Nurturing character

walsh with quotesGary Walsh, Executive Officer for Character Scotland looks at how developing character can help young people achieve their aspirations.walsh 1

There are many ways to define character but let’s say that it refers to our dispositions to think, feel, and act in ways which reflect our values, virtues, capabilities and strengths. Research suggests that while there are genetics at play, character is both ‘caught’ and ‘taught’. It also suggests that parents, family and teachers are among the primary influences on character for children and young people1 with more research on this happening right now throughout Scotland and the UK – particularly in education settings2.

The ‘Science of Character’ film on our website is an interesting and engaging way to explain the concept and some of the main research findings. It is also a good introduction to the VIA Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues3.

What is Character Education?

Character Education is a developing global movement which has taken root in many countries around the world. It is beginning to have some significant resonance here in the UK.

Broadly speaking, character education is an umbrella term which refers to the many ways in which practitioners from the broader learning community (including Youth Workers) support young people to explore character and decide who they are, who they wish to become and what kind of society or community they want to grow up in. It is about nurturing a sense of identity, aspirations and helping young people and practitioners alike to critically engage with human attributes such as curiosity, empathy, teamwork, grit or virtues such as honesty, humility and gratitude.

These traits are often referred to as soft skills, core skills, non-cognitive skills, ethics, morals etc. Character is increasingly being seen as a broad enough term to cover all of these areas in one field of interest and study which is rapidly developing in education and community-based settings.4

Of course there is no one ‘correct’ approach to character education. We believe however that it should be a fully recognised area of practice just like any other. It should be specific, planned, robust, reflective and research-based, as opposed to being assumed, random or without a shared terminology or knowledge base. It also needs to be fun, engaging and ‘human’.

Our charity is currently in a process of dialogue with a wide range of people including practitioners, young people, policy makers, academics, youth groups and Government officials in an effort to address this question: if in Scotland we were to develop our own specific approach to character development, what would it be like?walsh 3

What kind of Character Education?

The stage is set in Scotland for radical, enlightening and liberal approaches to education and youth work. We have a Curriculum and new Teaching Standards based on values, principles and purposes. We have a new Youth Work Strategy and a Youth Sector which puts young people right at the centre of everything. Hopefully, we have moved beyond the task of telling young people how to ‘make bread’ and towards giving them ‘ownership of the bakery’.

It seems sensible to conclude then that the way in which we could engage in character education with young people in Scotland is through exploratory dialogue, empowering them to find and make their own sense and meaning. The language and practice of character development is an ideal context for these discussions (you can subscribe to our network update to receive regular practical ideas).

The focus in Scotland today is on nurturing young people’s attitudes, aspirations, their sense of identity, skills, strengths, values, knowledge and their roles in civic society, in ways which genuinely advocate social justice, democracy, equity and well-being.

Character education, both implicit and explicit, plays a central role in supporting these endeavours crossing both formal and informal learning opportunities. It supports shared agendas such as employability, evaluation and workforce development. It helps us to look beyond the acquisition of academic or social skills. It could even help to take us towards a place in education and youth work where each of us, practitioners and young people alike, can fully explore what it really means to lead a ‘flourishing life’ as a ‘confident individual, successful learner, effective contributor and responsible citizen’ – or even just a decent person living in the just, equitable and healthy society we are aspiring towards.

Tell us what you think

We want to learn from you – you and/or the young people you work with can contact us if you have any thoughts, questions, concerns or suggestions. We would be delighted to know how you think youth work in general or the specific work you are doing contributes to the character development of young people. Please let us know and we will share your ideas, practice and success stories with other youth workers and practitioners.

You can email us on or use the social media links on our homepage to get in touch.

References and further reading

1 Arthur, J. (2010) Of Good Character: Exploration of Virtues in Values in 3-25 Year Olds Exeter: Imprint Academic

2 Jubilee Centre for Character & Values – a summary of UK-based research and findings

See also Populus Survey – a UK survey of parents on the role of schools in developing character

See also Aberdeen University – school-based research on the relationship between character strengths and academic achievement

3 See VIA Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues

See also VIA Institute on Character – key research findings

4 Education Endowment Foundation – Literature Review on ‘Non-Cognitive Skills’

See also All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility – UK-based Character & Resilience Manifesto

See also Character Lab – educational research charity based in U.S.


Further reading


Character Scotland Featured Articles – other blog articles about the role of character in young people’s lives


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