There’s nothing hand-wavey about character

Next year I am launching a character development curriculum in school. I am incredibly excited. To me, this represents a step change in what we do – progressing from a school that gets people good qualifications to a school that ensures every child will become a successful adult.

But when I talk to people about this curriculum I fill with frustration when their response almost invariably includes a phrase such as “wishy-washy”, “hand-wavey” or “soft and fluffy”. This blog is my response to those comments. Primarily, it is about why not running this curriculum is the hand-wavey-ist option of all.

What is character development?

The character development curriculum is designed to ensure every student leaves school prepared to become a successful adult. Just as we are failing children if they leave without an adequate level of literacy, we are failing them if they cannot be resilient in the face of difficulty. Our curriculum is focused on developing the key traits we believe students need to become successful adults in the future.

The ‘hand-wavey’ status quo

The status quo is the very definition of hand-wavey. This pejorative is usually levelled at the sort of lessons that ask students to work, without guidance or rigour, in some faddish way that assumes absorption of skills or content simply by osmosis.

This is our system’s current approach to character traits. We ask students to work on something else, without guiding them or applying rigour, and assume that by doing this they will develop the traits they need to be successful. Students are expected to learn resilience without their teachers thinking about it, teaching for it, or assessing it. No wonder so many fail to develop it.

A rigorous curriculum

A rigorous curriculum is one that is uncompromising. It has challenging objectives, and demands that students meet them. It will not leave this process to chance, but focuses relentlessly on preparing students to be successful. This is the basis of the character development curriculum.

The curriculum is our commitment that we will not leave our students’ development of the most crucial skills to chance. We will teach them key content – through theory and examples – so that they have the founding knowledge to understand what the traits really are. We will tweak and arrange lessons and routines so that students are applying these traits to different situations, creating new experiences where necessary. We will also assess their progress, grading them clearly and taking their performance seriously.

This curriculum is not wishy-washy, hand-wavey or soft and fluffy. Students must know content from Aristotle to Seligman, understand it in a variety of contexts, and apply it to the vast range of situations they face. They must be able to examine their thoughts and actions in great detail, drawing comparisons between themselves and the theory they know. It encompasses a myriad of content and skills, and involves practising the use of them all in a very deliberate fashion.

This is a rigorous curriculum. Anything less is hand-wavey.