Summer Turner

I teach, therefore I am.

‘Character vs Knowledge?’ Are we creating a false dichotomy?

Keynote speech from East London Science School and Education Foundation Event: ‘Character vs Knowledge? What is the purpose of education?’ Saturday 25th April 2015.

The moment that this event was launched, I was suddenly in a whole load of trouble – some of it mischievous and some more critical about a creation of a new false dichotomy. The title of the event was of course deliberately provocative – and just to ensure it really winds people up we’ve even made it our hashtag. But it wasn’t created simply to provoke and in fact the more I have been questioned and challenged about it, the more certain I have become that this choice: Character vs Knowledge is one we have to make.

Last week Kev Bartle wrote a great post about the way in which we use cliches when we are trying to prove ourselves as leaders within schools and reminded the reader to think beyond the ‘soundbites’. I sometimes feel that we do this when using the term ‘false dichotomy’ – for a start it just sounds quite cool and rather rolls off the tongue, but it’s also quite an easy way (and I know I have been guilty of doing this) to sound knowledgeable but also avoid the discussion. I’m sure that no-one here thinks that children should just be taught to be happy and shouldn’t know anything; equally I doubt anyone thinks we should teach them a load of facts and we shouldn’t care less about them other than that. At this level it is pointless to set up an either/or. However this question isn’t at that level, it goes beyond this to ask us which should we prioritise? As people responsible for the education in this country, what do we think we should be doing this all for? Which is our calling, our purpose?

According to Charles Fadel, of Curriculum Design, we still do not have to choose. He argues that:

“oversimplifications are legion […] The lack of a balanced-conversation mindset leads to many OR debates [but] The balanced reality is that these are all AND propositions, working in concert with each other, and reinforcing each other, in a judicious, impactful feedback loop.” (

I’m a fan of balance, of nuance, of navigating the grey areas of education and indeed life. I want my pupils to engage with all aspects of life, I want them to enjoy their lives, to find meaning and to achieve greatness. Like most teachers, in my classroom there is a constant balancing act to be found as I explore the best ways to teach, to inspire a love of my subject, to protect and encourage the children in my care and set them up for a life beyond school walls and rules. However, time in lessons in school and in education is short and it is precious. So as teachers we do make choices, every single moment of every single lesson we make decisions about what and how we will educate. And those decisions, those choices, are informed by a diverse collection of understandings and beliefs about the purpose of education. From our own beliefs, which in turn are formed from a vast array of influences and biases whether this be our own schooling, training or background. From the beliefs of the schools in which we teach and the values and ethos it espouses. Beyond that our choices are formed from the beliefs of our society. In split seconds, our mind whizzes through a host of these beliefs, choices and judgements already made and determines what action to take. Those of us who are school leaders consciously take time to think about all of these beliefs, these choices – we then help to define the ethos of our school and make decisions which determine what kind of choices we and others are able to make within our classrooms. As people who are engaged in education beyond our schools and in think tanks, companies, political bodies – we become part of an even wider community that determines the decisions our society, our school and our classroom value. Each one of us here has our own narrative of how we influence and determine the decisions that our society, our schools and our classrooms value.

So our choices must reflect our ideology no matter how much we would like to escape that. I want to teach my pupils amazing, beautiful, pieces of literature and I want them to be empowered, critically engaged citizens. But what do I think I should be judged on, what do I think I should be dedicating my time and my resources to? What do I believe my school should do? Because we do not have an infinite amount of time and money and we do have responsibilities, both self-imposed and those for which we are external accountable whether it be to parents, government or an inspection body.

Investing equally in both character and knowledge, as they are currently being presented, assumes that firstly you believe that each can stand on their own ground; that they are both distinctive, tangible and teachable elements and secondly that if they have equal importance we should therefore be held accountable for both – we should accept both as our purpose.

Strong advocates of this approach are Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas who address much of this in their new book Educating Ruby. In this they describe an imaginary student ‘Ruby’ who returns to school and speaks to her teachers about the quality of her education – she has left school with only two GCSEs: a D in Drama and an E in English but she feels that she was set up well for life because she learnt self-confidence, collaboration, creativity and so forth. For the authors this is a sign that:

“If you cannot be a winner at the grade game, you can still come away having been a winner at the character game. The first requires losers; anyone can win the second. And the second actually counts for more in the long term, in real life.” (Educating Ruby, p60.)

