Character Education is what world leaders need today

In this article, Dr Eve Poole, Chairman of the Board of Governors at Gordonstoun, explains why the school chose to participate in research about the value of “character education” in later life.  Gordonstoun’s curriculum combines academic rigour with a wide range of experiences so that students have developed resilience and integrity and leave the school ready to take on responsibility and leadership. It is uniquely positioned as the only school to have delivered character education for over 80 years and therefore the only place that the University of Edinburgh could carry out research to show that it works over time and to speak with the authority of having the most experience in this area.

When the University of Edinburgh research into Gordonstoun’s out-of-classroom curriculum was launched ​in May 2018, it was greeted with predictable wails about public school privilege.  “It’s easy for them – they’ve got a YACHT!”  But this is to misunderstand why we did it. We did it because being a charity is about more than sharing facilities or providing bursaries.  It is also about being generous with anything we’ve been lucky enough to learn. Gordonstoun has already shared Outward Bound and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award with the world.  As one of the founders of character education – now very much in vogue – we wanted to assist the public debate about it by providing real data. We’re one of the only schools that can do that, because we have 80 years’ worth of alumni to ask, all of whom were immersed in a carefully designed character-based curriculum, long before it became trendy.  Character education cannot be tested at the time of acquisition, because the very point of it is its durability, and the fact that a good one will keep delivering for you throughout your life. So this multi-method longitudinal study is very important. We even asked parents, because they can often see the changes in their children more readily than they themselves can, particularly when they are pre-career.

Let me summarise the essence of our findings, and why they are so transferable, not only through school populations, but for everyone involved in youth work, training and development.

Learning to try      Our research showed that a varied and repeated out-of-classroom compulsory curriculum compels students to try things they would otherwise avoid.  This ‘have a go’ mentality lasts well beyond the Gordonstoun years and has inspired many alumni to keep trying new things for the rest of their lives.  Schools who wish to emulate this need simply make more of their non-academic curriculum compulsory, so that young people gain a broader exposure to experience and learn to not be afraid of trying something new.

Learning to fail      Having to try everything means that failure is inevitable, given that it is unlikely everyone will be good at everything. ​ Students learn to fail, and they learn how others fail too.  They learn that they may need other people to succeed, and also that they may be better than others at unexpected things.  Schools could identify non-examined elements of the curriculum where there is opportunity for experimentation, and create a safe environment where failure is not considered socially terminal.  This can be normalised by delaying specialisation and by making elements of sport, drama, music and service to the community compulsory for all.

Learning to try again  ​     Because the curriculum is regular and repeated, students inevitably another try, even if they failed the time before.  They learn resilience and how to conquer their fears, both about their own abilities, as well as how their peers react to them.  This teaches students how to pick themselves up, and many alumni told us that this ability to bounce back was crucial in helping them to navigate subsequent career setbacks.

Social levelling      ​We found that in the melting pot that is Gordonstoun, the out-of-classroom curriculum is a fantastic leveller.  No-one cares who your parents are on a rainy expedition if you forgot to pack the hot chocolate.  Our students often find themselves being led or rescued by peers they would never have expected to thrive in these contexts, and this engenders a humility and respect for other people based not on culture or background, but on ability and character.  Any school delivers these lessons by exposing the same peer group to a range of contexts, where different people will have a chance to shine each time.

Gender      For the women in our sample, being ​pitted against men in so many different scenarios instils a particularly steady career confidence​.  Working together both in and out of the classroom, they were bound to have seen ​men be worse as well as better ​than them ​in​ a wide variety of contexts​.  This means that their expectations in the workplace are very different, which has helped our female alumni to thrive.  Any opportunity for mixed-gender groups to face challenges together can help with this, if the range of opportunities offered is sufficient to generate multiple data points.

I taught leadership for over a decade at Ashridge Business School, where I had the opportunity to meet thousands of senior leaders, and to learn about their challenges.  They often  told me that they wanted to be more confident.  What the Gordonstoun research shows is that confidence is a natural by-product of the experience of facing your fears, time after time, and surviving them.  This robs them of their power to defeat you, because you know you have developed the power to prevail.  The school motto is “plus est en vous” – there is more in you (than you think), and nowhere is this better taught and learned than through the out-of-classroom curriculum.  If all schools and those who provided youth development activities took these findings to heart and adapted them for use in their own contexts, we would not have business leaders who are too scared to do the right thing. Instead, we would have brave leaders of character, which is what the world so desperately needs today.