I really enjoyed True Grit by the Coen Brothers, a remake of a 1969 film of the same name with John Wayne starring. In the 2010 version of the film, a 14 year old girl named Mattie Ross, tracks down the murderer of her father, and brings him to justice when no one else would. On her journey she demonstrates character, resilience and true grit to get the job done, no matter what the obstacles in her way.
It seems Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, would have been impressed by young Mattie. So much so, that creating youngsters with ‘character’ has been made the Department for Education’s fifth priority after producing the best possible schools, the best possible workforce, higher academic standards and protecting vulnerable young people. I personally believe it is important to develop character. It fits my belief what a complete holistic education should be. It also echoes the experiences of my own education, and I mean, I didn’t turn out too bad did I? My education was quite traditional in many ways, with a large emphasis on the Aristotelian view of character. It wasn’t just picking yourself up after defeat, but showing self control, focus and not giving into your impulses.
I suppose as a PE teacher I should be welcoming this announcement with open arms shouldn’t I? Sport, along with debating and other extra curricular activities will once more becomes an influential part of education just like in the good old Victorian public schools of old. I suddenly regain my niche as a teacher. I am the one that is going to teach students what character is on the playing fields and give them a backbone, because without it they will not succeed. However Nicky Morgan’s announcement has made me worried. What I’m worried about is ‘grit’, ‘resilience’ and ‘character’ will be reduced down to a tick list of traits we expect to see in a young person. The more time I spend teaching, the more I see that reductionism is rife within education. Any potentially great ideas are jumped upon immediately and exploited. That they are misunderstood and twisted from the true concept behind them. The original genesis of a great idea then develops into the bastardised son of Frankenstein’s monster.
There is a limited time in school. Most of that is spent delivering syllabus content and ensuring the students have enough knowledge to pass an exam or two. The success and livelihood of Headteachers, Heads of Department, individual teachers and the pupils themselves are boiled down to value added, minimum targets, percentages and pass marks. I feel that this introduction of a fifth priority is a subtle way of getting children to achieve more, and really doesn’t have anything to do with the development of their character. If academic success is what our education system is about, then we need to focus on imparting knowledge than developing character. If not, then surely we need to change the idea of what a successful education looks like?
On a personal level I do like the word resilience and use it a lot with my students. It encompasses a lot of what my subject reveals. I believe that ‘grit’, ‘resilience’ and ‘character’ resides in all young people. It is probably one of the reasons why our species has survived and flourished. What I think young people don’t know is the level of their own physical and mental capacity. They have never been truly tested. In PE and Sport we create opportunities for students to experience what they are capable of. We set them challenges that they might potentially fail. Then allow them to look to overcome or learn from them. We look to push them to what they think is their capability and then push them beyond. I believe we don’t need to specifically teach these traits, just create opportunities for young people to explore their boundaries and their potential just like Mattie Ross in True Grit. This is what we do every day. It is called teaching.