I have a few problems with this. One is that the authors are keen to place themselves in this category of balance, of neither dismissing character nor knowledge – they leave that they say to the ‘Trads’ who are interested in creating a ‘Punch and Judy show’ when it comes to educational debate and can ‘only see in black and white’ – yet their statement that character ‘actually counts for more in the long term, in real life’ (I’m not sure what they think school is?) implies to me that they have in fact made a choice – and the winner is character. My second issue here is that it seems to – as I feel a lot of the recent character narrative has done – suggest there is an accepted way of being that ‘wins at life.’ This is compounded by a later description of ‘Eric’ another fictional student who is at Oxford University but in counselling for anxiety and so called ‘imposter syndrome’. The suggestion being that he was pressured into achieving highly and is now suffering as a consequence. As he apparently went to the same school as Ruby, the implication is that he hasn’t learnt some of the same character skills as Ruby because he was being pushed to achieve good exam results. There seems to be a somewhat dangerous value judgement going on here – she is outwardly confident and happy therefore a success, he is anxious and seeking counselling therefore not. The recent approach to character I fear falls into a reductive idea of what it means to be a human being in all our different complexities, with our ‘fragmentary repository of alternative selves’ as Brian Cummings describes Hamlet. It is part of a modern obsession with the idea that we should all be ‘happy’ – that we just need to learn a strategy and be a bit tougher. It somehow implies that if only Eric had been taught to be a bit grittier, if only he’d worked in some more teams, or people had cared less about his academic success, he could have avoided anxiety and depression. This not only negates the fact that life is full of torment and angst and that sometimes it’s natural to not be resilient to this but it also fundamentally underestimates what it means to be someone with depression or anxiety. This is something that we have been struggling to understand for thousands of years as Scott Stossel comments in his book My Age of Anxiety:

‘Is pathological anxiety a medical illness, as Hippocrates and Aristotle and modern pharmacologists would have it? Or is it a philosophical problem, as Plato and Spinoza and the cognitive-behavioral therapists would have it? Is it a psychological problem, a product of childhood trauma and sexual inhibition, as Freud and his acolytes would have it? Or is it a spiritual condition, as Soren Kierkegaard and his existentialist descendants claimed? Or, finally, is it – as W.H.Auden and David Riesman and Erich Fromm and Albert Camus and scores of modern commentator have declared – a cultural condition, a function of the times we live in and the structure of our society?’ (My Age of Anxiety, p14)

We haven’t reached an answer here. So when we begin to think about the non-contextualised teaching of character as some sort of skill to be learnt, which seems to be a recent trend in educational policy, we have to consider the possibility that rather than supporting the very children discussed we may be further limiting them. For those with mental health issues, we are at the risk of over-simplification and for others we suggest that thinking or indeed even over-thinking or feeling emotional and anxious about life is somehow a flaw to be fixed.

This is where the choice of Character vs Knowledge becomes again a necessary one – if we are truly taking on the idea of teaching ‘Character’ we have to be aware of the immense responsibility this entails and therefore understand what we are asking of our schools. We need to decide if are saying that this is our purpose and if we are therefore prepared and indeed qualified to take on the responsibility of teaching our pupils who they should be.

If this is indeed the case and it’s not one that I completely avoid – I see us having roles as guides along this path and am eager to hear the arguments on this in our second panel – but if it is the case then we really have to think about what we mean by character. At The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues which is part of the University of Birmingham – they have produced their own framework of character virtues based on civic, moral and performance virtues. These virtues include, of course, resilience but also amongst others: humility, self-discipline, courage, service and ‘good sense’. The framework argues that these must not only be taught explicitly but must also be taught by a teacher who is “a person of good character”. (

So we’re now talking about being asked to judge teachers on their character. Who is responsible for that judgement? Headteachers – are they more likely to be of good character? Ofsted? Politicians? Because you know that’s how education works – and I bring you back to this idea of choice – you can’t make decisions about what you’re teaching in schools without knowing that this will impact on everything you do from how you hire your staff, the content of your curriculum, the shape of your school day through to the aspects of school life that you will be measured on.

