice for what end? Is it obviously a ‘good thing’ that students and their teachers be able to customise their curriculum, like they can their lattes? ‘Double shot with skinny milk and a cinnamon shake, please.’ ‘First World Wars I and II minus the Balkans, and extra Palestine, please.’ Shall we quietly drop the Holocaust lest it arouse any genuine dissent, or provoke the expression of repugnant views? Is that the extent of our moral vision? Education has always been about much more than the mastery of self-evidently valuable bodies of knowledge, skill and understanding – though you have to search quite hard, in ministerial pronouncements, these days, to find the ‘more’. We can argue at the edges about what is ‘self-evident’ (another weasel word) and what isn’t, and create wonderfully engaging distractions by arguing about the relative merits of Shakespeare and Dickens and JK Rowling. But the real moral heart of education is about character. What kinds of adults does a nation want its children to become: not just with what skills, but with what dispositions and interests and concerns, do we want them to grow up? And that means valuing some traits over others, and being clear and up-front about which ones we don’t think matter so much. Dropping Dickens is not the point; it is, do we drop ‘neatness’ in favour of ‘discerning consumption of internet-based information’, and are we going to favour ‘resilience’ over ‘honour’? In the 19th and early 20th centuries, they didn’t pussy-foot around. The public schools talked happily of developing qualities for the leaders of the future such as team spirit, fair play, judgement and rationality. It was assumed that we only needed so many Leaders and a great many more Followers, so mass education (for the Followers) sought to develop obedience, punctuality, precision, honesty, neatness and hygiene, as well as a degree of basic literacy and numeracy. Nowadays, quite rightly, we no longer want to be associated with a school system that sorted children so divisively into potential ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’, and trained their characters differentially, and so we have become nervous about talking about character-formation at all. But the problem was not in talking about character per se. It was only the particular sets of valued characteristics that needed challenging and updating, and we should not have thrown out the baby of moral choices about desirable characteristics with the bathwater of colonial patriarchy and inherited privilege. Actually, there are signs of a resurgence of interest in character. Countries round the world have recently been busy drawing up wish-lists of the kinds of qualities they would like education to develop in young people. From Australia’s ‘new basics’ (Queensland) and ‘essential learnings’ (Victoria, Tasmania) to the UK Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s ‘Curriculum for the Future’ and the Royal Society of Arts’ ‘key competencies’, education policy documents are now buzzing with fine-sounding adjectival phrases like ‘respects the environment’ and ‘plays an active role in the community’. These may be a start towards something more robust, but for now, they seem more like potential paving slabs for the road to hell than well worked out guidelines for a revitalised education. First, they are often phrased so vaguely that no one could possibly disagree – but at the unacceptable cost of no one knowing what they really mean either. Does ‘respecting the environment’ mean lobbying the G8? Demanding James Lovelock come and talk to the school? Insisting that school-meals are organic? Or merely not dropping litter and trips to the bottle-bank? And second, the gulf between these fine sentiments and the daily reality of life in lessons remains, for the vast majority of students, huge. Schools pay lip-service to such ideas on the opening pages of their prospectuses and strategic plans, and then, largely, ignore many of them. Students, of course, are wise to these disparities and hypocrisies, and their main effect, when they see fine words honoured in the breach rather than the observance, is to fuel further cynicism. Maybe education could learn from another area where values have made a comeback – the ‘positive psychology’ movement inspired in 1998 by American Professor Martin Seligman. Fed up with the fact that psychology had a vast vocabulary for describing pathology, but very little to say about wellbeing and happiness, he and Chris Peterson trawled the world’s literature for a preliminary list of ‘character strengths and virtues’. Some apparently timeless ones kept recurring, like integrity, generosity and forgiveness. Others, however, seemed to be particularly suitable to certain kinds or conditions of society, like physical valour or aesthetic sensibility. Given that we too would like our kids to grow up kind and honest, what then are the special virtues that 21st-century living seem to require? It is a cliché that we live in times of escalating uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, choice and individual responsibility. Through the electronic media children are bombarded daily with conflicting models of what to value and how to live, and their communities often offer little strong, unanimous guidance about how to choose wisely – or little they are willing to heed. It is also increasingly obvious that young people (especially in the UK, according to the recent Unesco report) are not coping well with this freedom and diversity. Classic symptoms of stress are high – escapism, recklessness, drug abuse, anxiety, depression, self-harm. If stress reflects a widening gap between the demands of one’s life and the resources one has to cope, clearly many young people are feeling badly under-resourced. Those resources are psychological, as much as they are material or social. As the core function of education is precisely to develop in young people the mental and emotional resources they will need, to cope well with the real demands of their real lives, it is clearly not doing its job. And one of the reasons it is floundering is because it has no clear understanding of what the virtues are; no agreed vocabulary for talking about the tolerances, interests and habits of mind that are the bare necessities, if students are to flourish in the midst of uncertainty. It is impossible to ‘improve’ the running of schools unless we have a clear idea of what those virtues are. ‘Where’ and ‘why’ have to come before ‘how’ and ‘what’. Without that clarity, all innovation falls back obsessively on ‘raising standards’ as traditionally, and inadequately, defined. The requisite discussion about values and character is what has been grievously lacking so far. So in the spirit of positive psychology, let me offer for debate a set of Character Strengths and Virtues for the Learning Age. Some of these are drawn from Peterson and Seligman’s list; some are derived from asking teachers and young people themselves; some are suggested by the burgeoning literature of the learning sciences. They are, as I say, merely a provocation, an invitation to argue. I propose eight, that I call ‘The Big 8’. They are: curiosity, courage, exploration, experimentation, imagination, discipline, sociability and thoughtfulness. Each of these, in turn, comprises a number of sub-dispositions that I shall illustrate briefly.

