As a sports person (and Western citizen born and bred) I have noticed something about our cultures, from Australia to the UK, to the US, and many European countries, we are extremely focused on performance and outcomes. What do I mean by this? Let us look at two examples that I am familiar with - the Olympics/Paralympics and Education.
In the Olympics (AND more recently the Paralympics) there has developed a cult of hero adulation, much to the detriment of the true meaning of sport, that has impacted the wider community, and how we view and articulate success. Athletes are awarded with monetary support from governments, but only if they achieve top results (i.e., being in the top 8 in the world, and/or if you win a medal at the games). This extreme pressure to perform has now been noted to have a detrimental effect on sports peoples mental health and wellbeing.
The wider impact of hero adulation on the community can be mostly seen in two arenas - education and business. In education the epitome of success comes from the multitude of unnecessary tests that students take, tests that are there to bolster the school’s position on league tables, and build their reputation as a school that gets results. But what results? And to the detriment of what? A child’s mental health and wellbeing?
Performance and outcomes; data in, data expressed, and data out. By performance I am meaning specifically the performance traits that we as a Western society purport to be the most important character traits we should develop in ourselves and the coming generations below us. Duckworth, Seligman, Lickona, and Davidson, describe performance character traits as qualities that help individuals self regulate their thoughts and behaviours that support achievement of goals. Traits such as grit, resilience, hard worker, perseverance, diligence, self control, self regulation…. They’re not bad traits at all, but taken out of the bigger picture of character and character education, they can start to be problematic.
What research has shown is the benefits that developing performance traits; a school that focused on performance traits showed students to have higher levels of perseverance and community connectedness over an academic year. The problem with performance traits, however, is that they cannot be claimed to be either good or bad. Intrinsically they are neutral, a blank trait that can be applied in a good or bad situation. The best example I can give is when one of my lecturer’s stated “even a criminal has to be gritty and resilient if they want to break into a car or house.” Traits such as perseverance, self regulation, diligence, and grit can be applied as much to cheating in an exam as well as doing your homework so you can pass an exam honestly.
So should we stop developing performance character traits in our young people?
Of course not! We should still develop these traits in young people but alongside a moral imperative.
What are moral character traits? Noddings, Walker, and Pitts state that moral character is the traits that help individuals strive for ethical behaviours and values that have an impact on their relationships with others and communities. Examples of moral traits include, kindness, compassions, empathy, integrity, and social responsibility. As part of the research mentioned above (about performance traits), a school that focused on the development of moral traits showed students to show a high increase in integrity and social responsibility that are intrinsically good regardless of context.
To develop a well-rounded, community minded, flourishing individual it becomes apparent that we have to focus on a mix of character traits that complement and support each other. But how can we effectively do this? The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues character "building blocks" shows an elegant and simple way to express this mix, they divide traits into four categories: moral, civic, intellectual, and performance. The Jubilee Centre stresses the importance of the moral traits being the overarching traits that guide the other categories. The VIA Institute on Character classifies their 24 character strengths into 6 categories: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. The VIA Institute on Character emphasises the importance of all classifications in the development of character in individuals.
What becomes self evident is that we human beings are complex creatures, but given the right support and encouragement, the right guidance and role models to emulate, we can develop a well-rounded sense of character within ourselves, a well-rounded sense that will see us thrive and flourish in all areas of our lives.
Duckworth, A., & Seligman, M. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting aca- demic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16, 939-944.
Lickona, T., & Davidson, M. (2005). Smart and good high schools. Washington, DC:
Character Education Partnership.
Noddings, N. (1988). An ethics of caring and its implications for instructional arrange- ments. American Journal of Education, 96, 215-230.
Walker, L., & Pitts, R. (1998). Naturalistic conceptions of moral maturity. Developmental Psychology, 34, 403-419.