What can the takahe teach us about Character Education?



The UK government has become concerned that our children have stopped developing character traits such as resilience, “grit” and determination to succeed. So much so, they have been offering “Character Grants” to help schools to come up with solutions to this national problem.

I don’t know why they are so baffled about this.

Our kids are losing these traits for the same reason that the takahe and other native birds of New Zealand ended up losing the ability to fly: Life is so ordered and safe that they no longer need to. Who would give up flying? It seems like a huge thing to give up on, but what about courage, resilience and independence? How about the ability to remember almost anything and to think around a problem from various angles, making mistakes and deepening knowledge? All these character traits and learning abilities, like flying,  take enormous energy, which we all evolved to conserve wherever possible. The same process that is causing our characters to atrophy is responsible for everyone losing the ability to remember phone numbers, how to spell and indeed anything at all that can be summoned up electronically.

Except during exams, obviously. Or when we need to apply ourselves to studying and thinking.

A crucial and dangerous difference between us and the generation that are growing up entirely within the age of the internet is that they don’t understand that the internet is no substitute for being able to think for yourself. We see the internet  as a useful tool. Many of them are outsourcing far more of their brain than is sensible, given that we will lose whatever we do not use. Of course, when it comes to the brain this will happen quickly; due to plasticity.

The question of how to develop motivation in our students has vexed us for years, but is the problem getting worse? Teenagers are naturally disinclined to do whatever it is teachers ask of them. It has always been the case, hasn’t it? This may have made it difficult to notice that there have been fundamental changes in our brains, because of the internet, that we are not giving the urgent attention that we should. Is it just the same old teenage ennui, or has reaching students actually become more difficult?

Another important change of the last couple of decades, at least in UK schools, is that, thanks to the government and Ofsted, (who use assessment as a tool to judge schools and teachers, under threat of downgrading, closure or lost pay progression or chance of advancing in one’s career) the responsibility for a child’s “success” (passing exams/ progress in a smooth linear fashion up a set of prescribed steps) lies entirely with the teachers. They know as well as teachers do that teaching and learning are far too complicated to be intelligently measured in this way, but can’t work out how to do it differently, so we are stuck with it, apparently.

Teachers, faced with enormous pressure to make sure that every child “fulfils their potential” (i.e. gets at least a C at GCSE, or makes the required “levels of progress”), end up giving them so much “help” that they no longer have to push themselves to succeed. They then have no satisfaction in their achievements and go on to discover (or, more likely, their universities and/or employers discover) that they don’t, in fact, understand or know how to use a lot of the content taught for their shiny new qualifications. Struggling is important for learning. It is also more satisfying. If you could be dropped off on the top of Everest by helicopter, you might enjoy the view, but you will never experience the deep sense of achievement of those who got there the hard way. See? Character again. These “soft skills” are not a pleasant add-on; they are crucial, and we have been teaching in a way that stops them being developed.

We need to accept that the internet and technology have changed everything about how we teach, learn and work. At the moment, we have loads of technology in class, but we haven’t really grasped just how much teenagers’ lives are taking place online, with the only time they are not connected being during our lessons.

We do have to be wary that we do not accidentally throw away what is valuable. We really haven’t thought enough about what to keep from the past, such as the important role that handwriting plays in brain development.

It has always been true, certainly, that the teenage brain will be likely to dismiss whatever it is that the adults around them will try to insist is important. The trouble, of course, is that teachers and adults have important information to impart that the kids will not appreciate the value of until they are adults.

It is a fact that it is not always -or even often- possible to predict what may be important and what may never be needed, what with the further fact that we are attempting to teach pupils without the benefit of knowing what they, or the world, will actually be like in the future. The students are unlikely to know what they will need in the future, either, regardless of what some of them might believe. They might never need the thing we are teaching. This means that we will often need to teach children things which they have no (at least not yet) interest in learning. So, the argument goes, it is necessary to use extrinsic motivators, or the learning will just not happen. We really should know better. This is destroying other vital character traits, such as personal responsibility and independence.

One day, plenty of our pupils will remember some of their classes and declare,

“That was a waste of time! I have never used any of that!”

