Can character education create happy people?
Let me ask you a question: How many happy people do you know?
I am not talking about skipping through the daisies happy, or the ‘happy shiny people’ kind of happy. I am talking about the really solid kind of happy. The happy that comes from feeling comfortable in your own skin, being in relationships that are kind and respectful, studying what you are passionate about, doing work you love and feeling valued while you do it. How many of those people do you know?
As I see it, this is the principal purpose of character education. Underpinned by a belief that confident, collaborative and curious people will have happier and more successful lives. It is a belief that sees people who can truly communicate, access their creativity and commit to things as better set up for success, than those that can’t.
Yet what I find fascinating about the need for character education is that, what is actually described here, is in fact the human condition. It is how we are born. Anyone that has spent time with toddlers will testify to their innate confidence; have you ever seen a toddler learning to walk, give up after their first fall? No, me neither. We are born confident, curious and collaborative. We are also born with the ability to communicate and commit to what we are interested in. I recently watched 5-year-old Katie building a dam in a stream… nothing would get in her way. She was oblivious to her mum calling her in for tea and nor did she care that she was knee deep in cold and muddy water for hours because she was in ‘her element’. She was in ‘the zone’. Until that dam could withstand a minor tsunami she wasn’t shifting and, in that moment, she was an engineer and a craftsman. However, give Katie a hairdressing set and the task to create the perfect chignon, I suspect her curiosity and commitment to craftsmanship would have waned pretty quickly.
The fact is, these skills and ways of thinking make a material difference to how people’s lives turn out. The question is how do we help people access them? For me, having worked as a senior executive coach for twenty-five years, there are three things that make a standout difference.
First, we need to recognise that, instead of these attributes being found outside of us that they are already within every one of us. And, our job as educators, as facilitators of human potential, is to help people to reconnect and build from what already exists. What this means is that instead of starting with a position of ‘lacking’ e.g. “I am just not a confident person”, we start from a place of abundance e.g. “I was born confident; all I need to do is choose the thinking and behaviour that accesses it.”
Just a few months ago I was working with Jonathon, a senior leader who told me in no uncertain terms that his problem was that he had always been shy. He therefore absolutely couldn’t do the kind of public addresses required of him. It was, in his mind, a fact. The next morning, however, he stood up in front of over 5,000 people, spoke for 30 minutes with a single mind-map as a guide and, at the end, got a standing ovation. What happened? First, he had understood that ‘shy’, like so many things, was actually just set of feelings and behaviours generated from the thoughts he was choosing to focus on. And, if he wanted, he could change the focus of his thinking at any moment and produce a different result. Secondly, he acquired a new skill that makes talking about anything, without notes, easy. Simply put he realised that he was creating the behaviour of ‘shy’ and decided not to do it anymore, then he learnt a skill that enabled him to perform better.
This brings me to the second key thing which makes all the difference. The learning needs to be relevant. Jonathon was able to learn how to change his thinking around being shy because it mattered to him. He was interested in being able to present well so could perform in his job. The same learning wouldn’t be interesting to me. ‘Shy’ or ‘poor presenter’ are not labels I have applied to myself. On the other hand, show me how not to get stressed by my workload and I will listen to every word you say. We learn when we have a need or a want – just like we look up how to bake a chocolate soufflé when we want to make one (or are curious about how it’s made). Curiousity is not a blanket thing. We are only curious about the things that interest us.
And finally, if we want to support people to live their best lives, we need to show them how to live from a place of ‘core strength’. Core strength is a set of personal identifiers that make up our unique blueprint. So, when we talk about giving students ‘character’ in order that they can go on and live their best lives, we have to help them find their character, their values, their beliefs, their vision and discover what puts them in their element. Like curiousity, character is not a one size fits all thing. It is something we need to discover within us and then bolster by learning a set of skills that matter to us. When people understand how to live from their core strength they show up as their best selves, they are grounded and able to realign easily when things get out of balance. When we don’t know these things about ourselves, realigning becomes a game of chance… and that is not the best recipe for a great life.
So, here’s the good news. Teenagers love it when they discover this. The moment they realise that all these great attributes are already inside them AND they can access them at any point, they sit up and listen. In my experience character is not something that can be ‘taught’, it is something that must be discovered, supported and above all facilitated. When we take the time to do this, we create more happy people and, in doing that, we begin to change the world.
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