Character Development through Curriculum Design

It was an unseasonably rainy Tuesday afternoon and I was teaching PSHE. My class of Year 6 students were facing a daunting period of their lives: the mounting pressure of assessments and SATs, social demands, and the looming transition to secondary school. I posed a question: what key character traits did they need to be successful as they transitioned to Year 7?

One of my pupils offered an answer that surprised me. ‘It’s a bit like The Hobbit,’ they said. ‘We need to do what Bilbo did and show courage. He was scared to go on the journey at first, but then he decided to be courageous and it paid off in the end.’ This prompted another pupil to explain how Bilbo overcame his fears by ‘getting out of his comfort zone’.

We’d been studying JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit in English lessons for the past few weeks. But I hadn’t realised that the book had given my pupils more than just vocabulary, plot structure and an understanding of the rivalry between Orcs and Elves. It had acted as a vehicle for exploring something far more important – courage.

After I left the room, that moment stayed with me. When an opportunity arose for me to help shape the whole school curriculum, literature became its central feature. I wanted to develop a character-based curriculum, which taught ‘soft skills’ such as empathy, compassion and resilience through high-quality narratives.

While I believe the knowledge focus was undeniably crucial, the experience with my Year 6 class had changed my stance on what a truly rich curriculum was. I felt there was a fine balance to be struck between knowledge, skills and character development. I hoped to maintain a strong knowledge base, while also weaving in opportunities for students to develop outside of the confines of academic achievement.

In helping to shape the curriculum, I drew inspiration from the work of The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at The University of Birmingham (see link below), which had produced incredibly useful research about the development of character and virtues through literature. I pulled out ideas and quotes from books as ‘topics’ for learning. We used a quote from Rudyard Kipling’s poem Law of the Jungle (‘For the strength of the pack is in the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is in the pack’) to look at teamwork, for example. In this way I created a series of umbrella ‘topics’ that gave teachers the agency and flexibility to draw on multiple disciplines, a breadth of knowledge and ideas and to make real connections sequentially through a unit of learning.  

Not everyone was convinced by the idea. There was some initial pushback from teachers who felt that some of the character concepts were perhaps too abstract and heavy for primary school children. To the contrary I believed that their young age actually made it an ideal time to be explicitly teaching these life skills, as it was the very time when their belief systems were being shaped and moulded.

The curriculum is still very much in its infancy and there is still work to be done, but we’ve already begun to see some benefits. Pupils studying Philip Pullman’s Clockwork, a book about a young apprentice who seeks to make a figure for the town clock to sustain an ongoing tradition, have begun articulating what kind of legacy they hope to leave behind. Pupils studying Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows now discuss how to cultivate strong friendships during PSHE sessions, referencing the friendship between the key characters.

For me as a teacher, the approach has allowed me to bring to the forefront important conversations that would previously only take place in response to a pastoral incident. For example, my Year 6 class and I have recently been discussing the importance of compassion (drawing on the ideas from our class novel) and how to apply this thinking to conflicts in the playground. We’re exploring ideas that will stand them in good stead for their lives not just for their subsequent educational journey.

In an educational climate where historically so much emphasis has been placed on academic achievement, I see my pupils demonstrating more and more how they’re developing as individuals as well as scholars. Pupils are more engaged and more active in their exploration of pieces of literature-both classic and contemporary and this in turn has had a positive impact on their academic progress in Reading. Truly the best of both worlds!

All inspired by an unseasonable rainy Tuesday afternoon in Year 6…

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