Yesterday I had the privilege of working with 30 wonderful head teachers from Merton, on strengths based leadership and well-being.
One of the highlights of the day was listing to the the story told by Celia Dawson, head teacher of Cricket Green http://www.cricketgreen.merton.sch.uk/.
Celia told us the story of Project Search http://www.cricketgreen.merton.sch.uk/project-search/4578432848
Project SEARCH changes the way people think as it challenges ideas about what people with a learning disability can do. It raises expectations of employability and the general public can see people with a learning disability hard at work as part of everyday life.
Only 7% of people with learning disabilities nationally are in any form of paid work, compared with 74% of the wider population. However, many of Cricket Green’s trainees are now in meaningful employment within a local hospital and externally.
We used the #strengths circle reflection tool which I have developed in the course of my work to identify the many strengths that we felt Celia had used to get this important project off the ground. It was, for me, a humbling and inspiring experience. Thank you Celia!
A language for being well in education
An important strand of that work is a focus on character strengths and virtues. You can hear me talking about this strand of my work on You Tube
What are character strengths?
Every religion and every philosophical tradition has a concept of virtue, a way of thinking, feeling and acting that is morally valued or good. And as far back as Aristotle, education has been concerned with character and with morality or goodness, teaching children to understand right and wrong, as well as with knowledge. Aristotle saw the virtues as necessary to a flourishing life or happiness.
More recently, psychologists have linked the use of character strengths and virtues with well-being, vitality and a sense of fulfillment. Psychologists Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson (Peterson & Seligman, 2004) say that there are 6 universally valued virtues
- Wisdom and knowledge
- Love and humanity
- Spirituality and transcendence
They describe character strengths, like creativity, hope, gratitude, kindness, as the traits that allow us to display these virtues and say that
- They are valued in almost every culture
- They are valued for themselves, not as a means to other ends
- They can be developed
- They are influenced by our environment, some settings lend themselves to the development of strengths whereas others preclude them
Seligman and Peterson list 24 character strengths, under the headings of the six virtues. I have used this list for 15 years in my work in schools and in my PhD on well-being in education. I kept most of the names of the character strengths but changed the virtue headings to strengths of the head, action, heart, community, self-control and meaning. I have added a single strength, patience, which is essential to teaching and learning. I have written a simple definition for each strength. I also dropped ‘social and emotional intelligence’ and replaced it with the Aristotelian virtue of friendship.
Some questions for educators to think about:
Is it better to focus on strengths or weaknesses? Always? Sometimes? Never? If sometimes, when?
Do you think there is anything missing from this list?
You can find out more about the classification of strengths that my work is based on here: VIA Character Strengths
Tool: A Strengths Prompt
Strengths of the Head
Creativity: thinking a little bit differently
Curiosity: wanting to find out
Love of learning: enjoying, learning new things
Open-mindedness: enjoying difference, open to different people and ideas
Wisdom: understanding what is really important in life
Strengths of Action
Enthusiasm: eager and full of energy, raring to go
Persistence: Sticking at things, not giving up
Courage: doing the right thing even when we feel scared l
Honesty: telling the truth, being an open, straight forward person
Strengths of Community
Fairness: treating everyone equally
Teamwork: pulling together, working well with others
Leadership: Helping or guiding other people to do something good and to get on well
Strengths of the Heart
Love: caring deeply and showing we care by thoughts, words and deeds
Kindness: Doing and saying things to make people happy
Friendship: being gentle with ourselves and loyal and kind to other people
Strengths of Meaning
Gratitude: being thankful for good things, saying thank you
Spirituality: thinking deeply about God, love or the meaning of life
Humour: Seeing the funny side of life and making others smile or laugh
Hope: trusting that good things will happen
Love of beauty: noticing and enjoying good or beautiful things
Strengths of Self-control
Forgiveness: letting go of hurt and anger and wishing other people well again
Prudence: making good choices that effect our future
Self-control: controlling thoughts, emotions and actions so we live well and achieve our goals
Modesty: a true knowledge of our own strengths and weaknesses
Patience: Letting things take the time that they take
We think of Francis as a saint. But Francis didn’t think of himself that way, I suspect saints never do. Francis saw himself as a failure and this story is the story of one of those failures. It is a story set nearly 800 years ago, in fact it will be 800 years next year. It is the story of how Francis tried and failed to stop a war.