Curiosity is the starting point for learning. If you are not interested in things that are difficult or puzzling, you won’t engage. Curious people have a sense of wonder. They wonder about things: how they come to be, and how they work. They live in a wonder-ful world, not a world of dead certainties and cut-and-dried rules. They know how to ask good, pertinent, penetrating questions. They can be challenging. They may not take Yes for an answer. They have a healthy skepticism about what they are told.

Young people surely need courage; not necessarily physical valour but the courage to engage with uncertain things, ‘to boldly go’ (the world’s favourite split infinitive) where they are not yet sure how to respond. They need to be up for a challenge, willing to take a risk and see what happens, not always playing it safe and sticking to things they know they can do. Courageous learners have the determination to stick with things that are hard, even if they turn out to be harder than they thought. (Though it is also a virtue to know when to quit, not because you are feeling stupid but because it really isn’t worth it.) They can be patient and persistent. They bounce back from frustration; they don’t stay floored for long.

Exploration is the active, inquisitive counterpart of curiosity. Inquisitive people are good at seeking and gathering information. They can attend carefully to situations, taking their time if needs be, and not jumping to conclusions or producing slick answers just to ‘look good’. They enjoy the process of finding things out, of researching (whether it be footballers’ lives or particle physics). They like reading, but they also enjoy just looking at things, letting details and patterns emerge. They can let themselves get immersed in a book or a game; absorption in learning is often a pleasure. They can concentrate. They like sifting and evaluation ‘evidence’, not just reading or surfing the net uncritically, and their exploration usually breeds more questions. Explorers are also good at finding, making or capitalising on resources (tools, sources of information, people) that will support their explorations.

Experimentation is the virtue of the practical inventor, actively trying things out to see if they work. Experimenters like tinkering, tuning and looking for small improvements. They don’t have to have a grand, ostensibly foolproof, scheme before they try something out; they are at home with trial and error. They even spend a good deal of time just ‘playing’ with materials – paint, cogs, computer graphics – to see what they will do, uncovering new ‘affordances’. They are happy practising, taking time to ‘get it right’, even putting in the effort (maybe the long boring hours) to pick out the hard parts and master them. They enjoy drafting and re-drafting, looking at what they’ve done – a garden bed, an essay – and thinking about how they could build on and improve their own products and performances. They don’t mind making mistakes (learning matters more than being ‘right’), and, as Billie Jean King said, they ‘look on losing not as failure but as research’.

Imagination is the virtue of fantasy, of using the inner world as a test-bed for ideas and a theatre of possibilities. They are at home in the world of ‘What If’ and make-believe, of playing with possibilities. Good imaginers have the virtue of dreaminess: they know when and how to make use of reverie, how to let ideas ‘come to them’. They have mixture of healthy respect and skepticism toward their own hunches, intuitions and ‘feelings of rightness’ (even if they can’t justify them yet). They use mental rehearsal to develop their skills and readiness for tricky situations. They like finding links and making connections inside their own minds. They use imagery and metaphor in their thinking. (All this is true of many Nobel science laureates, creative artists and international sportsmen and women, for example).