And what I hope today’s debate will also provoke is a consideration of whether, alike to the knowledge-skills debate, we need to be making a choice about what we prioritise because one engenders the other. Some would argue that being resilient and being taught how to learn enables pupils to engage with knowledge and education in general; whilst others, myself included, would say that you can only learn about character through a rich knowledge of the world which comes from both individual experience but also quite significantly through academic knowledge of subjects such as English, philosophy, history and science, which will take you beyond your own world view. I subscribe to D H Lawrence’s philosophy on literature: “One sheds one’s sicknesses in books – repeats and presents again one’s emotions, to be master of them.” However – again –  in Claxton and Lucas’ book Educating Ruby, which I refer to as it is presented as the balanced view, they claim that,

“Parents often find themselves trapped in a conflict between sympathising with their children about the apparent irrelevance of much of the curriculum […] explaining the subplots in Othello […] and still trying to make them study it. […] Teachers may have other quandries – for example wanting to impart to their students their own love of reading and literature, and knowing, from bitter experience, that the effect on many 15-year olds of having to study The Tempest or Jane Eyre is exactly the opposite.” (Educating Ruby, p8)

The idea of usefulness and relevance comes up time and again throughout discussions about school curriculum, particularly when it comes to character or preparation for the world of work. To argue that texts such as Othello or Jane Eyre are somehow irrelevant, opposite to encouraging a love for reading and against character doesn’t reflect much balance or indeed sense to me. These kind of literary masterpieces have been the building blocks of many a character I’m sure in this room. Take Jane Eyre, a story not only brilliant in it’s own right but also a perfect text to explore society – the ideas of poverty and gender and of course principles. Take this moment, just after Jane has found out that Rochester is already married and love him as she does, she decides:

“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they’re for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth – so I have always believed, and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane – quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.’” (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte)

Talk about resilience and moral courage. How much more can you want for children than to explore these very human, angst ridden moments which we find in great literature and philosophy. Surely it’s by exploring the lives of those before us in fiction and in history that helps us to understand our own journey and the character choices we will make.

I would also suggest that it goes further than this, that the knowledge of this text is also about the power of knowledge for its own sake. Unless you become an academic these are the only years in which academic knowledge is given any value. Yet it seems that we’ve become somewhat frightened of it and continue along the idea that if its not useful in some kind of ‘apply it immediately to a real-world context way’ then its not worth studying. We somehow have adopted this as a society and my concern is that if as educators we are not defending the teaching of this, then who will?

By asking the question of ‘Character vs Knowledge?’ I believe we are forced not to avoid the complexities of education but rather to embrace them and to ask the difficult questions.  What do we mean by character and how can that be taught? What is the purpose of education? Who is best to determine that? How will we be empowered to drive education forward as we see fit? These debates and choices aren’t about us seeing in black and white; they’re about finding a way together to navigate the grey.

10 comments on “‘Character vs Knowledge?’ Are we creating a false dichotomy?

  1. Pingback: Character vs Knowledge | Learning and Teaching Ideas

  2. bt0558
    April 25, 2015

    I don’t think so.

    My understanding is that a false dichotomy exists when someone falsely asserts that there are only two options and that choosing one exlusively will necessarily exclude the other.

    The most freuently used argument here in my experience is the “you can’t teach character” not that teaching character excludes teaching content.

    I believe you make a number of points which illuminate some of the related issues but I still see very little evidence of a false dichotomy.

  3. Tom Sherrington
    April 25, 2015

    Thanks for posting this Summer. I wish I’d been there. I’m persuaded that ‘false dichotomy’ is unhelpful – it’s more a question of which knowledge and what kind of character. Is anyone (outside of politics) actually talking about non-contextualised teaching of character? I’m a bit more sympathetic to the Claxton/Lucas thesis than you are. They asked me to give a quote for the cover – which I was happy to do. Once you get past the foreward and trads vs progs business in the first chapter, it’s quite practical and grounded. The Ruby/Eric thing is meant as a provocation – a kind of inversion of ideas about success – and it succeeds even if it is a false polarisation. I don’t read it as ‘character wins’; more as ‘character matters’. They go on to discuss deep scholarship amongst other things. Actually I think the later chapters of ‘Ruby’ cover exactly the same territory as you – navigating the grey as you put it so well.