The war was the 5th Crusade. It is worth remembering that Christians have not always been people of peace. The 5th crusade was a crusade by Christians, against Jews, Muslims and heretics and it was breaking Francis’ heart. Francis had once been a soldier, he knew what violence was and he knew what it was to be a prisoner of war. But when Francis fell in love with the Risen Christ, he fell out of love with everything that puts barriers between people, the barriers of pride, power and wealth.
And in 1219 pride and power and wealth had already killed many people. To try and end the bloodshed, Francis went first to the Christians, begging Cardinal Pelagius, the Christian commander, to end the fighting. Pelagius refused.
So then Francis, and his friend Brother Illuminatus, went to the enemy instead, to the Muslim army against whom the Christians were fighting. They went to stop the war and they went to try and change the hearts of the enemy so that they would follow the Risen Christ.
And they walked, the two of them, unarmed, through the camps of that enemy. They were captured and they were beaten. They were taken, finally, to the Muslim commander, the leader of their enemy, to Sultan Malik-al-Kamil of Egypt, an enemy leader who had offered a gold piece for the head of every Christian. And when Francis was led into the Sultan’s tent he said ‘May the Lord give you peace’. It is said that the Sultan was startled to hear a greeting so close to the traditional Muslim greeting of peace, Assalam o alaikum (as-saa-laam-muu-ah-lay-kum), Peace be upon you.
And in the meeting that followed, I am first going to tell you what Francis DIDN’T DO, because I think it’s important. Francis did not try to deny the truths of the Muslim faith. He did not insult Islam. He did not argue or attempt to convince this enemy unbeliever that he was wrong.
What Francis respectfully did was to tell the Sultan the truth of why he was there – that he was there because of the gospel of love, that he was there because of his love for the Risen Christ, that he was there because he had been sent there by the God who IS love, And that he was there because of his love for his enemy – for Sultan Malik – al- Kamil. And the Sultan listened to this gentle, foolish, ridiculous man of God, sitting in his tent, speaking truth about love.
And then, in his turn, the Sultan told Francis, truthfully, about the faith and the prayers and the practices that HE loved. And the gentle, foolish ridiculous man of God listened in his turn. Because that is what love does, that is what friendship does, it listens.
And then Francis left. And the war continued. And the Sultan continued to be a Muslim. Which meant that Francis had failed. He had failed to stop the war. He had failed to convert the Sultan.
But it is said that the Sultan was changed by his encounter with Francis, with the gentle, foolish follower of the Risen Christ. It is said that after meeting Francis he treated Christian prisoners with unusual and unexpected kindness and respect. And perhaps that is as much because of what Francis didn’t do, as what he said. As much because of what Francis WAS – a gentle, foolish, ridiculously loving man of God.
And it was not only the Sultan who was changed. Francis loved the fact that the Muslims prayed 5 times a day. So when he went home he asked his brothers and sisters to do the same. And though Francis refused the many rich gifts that the Sultan offered him, because Francis was not terribly interested in stuff, he did accept the gift of a horn used to call Muslims to prayer. And when he got home he used it to call Christians to prayer. Five times a day.
And perhaps he listened, too, to the beautiful Islamic tradition of the 99 names of God. Because when he got home he wrote a song, the song we are about to share, called the Praises of God. There are not 99 names in it. But then Francis was a humble man. But, if you count carefully, there are 33 names in it. 33 names of the God Francis loved, the God who sent him not to argue with his enemy but to listen and to speak truth about love and to be changed by his enemy, to become his enemy’s friend.
Francis saw himself as a failure. I think that the Sultan and the Risen Christ saw Francis as a friend.
A special request! In the past I have written stories for school assemblies, simple versions to tell aloud. Quite a few of those stories figure saints – St Werberga (One of my geese is missing!) St Bridget, St Columba. These feature together with traditional folk stories and other faith stories in a book I published with TTS called Character Strength Assemblies https://www.tts-group.co.uk/assemblies-for-cha…/1009310.html
I would LOVE to write a similar book that collects together saints from different traditions and, for that matter, secular saints. Saints have BIG characters and are great for children to know about and think about. Could anybody, especially those from other faith traditions, help me out here with ideas for who to include and some stories???
I am very pleased to say that I have just had a chapter published in this new book on positive psychology. It is co-written with Judith Gray, formerly head of Frodingham Infants and details the work we did together on Celebrating Strengths.
Celebrating Strengths combined ideas from positive psychology with psychodynamic theory and theology and philosophy to create what I think was a unique educational philosophy and approach to school life – and Judith was an important part of that process.
