Book Review: Taught Not Caught – Educating for 21st Century Character
I have to admit that I approached the new book by former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, Taught Not Caught - Educating for 21st Century Character, with a little skepticism; being an external provider of a character education programme into schools, I have seen first-hand the impact created by the current government’s destructive policies and approaches to education. Nicky Morgan has, however, proved with this book that there is some common sense and future-mindedness in Parliament, even if she currently can’t set policy in this area.
"Taught Not Caught is a simple, yet comprehensive guide to the current state of character education and wellbeing in the UK."
Taught Not Caught is a simple, yet comprehensive guide to the current state of character education and wellbeing in the UK. Drawing on current research, it looks at what is working in UK schools, in particular such “character giants” as King’s Langley and the UoB School. It outlines the impact that creating a culture of character is having on both students and staff, drawing on well-argued evidence for the lifelong benefits of character education.
The first few chapters of the book establish the meaning of character, across cultures and countries, using stories and case studies from schools and people working in the field, to illustrate the history and cultural interpretations of character in education (she refers to the KIPP schools in the US, as well as US positive psychology and character advocate luminaries Dr Angela Duckworth and Paul Tough). Yet for a majority of the book she stays with examples of character research and education here in the UK, which fits with the target audience, both conceptually and linguistically.
The middle chapters address the why of character, with an overt reference to the future impact character education can have on the workplace; the economic argument for character education is a common one. With a whole chapter dedicated to the impact character has on the workplace, it reveals what everyone seems to know already - employers want employees who are dedicated, focused, and driven, that know how to be a team player, and understand the steps to a successful business. She also addresses the very difficult question of how we assess character in our young people, eventually making the point that perhaps we run the risk of character education backfiring if we do. She does provide examples of schools that do monitor behaviour and self-reflection in some way with their students, but shows that one system does not fit all as each school is different.
Finally, she looks at how we can develop character in young people through external means, whether that be extra-curricular through school, or activities provided through parents, e.g. parents taking their children to Scouts and Guides. Here is where the book comes a little more into its own, not with blatant “how-to’s”, but showing what the wider community can do to engage with character education. Providing many examples of the successes of these extra-curricular programmes (as well as interventions in schools), Nicky shows that as a politician, she is aware of an alternative to the current schooling system, a system of extreme testing, a system that is not working. It is a shame she is not in a position to take her ideas (as outlined in this book) further to actively change this system through policy.
Nicky Morgan, having taken on the mess that Michael Gove left behind as Education Secretary, tried her best to bring some kind of character education to schools. With this book, she keeps up the work that she started in 2015, but it is not the entire answer. In fact, I feel that this book is really only a beginning; a light introduction to the policy and academic research into what is really a nuanced, and possibly (on occasion) difficult concept for many adults and teachers to grapple with.