    I’m interested in the domain-specificity of character. I’ve just been on an Outward Bound week with Y9. I wonder if the character development they’ve experienced this week based on over-coming physical and mental barriers, can translate into a school-based learning environment. Perhaps resilience in studying English has absolutely no link to getting up a mountain. They haven’t read Jane Eyre yet – but then neither have I. Which knowledge matters? It’s so interesting. ‘Ruby’ has an extended section on this that I thought was a very good provocation for schools. I see the book as mainly about knowledge in fact. Climb a mountain OR read a book? Or, surely, do as much of both as possible? To me, after the which knowledge/character issue, the question is more about how to synthesise character and knowledge than choose between them? Gosh – I wish I’d been there. It’s THE debate really. Thanks again.

    • chemistrypoet
      April 25, 2015

      Before any of the practical questions can be answered (such as how much knowledge/character, what knowledge/character?) we need to have answered the question: What is education for?

      This is the philosophical question that informs all other questions and sets the context for curricula decisions.

      (Personally, I suspect that ‘character’ is an emergent property….influenced by genetics, family nurture, school and society.)

    • ragazzainglese
      April 29, 2015

      Thanks for your comment, Tom. I actually read ‘Educating Ruby’ based on your recommendation. Have read it all but I felt that it was somewhat contradictory – at some points it calls for an integrated approach to knowledge and character, but then also asserts that “Knowledge that gives you no practical purchase on the physical and social worlds beyond school is pointless.” Educating Ruby, p68. Equally I think, as I say, that the comment that character ‘actually counts for more in the long term, in real life’ does seem to be an assertion that character is more important.
      I suppose the way my thinking has shifted over the last couple of years is that I think knowledge in and of itself is important and doesn’t need a ‘practical purchase’. Whilst obviously (as seen in my last post) I feel education [and I have been alerted recently to the differences between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’ which is useful to consider here] has an important role to play in making our pupils challenge prejudices and so forth; I think of that as something which emerges from the knowledge and how we teach that. The question of what knowledge, as you say, is therefore one that desperately needs tackling. I have been exploring that somewhat in my last few posts.
      I think the world of character education, in which character is taught as a separate entity is seen in schools – I would say Building Learning Power is an example of this. I see this as a problem, both because I’m not convinced it has a deep impact and I would say that is investing time which should be spent on academic lessons.
      In terms of the ‘what’ of character – I think this has been complicated by both ‘character education’ and the idea that you can teach a virtue. Examples of which are again cropping up in schools. This links back to the ‘Eric and Ruby’ characters – perhaps it is meant as a provocation, but I think an irresponsible one because of the implication that mental health can/should be cured by ‘character education’ or that if a pupil left with no qualifications the school would still have achieved its purpose.
      Climb a mountain or read a book? I’d say reading a book is more important…but then I’m an English teacher. I’m not convinced the character development of an outwards bound course does transfer, but happy to be proved wrong.
      I’m not against trips, enrichment activities and so forth; they make up a valuable part of school life and are rewarding in many ways. However if I’m considering the ultimate purpose of a school in terms of resourcing and what I’d expect to be held accountable for, I’d say it comes back to knowledge. I hope that everything else will make them a better person [if we even know what that means] but I’m not sure it’s on schools to be accountable for that.
      Hopefully we’ll debate this more in person soon!

      • Tom Sherrington
        April 30, 2015

        Me too. It’s a key debate. Sometimes I think we use and confuse concepts like ‘character’ as if they sit outside ‘knowledge’. It’s why the Trivium is so useful as a structure. Arguably the character building in Outward Bound is really an expression of accruing a particular knowledge-set including knowledge of self. It’s interesting to me that we might value the study of the character and motivations of a fictional character over a study of a real person such as ourself when we’re up a mountain. It’s all knowledge of a kind. If we have to prioritise, which knowledge matters?

  4. Pingback: Schools, Character and Justice | thinkingreadingwritings

  5. Pingback: What knowledge do we need to build character? | questingteacher

  6. heatherfblog
    April 28, 2015

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  7. Pingback: Blog of the Week: #charactervsknowledge | RGS Learning

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