A discussion of practical ways to build character strengths and virtues into classroom practice Character strengths and virtues in the classroom – practical suggestions
In my latest video I talk about how and why you might want to introduce character strengths and virtues in education. There are three main reasons – to help to manage or contain anxiety, to build relationships and to help teachers and students alike to stay hopeful. And I break all the good rules of talks by adding a fourth reason – it gives us a language to discuss – not to impose – ideas of right and wrong and what constitutes a good life.
You can, and I do, often use simple props to tell a story. You can also use your body. A mixture of tai chi moves, with signs from British Sign Language help me, as the storyteller, to embody the story. Because I am using my whole body, I am fully present, aware of where I am, my audience and my whole self as I tell the story. It is less a cognitive and verbal activity, than a way of inhabiting the story and drawing my listeners into the story with me.
I demonstrate this method of storytelling here
As well as the character strength of #wisdom, students see many other strengths in this story, including #humour, #persistence, #teamwork and #spirituality.
Here’s a picture from Frodingham Infants that is based on the story,
I hope you enjoy it 🙂
In these blogs and the videos that accompany them I am sharing with you what I have learned from 12 years of working in schools supporting the well-being of teachers and students.
The blogs and videos are meant either as a stand alone training resource or as a supplement to my published resources and my story videos.
In an earlier film, I talked about how I have put stories and storytelling at the heart of my well-being work in schools – precisely because a good story well told promotes the well-being of both teachers and students, An introduction to my well-being in education videos.
Now I want to talk about another theme, that of paying attention to character strengths and virtues.
I first came across the idea of character strengths in the work of Martin Seligman and the VIA or Values in Action character strengths and virtues. You can find more about this approach at the VIA Institute .
Of course the association of character strengths with education is much older and dates back to Aristotle. Aristotle linked happiness with the use of character strengths and virtues. And he said that children learn about qualities like courage and honesty in three ways
- seeing them used by role models
- thinking and reasoning about them
- using them for themselves
So we learn what courage is by being brave.
In my work, I’ve tried to draw on those three ways of learning.
Firstly, I’ve encouraged teachers to tell stories that show characters or historical figures using – or failing to use – qualities like love or friendship or enthusiasm. I might tell a story like Anansi and the Pot of Wisdom or Where is the Moon or the Three Little Pigs and then ask, what strengths did you see in that story? Where? I might also ask, were there character strengths that SHOULD have been used but weren’t?
In this way, children and teachers engage in a thoughtful – and educational activity – and at the same time begin to build up a picture of what the strengths look like in action and to listen for, look for the strengths, to spot them both in stories and then in other people and finally in themselves. Using character strengths for yourself, seeing them in others, thinking about them, builds positive relationships in the classroom and creates an atmosphere that enhances learning and supports well-being.
To develop Aristotle’s idea that we learn about character strengths and virtues through reason, I have used Philosophy for Children or P4C and taken either a story or a single word like creativity or courage as a stimulus for discussion. If you don’t know about philosophy for children there are resources and training available and the more I use it the more powerful a teaching tool I think it is. Again, a philosophy session is a very educational activity – we’re not trying to be therapists, we are encouraging intellectual rigour, depth of thinking and discussion. At the same time you as a class are building your understanding of what a particular character strength means in this group and in this community, now. It’s not what the ‘experts’ say about courage that really matters – it’s what it means in your school, your family, now that is important.
Finally, the third way of learning about character strengths that I have used in education is to create a concept of Strengths Builders – ideas and classroom exercises that deliberately set out to let you use and therefore build a particular strength. So, for example, if you want to focus on building the strength of curiosity for yourself or your class, you might set a challenge trying a single new food you have never tasted in the week ahead, or of watching a television programme or film you haven’t seen before – or of reading and even learning by heart a poem by a poet you have never read. You set out deliberately to pay attention to – and build – a particular strength. Then, if everyone in the class has done this activity – you can share and reflect on your experiences.
The shared experience – and the way that you are all paying attention to the same thing – curiosity – is part of what builds community. I will say more about community building in a future video.
If you want lots of ideas for building character strengths you can find them in my Character Strengths Ideas Box Character Strengths Ideas Box or in Character Strengths for Circle Time.
You can find a high school programme that contains strengths builders for all the VIA Strengths here Strengths Gym – a high school programme of strengths builders and stories for 11 to 14 years
Equally, you can think up your own.