John Portch

How Eton College Provides and Evaluates Its Character Education

John Portch
April 5, 2019

This article by John Portch, Lead Writer at the Leaders Performance Institute, was originally published on Leaders in Sport on March 1, 2019.

The vast majority of people in elite sport understand that character is important but very few, if any, would suggest they have mastered the art of character education.

Sports organisations commit inordinate amounts of time, effort and resource to ensure they are not only recruiting the finest talents but also the characters and personalities that best fit their values.

It stems from the notion that the best people make the best athlete, a view that has taken hold across major North American sport, where teams routinely carry out psychological profiling of potential recruits and, once they are in the building, endeavour to provide support services that reach ‘the person behind the athlete’.

The idea has also gained traction in Australian sport in recent years, while over in Europe, one team, Danish Superliga side FC Nordsjælland, went as far as appointing football’s first Head of Character Development, Keith Sharpe, in 2016.

“I saw the former Everton coach Steve Round say on Sky Sports that he thinks the next big gain in football over the next ten years will be in the area of developing character,” wrote Tom Vernon, the man who hired Sharpe at Nordsjælland.

Yet there is a sense that sport is still scratching around in the dark when it comes to character development. Teams and coaches may have a firm understanding of what they are after but little comprehension of how to find or, indeed, cultivate it.

The education sector has long stolen a march, with independent boarding schools in particular, such as the world-renowned Eton College in Windsor, Berkshire, enjoying a long history of character education.

Eton was founded in 1440 by Henry VI, as ‘The King’s College of Our Lady of Eton besides Wyndsor’ – a charity school for 70 ‘poor boys’ who would then go on to King’s College, Cambridge, which Henry founded the following year.

The school is noted for the quality of its education and, of the 260 boys that leave Eton each year, almost all will go on to university, with a substantial number attending Oxford and Cambridge. Equally valued is its reputation for developing well-rounded individuals who understand values such as teamwork, self-discipline and gratitude.

The Leaders Performance Institute sought a better understanding of the importance Eton places on character from Jonnie Noakes, Eton’s Director of Teaching & Learning, who tells us: “There is a recognition that character education is becoming more and more prominent in educational discourse worldwide.”

Noakes explored the theme of Eton’s ‘radical traditionalism’ onstage at the 2018 Leaders Sport Performance Summit in London. Since its foundation the school has remained at the forefront of education due, in part, to its continuous thirst for innovation.

Today this is best represented by Eton’s Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning [CIRL], of which Noakes is the Director.

Character education is an ongoing research project for CIRL, as Noakes explains. “Governments, businesses and schools are increasingly recognising that the teaching of non-cognitive skills is of equal importance to teaching the narrow band of cognitive skills that schools have tended to focus on in recent decades.”

Eton has often been the first port of call for other educational institutions looking to address their own questions of character education. “Character goes to the heart of what we, as a school, do; what we say we do; and what we believe we should do,” says Noakes, while emphasising that the work of CIRL continues.

“Character matters and we want to be able to understand it in a way that is not just tacit but is conscious, so that we’re aware of what we are doing and how, and can talk about it in a way that’s not just tacit but is conscious, that we’re aware of what we’re doing and how,” he adds.

The Leaders Performance Institute is the latest to ask: how does Eton teach character? And are there lessons to be gleaned for the sports performance community?

As a boarding community, perhaps it is worth starting with the pastoral support you provide to students, particularly the house system. How central is that to addressing the question of character development?

JN: It’s absolutely central because the boys not only spend most of their time in the houses that’s where their main social network is found and, to a degree, the education they get is the informal education they get through their house, through their social network, through the house master. The house is the place where the school’s values are passed on and it’s central to character education.

Onstage in London you referred to the ‘quality of relationships’ between house masters and students. What does that mean in practice? 

JN: A boy’s relationship with his house master develops for the whole of their five years here and begins 18 months before they arrive having followed a process of finding a good match. The houses are quite small [they are in most cases made up of just over 50 boys aged between 13 and 18] so there is a considerable amount of contact time. Bar one evening off, the house master spends every evening going around the house talking to the boys. That’s several hours a day when he or she – we have also had one female house master – has contact time with the boys and, of course, he’s got contact time throughout the day for various other reasons as well. It’s partly about longevity, it’s partly about how much time is given to it, it’s also about the fact that a house master is really the central figure in a boy’s life. There are many other adults who have responsibility in different ways for part of the boy’s life but the house master has the overall responsibility.

What are some of those responsibilities?

JN: It’s part of a house master’s responsibility to see how a boy is developing personally, and I include in that the non-cognitive character skills: his ability to get on well with a group, his ability to contribute to the common good, his ability to be kind and compassionate towards others, as well as things like self-discipline and motivation. Basically, all the habits of a boy’s daily life and how he interacts with others are there for the house master to see. The house master is the person who has the responsibility of reflecting back to the boy what he might need to work on, praising him for what goes well but also what he could do to develop aspects of his personality or aspects of his learning. A house master doesn’t just have the responsibility of making sure a boy is safe and well, he also takes on an active role in helping the boy to grow and develop and that, of course, includes their character.

When it comes to reflecting back to the boy areas for improvement, how important is the use of language?

JN: We’ve done a lot of work on growth mindsets, part of which was focusing on how we talk to boys and how we feed back and how we guide boys. If you talk about the way a boy has approached something, recognising what has been positive about that but also encouraging a boy to reflect on how he might do something differently and better in the future, then you’re fostering a growth mindset. If, however, you just focus on how talented a boy is or how well he did at something, the outcome, you encourage a fixed mindset. In quite subtle ways, language really matters to the values you pass on to the boys.

You’ve explained that character is an essential part of what you believe you should do as a school and character is also becoming more and more central in education. How has your character research project supported that view?