We have all said this about our school days at some point, I’m sure. The fact is, though, none of us can really know which parts of the lessons they have used or not, because learning goes far, far beyond the content and skills detailed in even the most comprehensive of lesson plans. We learn skills that can be spread far beyond the lesson itself. We take what we learn and apply it to new areas and tasks as they come up in our lives. Our brains use what we have learned and apply it in such a way as to render the original source of the ideas and learning impossible to trace. If we limit our understanding of what we are teaching to the content of the book we are reading, (though that might still be huge and valuable in its own right), then we are simply failing to understand just how complicated the human mind and brain really is.

Make no mistake, all of us (even the most reluctant of students) are learning and changing our brains all the time, whether we know it or not:  body language, attitude, problem solving, motivation (extrinsic or intrinsic) … The list of learning we are passing on is endless and impossible to keep tabs on in any but the most superficial sense, however much we are supposed to make it visible to whoever is passing. We process billions of pieces of information every single day. Of course, this can’t be measured, so it is not valued; certainly not by the people doing the measuring and often not by the people doing the learning,, but they at least will be gaining far more than they realise.

What we can do is acknowledge that this macro-learning is taking place and accept that, if we want our students to believe what we say, we have to truly model what we want them to become…

This brings us back to intrinsic motivation. It is harder to develop intrinsic motivation, especially when pupils have been conditioned since toddler-hood to learn for extrinsic rewards, but we must. Using only extrinsic motivators reinforces the idea that the learning isn’t important in itself and that they are doing things to humour their teachers, rather than for their own enrichment.  For teachers to suppose that we give a signal that something is truly important because we feel it is worth bribing students to learn is a misinterpretation that could be used to illustrate important differences between the adult and teenage brain:

Teachers think…(Or are told they must adhere to school policy because others think. )

“If we bribe you to learn this, it shows you that we truly believe it is important and useful information that will help you to have a successful life.”

Teenagers think…

“If you need to bribe me to learn this, it can’t be all that good. If it was so good, I’d be interested. You are an adult, so how would you know anything about what I’ll need in the future anyway? I’ll take the ipad/trip/achievement point etc, though! Cheers!”

 This difference will cause difficulties whenever the extrinsic motivator is taken away or not offered. The student comes to expect more and more until we have to “reward” them just for showing up or bringing the correct equipment to school. Then, because the learning is not backed up in any meaningful way, it is forgotten very quickly.

With intrinsic motivation, the learning is very different. If learners care about what they are learning, if it means something genuine, if the link between it and the learner is obvious and the value can be clearly seen, it is much more likely to be stored in the long term memory and literally become part of that person’s developing brain and mind. In practice, this means that we can stop banging on and on about the most basic content that pupils need telling over and over again, leaving them (and us) bored, frustrated and feeling increasingly despondent about their abilities.

As a concrete example, I’m sure I am not the only English teacher to be experiencing the madness of the seeming inability of 21st Century Learners to use capital letters properly. It is not much of an intellectual leap to realise that the reason that pupils are still getting this wrong after thirteen years of schooling is really not because they don’t know where capital letters are supposed to go. They do. They have been told it thousands of times. Literally. If we only use extrinsic motivation methods, we can get them to use capital letters correctly. Whenever we test them in class, almost every child will get them right every time.

“Oh good”, we think, “They understand”.

The same goes for all the basic skills we teach, which they are supposed to have developed by the time they do their GCSEs. Then we set them a task, or they sit an exam and the work they produce is littered with the most appalling, basic errors of grammar and punctuation. In horror, we go over the material again; they “get it”. We set them a task. They make the same mistakes…and so the long years wear on… Until we find ourselves teaching A level English students about capital letters and full-stops. I wish I was kidding.

The problem is not that they don’t understand. It is that they have no intrinsic motivation for doing it the right way and they continually reinforce the incorrect pathways whenever they don’t have a teacher standing over them to “auto-correct” their work. 

You know how annoyed you get when the internet goes down? That’s how students feel when their teacher doesn’t “help” them.

They have no reason to believe us that this is an important skill. After all, they are continually sending texts or making comments on social networking sites in which they don’t use capital letters and very little, or no punctuation and it is apparently fine. It is really no good us telling them how important it is to write properly for exams, CVs, letters of application etc. Even if they believe us, they will regard these as the only occasions on which it is important and because they feel confident that they “know” it, they will believe that they just have to do it then and all will be well. This actually would be fine if it were not for the fact that the brain will always seek to make things that we do often as automatic as possible. If writing well is important, it would be much more useful for that to be the automatic one. As it is, teenagers (and this will continue into adulthood if we don’t do something about it) continually practise and reinforce the “no capital letters or punctuation” pathways in their brains, which means they have to give far too much brain-power during exams over to concentrating on basic skills, when they should be using their brains to think.

