Building characters of the future

How appropriate it is for Mr Michael Russell, Cabinet Secretary for Education, to enshrine the memory and legacy of Robert Owen in the history of Scottish education.

His vision for The Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change is that it ‘will be devoted to our understanding of how to improve the life chances of our young people’, and provide a window into the world, in which others will learn with and from Scotland and further the cause of educational equity – a hallmark of Owen’s legacy.

The centre will promote successful practices and be a lighthouse for educators across the globe. It will further advance the cause of equity of outcomes and solidify Scotland’s place in the global community. What an honour it was for me to receive the Robert Owen Award and I was grateful for this bold recognition.

As I read about Owen’s beliefs, philosophies and achievements, I see many parallels between these and our modus operandi as educators today. For example:

1. Robert Owen believed in the importance of education

Robert Putnam (1993) once concluded that communities which succeeded socially and economically did not become civil because they were rich, but rather became rich because they were civil. The best predictors of success, he concluded, were strong traditions of civic engagement. Putnam described these aspects of civic engagement as social capital.

A literate society with an educated citizenry is certainly the lifeblood of democracy. Society is dependent on the human capital that is nurtured by a good education system.

Teachers contribute to the development of a civil society. We enrich public participation and contribute to nation building. We encourage democratic values and responsible citizenship, giving students the skills to anticipate problems and to contribute to solutions. We also help them to understand what it means to be human in our increasingly interdependent world. As educators, we must ensure that our country continues to be the embodiment of a civil society with strong social capital. Each day, within our classrooms, we create the society that our children and grandchildren will inherit.

Literacy, one of the most important outcomes of schooling, is an investment in human capital and the foundation for future learning and success in school. Being literate is liberating and empowering. By focusing on educating young children, Owen not only engaged in community development, but also made one of the best investments in the development of human capital and a civil society.

His focus on literacy enhanced students’ life chances. Because literacy is the gateway to all learning and an important means of social mobility, he made it possible for individuals to extricate themselves from a life of poverty. It follows, then, that as teachers, we must recognise the potential of our publicly-funded education system to bring about significant changes within our society.

I know educators do not like to be compared to other professions because teaching is such a unique occupation. But I cannot resist sharing the following perspective hoping it will stimulate vigorous debates. Whittle (2005) said: “In schools of the future leaders will assume highly consistent academic results the same way flight crews assume flawless performance, the same way doctors and patients now expect near perfection in certain basic procedures.

“In hospitals and airplanes, lives are on the line. In schools, the quality of those lives is determined. The standard should be the same.”

2. Robert Owen believed in the power of education to create a more just, harmonious society

Character education offers great promise for us to educate both hearts and minds and is the deliberate effort to nurture the universal attributes upon which schools and communities find consensus. These attributes, such as respect, honesty, fairness, empathy, and perseverance, provide a standard for behaviour against which we hold ourselves accountable. They bind us together across socio-economic, racial, religious, cultural, gender and other lines that often divide people and communities. They form the basis for our relationships.

Our experience demonstrated that implementing a character development programme based on community engagement in a systematic and intentional manner allows us to find common ground within a diverse society. Character development continues to be important in schooling. Parents and businesses want schools to develop the habits of mind and heart necessary to develop the important “soft skills” required for personal fulfillment and successful interpersonal relationships.

Teachers have always been character developers. What is new is that there should be a provincial or national focus on ensuring communities play a key role in determining the attributes upon which these programmes are based.

We also learned that, when there is a whole school effort to infuse these attributes in all policies, programmes, practices and interactions, there is a positive impact on school culture. Student achievement also increases as teachers spend more time on teaching and less on discipline.

In the early stages of implementation of character development programmes in Ontario, we asked schools to send us anecdotal accounts of the effect this initiative was having. Their stories demonstrated it was making a difference in schools. Our early efforts proved that when character education is done well, it has the potential to further the goals related to student engagement, motivation, achievement, volunteerism, and citizenship.

Owen was one of the early proponents of character education, believing in its importance and writing extensively about the formation of human character. What I admired most was that he was not just interested in making money, but in creating a new type of community at New Lanark. Drucker (1999), in his book, Leading Beyond the Walls, also exhorts us to create community, saying: “Society in all developed countries has become pluralist and is becoming more pluralist day by day… But all early pluralist societies destroyed themselves because no one took care of the common good. If our modern pluralist society is to escape the same fate, the leaders of all institutions will have to learn to be leaders beyond the walls. They will have to learn that it is not enough for them to lead their own institutions, though that is the first requirement. They will also have to learn to become leaders in the community. In fact, they will have to learn to create community.”

As professionals, we keep our optimism alive. We continue to envisage a future bright and full of possibilities because we chose teaching as a profession. We are asiduous in efforts to improve public confidence with a sense of urgency, recognising that children cannot wait. In doing so, we stand on the shoulders of education reformers like Owen and view the world through his lens of equity and social justice. If we choose to act on our beliefs, we will certainly uphold Owen’s legacy.