Dutiful Obedience Builds Character

I wasn’t able to attend the Character vs Knowledge conference yesterday, but it’s been really interesting to see the debates it has sparked. It got me thinking about the vital role of traditional teaching methods themselves in building character.

When a teacher requires pupils to listen, to work, to persevere in difficult academic tasks and holds them to account when they fail to do any of these things, they are requiring dutiful obedience. And as pupils give this obedience, particularly when it runs counter to their own short term goals, they are building the habit of giving up their personal desires for the sake of some higher purpose. Teachers who work in this way are training their pupils in temperance (or self control) and fortitude (what has often recently been called ‘grit’).

This looks hard, but simultaneous equations take more 'grit' for most young lads.

This looks hard, but simultaneous equations take more ‘grit’ for most young lads.

There is simply no substitute for training, because the more we repeat an action, the easier it becomes. That action can be physical (a golf swing) or mental (resisting distraction and focusing on a task, however dull we find it). And character training is more likely to happen in a maths classroom than on a rugby pitch, because usually the people playing rugby want to be there and enjoy it. Sticking with the maths when you don’t enjoy it is a much better training in character, precisely because it lacks the excitement and glamour of sport.

It is sometimes said that pupils will never behave unless they understand the reasons for good behaviour. While it is important to explain the rationale behind our insistence that pupils continue with a task even if they find it difficult or dull, explaining will never be enough, and will in fact be a very small part of how we build the temperance and fortitude of those in our care. Far more important is our insistence, over and over again, that pupils do in fact persevere, and our determination to do something about it when they don’t. Over time, it will become second nature to persevere. We might spend a few minutes occasionally explaining why fortitude is so important. But we will spend many hours insisting on it in our classes, and in the culture of our schools. That is the secret to making it a way of life, which will last for life.

On the other hand, if we design our lessons so that pupils are manipulated into doing things through games and we bribe them with prizes, they are learning that self-interest is at the heart of success, not self-sacrifice. Effectively, we are spoiling them en masse. I remember when I was an NQT in a grim and chaotic comprehensive, the management were urging us all to apply ‘what’s in it for me?’ as a central principle in our teaching. Pupils had to see an immediate benefit to themselves in everything we taught. I cannot think of any principle more calculated to create spineless, indifferent young people dedicated to short-term gratification and destined for long-term failure.

(Image from Wikimedia)


5 thoughts on “Dutiful Obedience Builds Character

    • Of course there is room for the nonacademic. But the vast majority can cope with academic work when it is delivered properly, in a straightforward, traditional way. And a key point is that the areas which are typically associated with character building (such as sport) are not actually the most important for most people.


  1. Agree. Except with respect to rugby. Bits of the game are not enjoyable. In fact, they are terrifying. But that is also part of their appeal. You put yourself through them because the team needs you to, which is very character building,

    Top blog.


  2. I attended the debate and it provided food for thought. Ideas were rich, intent earnest and reflection sometimes challenging – though there was also a fair amount of self-congratulation in the air, too, I noted.
    I believe it is perfectly possible for lessons to be both academic and traditional in content, while also being engaging and enjoyable – precisely because the learning is real, not superficial. I don’t see character and knowledge as being in opposition, and agree with your point that the former can habitually be developed through the latter. It sometimes comes from sacrifice, or having to defer gratification…but also from a partnership, a deal, between teacher and class, a realisation on their part that your efforts and knowledge are being invested for their benefit.


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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