JN: It builds upon work we’ve been doing for several years. We’ve already done research on growth mindsets and on wellbeing, which taps into a number of character areas like optimism and social connectedness and gratitude; it was a natural extension to look at character more broadly. All the boys are full boarders, seven days a week; all the teachers who teach full-time live here seven days a week with their families. So the amount of time that a boy spends in a classes is probably a quarter of the education they’re getting; the rest of the education is happening in different contexts around the school, some of them formal, like coaching a team, some of them informal in terms of the ongoing contact teachers and boys have in multiple contexts. We’re very clear as a school that we aim to teach the boys values and how to live well and how to be purposeful and how to serve the common good; all of these character values are in our stated aims and our school strategy. I also wanted to do some research at Eton that would touch on what everyone here cares about: the teachers, the support staff, the boys, everyone. Character is an obvious candidate for that.

How do you chart progress when it comes to character development?

JN: There are various adults who get to know a boy very well and the traditional method has been that their professional judgement and their expertise and the amount of time they spend with a boy would allow them to have a clear idea of how a boy is developing. That works and we’ve been doing that for decades. But now we have our research centre we’re interested in gathering hard data because we’re conscious that when we do this, on the whole data tends not only to confirm what we already believe to be the case but sometimes to give us new insights that are counter to received wisdom, insights that even an experienced teacher wouldn’t necessarily spot.

What character education studies are you running this year?

JN: We’re running three. One is looking at what we as a college, both boys and adults, believe we should value and what we currently support, to see where the differences lie. It also enabled us to see where the priorities are. The five character virtues or outcomes that were valued most highly by staff and boys together – and this was something like 650 people who replied – were gratitude, perseverance, respect, happiness and motivation. And when we look at how well people thought we currently support those on the whole the answer was actually we do support them pretty well already; there’s a good match of what we value and what we do well. But not equally well, so there were a couple that came out as being less well supported. That’s a preliminary stage.

Were there any notable discrepancies?

JN: The respondents don’t value competitiveness very highly but they think we promote it very strongly; that was an interesting discrepancy. At the next stage, combining focus groups of boys and masters and bringing in what the available research tell us, we are going to need to look at how we can promote those five character virtues even better than we currently do. We’re going to turn those discussions, based on literature reviews and what on what the focus groups tell us into some practical strategies for how we can promote gratitude, how we can promote perseverance, and respect and happiness, and motivation; things that we can do in every area of the school to foster these things.

Eton ran an experiential course in character development. What did that look like?

JN: This is a course that we developed six years ago and then trialled twice in 2013 and 2015. This was a pilot, quite a small number of boys each time; on one occasion it was 25 boys from Eton and it’s the same number from a local state school, Windsor Boys School; the second time was a slightly smaller group, 15 from each school. We did them in different places and we did them in slightly different ways but essentially what we were seeing by taking the boys out of their normal social contexts, their social bubble, and putting them into unfamiliar environments where we knew they would come up against unfamiliar challenges, whether we could give them the tools which they could then put into practice to overcome those challenges. These were character tools: we were teaching flexibility, team work, collaboration, perseverance; a lot of it was built around the ways to give and receive feedback, so essentially we were building a technique for better collaboration and more effective teamwork. We did it for ten days off-site in the first instance, in Scotland; in the second instance we did five days on-site and five days off, as we were cutting the costs down and doing it according to a different model.

What were some of your findings?

JN: What came out of the impact report for those two pilots was that they were very effective in teaching these skills we wanted to teach but we made a decision that it’s too disruptive to take boys away for that length of time in term time. So we’re now looking to teach the same lessons woven into the boys’ curriculum without taking them away. The obvious reason for doing that is that you don’t disrupt their education here. There is a loss there – and this is part of the reason why we designed it the way we did – which is part of the reason why we designed it the way we did. If you take boys away from what’s familiar you very quickly put them in situations where they don’t quite know how to cope – and that’s where the real learning happens. It really helps to take them out of their current way of thinking and their habituated behaviour. We’re now weaving those same lessons into the ways we’re teaching the boys here.

Have the boys noticed a difference?

JN: It depends. If, for instance, we’re making an intervention and we’re trying to measure the impact of that intervention, then yes. One of the ways that we do it is that we get the boys to fill in questionnaires and that’s one of the ways you can measure their attitudes and so on, but another way that we do it is by self-reporting. So we will ask a boy about his attitude towards something or his attitude towards his own ability to be optimistic. We have noticed that boys’ views of their own behaviours change with certain interventions. An example of that is that we taught growth mindsets to first-year A Level boys; we taught it to an intervention group and we also taught it to a control group; these were two groups of 130 boys each; and we did questionnaires before and afterwards, part of which was self-report and the boys not only showed greater awareness of growth mindset, which is what you’d expected after we taught it to them in the intervention group, they also showed greater awareness of their willingness to be helpful towards other people because they had understood that they weren’t fundamentally in a competition with other people, they just had to improve rather than prove themselves and there was a great deal that they could learn from other people; this is a social activity that was worthwhile in itself. That is an example of one way we could measure boys’ attitudes towards their own progress. We’ve asked the boys to self-report also on what contributes to their wellbeing. These are ways that we try to measure what the boys notice following an intervention.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities you face in the near future?

JN: We need to make sure that every boy is reached and it’s quite a challenge in a school of 1,300 boys where different boys have very different programmes. Opportunities? I think an opportunity for a school to spend two years thinking in structured ways about how we teach these character virtues, talking about how we could improve and tapping into the research to inform our discussions, and then and then raising our game, I think that’s tremendous. It brings everyone who is working here together with a common focus, even if they work in very different aspects of the boys’ education because character is something that cuts across every aspect. This is an opportunity to have a really clear focus for two years on something that gets to the heart of what we do educationally.


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