Character education is crucial, and often missing from the curriculum, in our schools. It’s not a new concept, organisations like the Duke Of Edinburgh Award have been pushing the agenda for a while, but it’s certainly not regular headline news.

So, what is character? We know that certain experiences are character building but why? We know that the character of our pupils has a massive impact on their outcomes in life. Yet, how can we as teachers work with them and help them to grow and flourish?

It seems that as important as character-based qualities such as resilience, determination, creativity, independence, composure are, they are at the same time illusive.

We can clearly see what Richard Hammond calls the ‘visible curriculum’, an A in Maths or Science, a B in English etc. yet under the bonnet there are a multitude of invisible factors that underpin a pupil’s success…or not. They are difficult to observe and work with, so the this article gives you some tools to develop them. Let’s look at what to say and do as well as how to be.  


From the front to the back

The first step in developing character in our pupils is to transfer our physical position from in front of the class to the back. To change our role from teacher to that of facilitator.

Instead of us prescribing what should be learnt we become trusting that whatever our pupils learn during the session is exactly what they need to learn at this moment in their lives.

Our role as facilitator, therefore, is not to teach but to guide and assist students in independently learning for themselves, picking apart ideas and forming their own opinions about things through dialogue, reflection and, crucially, their own experiences. 


Character Education PropWhy experiential learning and character education?

Have you ever known a smoker who gave up? Can you think back and remember what it was that made them quit? Research suggests they were unlikely to give up because someone told the to do so.

We get advice all the time but typically don’t readily follow it. Advice is like offering someone your trousers and expecting them to fit.

Perhaps you can remember all the times you’ve given advice, with the best intentions, and it’s fallen on deaf ears. The reason the smoker finally quits is because he/she discovers through their own internal references that it’s causing them harm. They develop the intrinsic motivation to stop, from within themselves.

This is a powerful argument for the virtues of learning through our own experience and as educators of character this is exactly what we must give children the space to achieve.

Experiential learning, however, is not just about presenting your pupils with an exercise, challenge or outdoor experience, stepping back and seeing what happens. As a facilitator your role will still require you to encourage, support and nurture while the pupils that might be quiet, lack confidence or have some anxiety about learning as part of a group, develop trust, collaboration and other essential team skills.

Through this style of pupil development, you will likely witness many different and unusual qualities from your students. If you enter these sessions with a clear idea of what you would like the pupils to learn, be prepared to be surprised! 


Character Education ActivityChallenge yet support

Engender an environment where creativity can happen and where it’s OK if things don’t go as expected. The experience of failure, overcoming setbacks and challenges in the risk averse world we inhabit is often missing from young people’s lives. These are the very experiences where profound learning happens. It’s here that confidence is built when young minds solve these problems for themselves (perhaps after numerous attempts). They develop a sense of pride in the outcome and are not afraid of failing along the way.

It’s very important to realise that we can learn from children too. Sometimes they tell us something about themselves or the world that we might not have noticed because we are so busy telling them how things should be done or what things are. Some of the most interesting observations come from children. This is because they are still figuring out how the world works and finding their own place within it.


Reviewing: what & why is it so important?

Reviewing is a vital part of the process of how we humans learn (see the ‘Learning Cycle’ below).  By engaging in activity or action we will generate an outcome, be it positive or not. We would stop our natural ability to develop or learn if we did not then attempt to understand what and how it happened.

When we talk about reviewing in the context of group/team activities, we are aiming to enable the students to learn from their experiences and to make use of these experiences for their own group/personal learning and development.


How to Review?

You can direct a review after a task by asking ‘What happened?’ but you will likely get an answer about the ‘Task’ and not the ‘Process’. So, the first development in reviewing is to know what to review. 

If you think of an Iceberg, and the small 10% of it sitting out of the water represents the ‘Task’ i.e. specifically what we did, how much time and equipment was given, which ideas worked, how well we achieved the task, and the details of the brief/constraints/objectives etc.  If a group spends their time reviewing the ‘task’ then they will only improve their approach to that specific task.  

However, each task will be different from the next so it’s more important that the group focus on what they can do differently.  The 90% of the Iceberg beneath the water represents the ‘Process’. This is the unlimited resource that can be generated by the group and the individuals within. Things to consider are how they:


The list goes on and on.


These social, emotional, leadership, and team related character skills will, if nurtured and developed carefully, beReview in Action totally transferable for any new task or challenge coming their way in or beyond school.

A review can sometimes generate lots of points for development. It’s best to focus on a couple of key learning points for the team to work at. Sometimes this will require some planning beforehand.

The more interactive the review the more memorable the learning is likely to be. Valuable learning is generated from a good review of a failed exercise than an average review of a successful task.

If we miss the opportunity to review or have a period of reflection, then the students will be left with a sense of ‘So what was that about?’  It is possible that some individuals will have a reflective learning point of their own sometime after the event, but the joint perspective of the group at a time when the experience is fresh in the mind can be a real motivator for action-based learning.

Don’t make the mistake of believing that a review must be just reflective, quiet or inactive. In fact, the more interactive the review, the more memorable the learning is likely to be! Finally, remember that just as much can be learned from a detailed review of both successes and failures.

Have a look at our resources to support character education in schools here.

2 Responses

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this ANDY. Just spent a 6 day Experiential Learning through Adventure course in the bushveld (South Africa) and still had the energy to read and enjoy exactly what we’ve been focusing on. Thank You!