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
In my previous post I discussed the importance of the environment in creating a calm classroom. One feature of that environment that teachers often overlook, and in fact the most important feature of all, is themselves. Philosopher John Dewey said that the most important feature in any human being’s environment was other human beings. In the case of a classroom the teacher is – or should be – the most influential feature of that environment.
This is a huge responsibility and a huge privilege. Every look, every movement of the teacher, how they speak, how they dress, all communicate information and all affect the children or young people – or adult students – they are working with.
So, in terms of creating a calm classroom, the state of mind of the teacher and their ability to be quiet in themselves is crucial. A teacher who rushes around, who speaks loudly all the time, who does not know how to be still, will find it hard to communicate the skill of being quiet and still to their students.
If you suspect you are at the frenetic end of the human spectrum, what can you do to learn to be different if you want to? One practical thing you can do is to insert a pause before and after actions – just a tiny pause. This has the effect of creating a sense of stillness in you and in those around you.
- Pause before you move
- Pause before you speak
- Pause before you act
There are many ingredients to creating a calm classroom, some more obvious than others. The first I want to consider and this may, or may not, be obvious, is the physical environment of the classroom. Ask yourself
- What does this classroom look like?
- What does this classroom sound like?
- What does this classroom feel like?
The answers to these questions will have an impact on how calm, or otherwise, the people in that classroom, whatever their age and size, feel like. They will also affect how they learn.
What does your classroom look like?
Look around you and try to imagine that you are seeing your classroom – or school – for the first time. Is it ordered? Is it beautiful? Does it contain light and dark and texture? Does it inspire and uplift? Does it look loved?? Does it look as if learning is one of the most precious things in life? Are the books in it treasured and handled with loving care and respect?
Teachers who work with younger students often seem to be encouraged to pay far more attention to this aspect of teaching than do teachers of older students or adults and it might be worth asking why that is? Do humans suddenly lose their need for beauty, space, light and order when they reach a certain age? Or not…..?
I was privileged to study at Girton College Cambridge. And one of the fierce, dedicated, self-sacrificing women who founded Girton said that if her students could not have ancient tradition, they would have beauty. I benefited from three years of studying in the most beautiful and uplifting of environments. I think all students, whatever their age, deserve such beauty and I think it affects how we learn as well as how we feel.
What does your classroom sound like?
When, a long time ago now, I first became a classroom teacher, it was the fashion to have gentle music playing in the background of your class. I tried it and found, interestingly, that it made for a quieter working environment because the children – and I taught very young children back then – pitched their voices instinctively below that of the music.
I’m not sure I would do that now, at least not all the time. But it is worth paying attention to the soundscape of your classroom and school. Businesses are putting money into researching what sounds will tempt us to stay longer in a shop and spend more money – perhaps educators could put more thought into what sounds encourage quiet, tranquil study?
For example, if you teach in a secondary school, or even a large primary school in the UK, it is highly likely that once every hour the calm that you have so skilfully created will be shattered by a loud, piercing shrieking bell! There is no way that this does NOT effect our ability to remain calm!. One commentator I read pointed out that the only other institutions that are governed by strict ringing of bells are prisons…food for thought!
If your school has to have an audible marker of the hours, consider what it sounds like…and what effect that sound has….there were, of course, no bells at Girton……
What does your classroom feel like?
This may feel the least obvious of all my questions but it is important – because we learn with our whole selves, not with disembodied minds located somewhere behind our eyes. So temperature, light, furniture, carpet or lack of it, how crowded or cramped or airy the room – will all affect how we sit and stand and move and even breath – and all of that effects both how calm or otherwise we feel, and how we learn.
Professor Stephen Heppell has some interesting things to say about taking shoes off to learn and its quite amazing effects…http://rubble.heppell.net/places/shoeless/default.html
And needless to say, I frequently went barefoot at Girton………
This morning I was working with an Alexander technique pupil, a woman in her sixties, who commented to me during the lesson, ‘I feel so calm!’.
And one of the benefits of the Alexander technique is that it produces both mental and physical quietness, a reduction in stress and anxiety and an ability to use energy wisely, rather than rush at everything like a bull in a china shop.
And then I began to wonder, what are the ingredients of the ‘calm classroom’?
And I think a new project, for me, will be to develop a workshop that unpicks that question and gives teachers insights into how they can create calm in their classrooms, whatever the age, temperaments or needs of their pupils.
So, in the coming posts, I shall explore ‘the calm classroom’ and what skills teachers need to create one.