The only way this will change is through intrinsic motivation. Unless they start caring, they will never put in the work necessary to bring about the re-wiring their brains need. Our 21st Century Students need to care about their work. They need to understand why it is important. They need to see the value and the reasoning behind what we are telling them. We have got to get them to truly “get it”, or they (and we) are in big trouble!

So, how do we help our pupils to develop intrinsic motivation?

This often seems prohibitively ambitious, especially given the fact that we really have little choice but to teach some things that students are unlikely to see the value of, even when they are adults, never mind now!

In its simplest form, intrinsic motivation could be developed through actively teaching pupils how passing exams will lead to qualifications, jobs and lives that they would like. We need to involve actual employers to get the message accepted. We should be breaking down the walls that separate schools from their wider communities.Students will have to learn some things that they are probably not particularly interested in, but which are deemed important by people other than the adults directly in front of them right now, who are the focus of teenage rebellion. How about lessons in entrepreneurship and social innovation? Getting them to really care about what they are learning will always be the most effective way of maximising recall, sophisticated learning and higher-order thinking.

Some Ideas: A Stream of consciousness! 

Teach both teachers and students about the mind and brain.  When I trained as a teacher (very recently) I was so disappointed to discover that there was not a single mention of the advances in Mind, Brain and Education (Harvard University has had this as an M.Ed programme for years; no real sign of it in the UK) of the last couple of decades. Teachers and schools are working flat out to meet whatever whims are handed down to them. This means that, when something truly groundbreaking happens, everyone is too busy to notice, or just dismisses it as another gimmick.

We need to get the internet generation to “buy in” to the idea that they have to take responsibility for what they put into their brains and what they embed as long-term knowledge or skills. They need to understand that their brain will do whatever they keep asking it to do. When they understand this, it becomes a conscious choice.

This is good news because it means they that they can become smarter and better at doing something if they practise, including learning.

We can teach the “Character Traits” as separate subjects, but if we develop intrinsic motivation and give them back responsibility for their own successes and failures, we might find that they develop the others of their own accord, which would be so much better because it would be because it was essential and continually practised. This all sound quite circular now, but I hope it makes sense!

We should embed advanced study-skills in the curriculum of every subject.

Teach mindfulness.

 Research and develop an understanding of 21st Century Teaching and Learning needs and solutions.

The team behind Global Digital Citizen have some great ideas.


Get students’ work out into the public domain:

 Blogs/ websites

If their school work is done for others to see, instead of just their class teacher, they are more likely to care about it. They are also already being judged and judging each other on the internet and we should be helping them to handle the bad side of this as well as teaching them to be “Global Digital Citizens”.

It would be best if this can be arranged in such a way as to make sure that the students’ blogs can be accessible to other school children, in the school and with other schools, even in other countries. Sites such as Edublogs make it easy to moderate comments and posts, to make sure that it is a safe environment and teach the skills and online behaviour that children need. We are far too cowardly about this in the UK, so our kids are out there on the internet alone, for the most part. They need our help to navigate it.

The 21st Century Job Market: Okay, this is reduced to notes, now. 

Look at what jobs will and won’t exist when the pupils become adults and as their lives continue.

Involve them in the outside world and how it is changing.

Look at the local job markets and get them to consider their future.

Look at entrepreneurship, global and internet opportunities, social enterprise, crowd-funding etc.

Genuine “real world” connections

Charitable events

Writing books for classes in other countries?

Intrinsic motivation: Get your English right- Other children are relying on you!

What do you care about? Make a genuine difference.

Campaign about something you really care about.

Setting up a real business.

“Ten pound challenges”

School entrepreneurship courses

Social enterprise

·         What does the local area need?

·         How can we make it happen?

Competitions: Organised and entered by students.

Trips: Students should arrange their own. I bet they’d surprise us with what they manage to do.

Connections with “real world” people and organisations…And on and on and on…

Whatever we do, we need to get on with it. This “in between” generation really isn’t going to thank us for being this slow to catch on!



Melinda Bower