The creativity of imagination needs to be yoked to the virtue of discipline; of being able to think carefully, rigorously and methodically, as well as to take the imaginative leap. ‘Reason’ isn’t the be-all and end-all of learning by any means, but the ability to follow a rigorous train of thought, and to spot the holes in someone else’s argument, as well as your own, is invaluable. Disciplined learners can create plans and forms of structure and organisation that support their learning – like the Scouts, they can ‘be prepared’ – but can also stay open to serendipity, and throw away the plan if needs be. Discipline enables knowledge and skill to be used to guide learning, to allow the painstaking ‘crafting’ of things that usually needs to follow the ‘brainwave’.

The virtue of sociability, and of judiciously balancing sociability with solitariness, also seems essential. Effective learners seem to know who to talk to (and who not), and when to talk (and when to keep silent) about their own learning. And they are good members of groups of explorers. They know how to listen, how to take turns, what kinds of contribution are helpful. They have the knack of being able to give their views and hold their own in debate, and at the same time stay open-minded to and respectful of others’ views. Collective learning is more important to them than point-scoring. They can give feedback and suggestions skilfully and receive them graciously. They are generous in sharing information, ideas and useful ways of thinking and exploring; and they are keen to pick up useful perspectives and strategies from others.

Finally there is the virtue of thoughtfulness, not in the sense of being considerate to others (though this is a virtue too), but of being disposed to reflection and contemplation: taking time to mull things over, take stock, consider alternative strategies and possibilities. Not paralysed by self-consciousness (which is a pitfall) but capable of self-awareness, reflective learners can take a step back every so often and question their own priorities and assumptions. They somehow know the strategic moments when this useful (and are not seduced by the current fad for ‘metacognition’ which seems to make the mistake of supposing that ‘thinking about your own thinking’ is always a good thing, which it isn’t).

One of the benefits of this list, as I have tried to construct it, is that the virtues seem broad enough to apply to a good deal of out-of-school learning. Dealing with the real-time uncertainties of modern life, and developing one’s own passionate interests and vocations, is usually not at all like school. The carefully planned, pre-digested, sequenced and graded kinds of bite-size learning in which conventional schooling trades are not the kinds of learning for which young people need to be prepared, and an apprenticeship in exam-passing leaves even the most successful with a skill for which there is little call, once they have left university. So we need to focus on developing qualities of mind that do have real-life currency, and the first step is to talk about what they are. The second step, of course, is to design schools that offer an effective, systematic apprenticeship in those qualities and virtues. How do you teach courage, or inquisitiveness, or sociability? The first stage of Step 2 is to realise what doesn’t work, and not do it. What doesn’t work is stand-alone lessons on those virtues. Being able to talk about thinking is not the same thing as being a better thinker, and it may not even be necessary. (I have watched lessons in which youngsters have been parroting back Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, without any evidence of them becoming more multiply intelligent.) And even being coached in the abilities of ‘questioning’ or ‘self-evaluation’, for example, and being able to demonstrate the benefits when asked, is very far from having those abilities become part of one’s learning modus operandi in everyday life. What is needed are schools that have three things. First, they use the language of the learning virtues all the time. They find multiple ways to notice and acknowledge students’ ‘virtuous’ development. Second, they create frequent, genuine, attractive opportunities for students to discover for themselves not just the power of these virtues but their pleasures. That means creating sizeable chunks of time where they can, both alone and in collaboration, get their teeth into real hard learning challenges that engage and intrigue them. And that means trusting young people more. And finally, the school and all the adults in it need to model the virtues in their own professional lives. Headteachers need to let the students know that they do not have all the answers, and that the school as a whole is being curious, inquisitive and exploratory about its own operation, tinkering its way imaginatively, thoughtfully and courageously towards improvement. And every teacher, governor and midday helper should be actively looking for and welcoming opportunities to display their own learning virtues. None of these three requirements is impossible. None of them need jeopardise hard won levels of control or of examination results. None of them means – God forbid – that we all have to chuck out Shakespeare and start doing a new subject called ‘the learning virtues’. What it does mean, as a first step, is that we all start experimenting with thinking and talking about young people and their development in a different way. I’ve offered a first shot at a ‘primer’ for that conversation. Now, please, help me get it better.

A shortened version of this article was published as ‘A Brighter Outlook’ in Leader, the magazine of the Association of School and College Leaders, July 2007.

Guy Claxton is professor of the learning sciences, at the University of Bristol