The Princes Man Program: a virtues-based approach to the development of character and wellbeing.

Author: John C. Kinniburgh (Head of Secondary School & Deputy Headmaster).

As a parent of three young children (aged 5, 7 & 9) commencing their journey through school life, I am obviously concerned that they make the most of their time at school. Learning the foundational knowledge and skills that will enable them to fulfil their potential is certainly a priority that resonates with my wife and me, and I’m sure with all parents. Most importantly, however, I am concerned that my children are equipped with the skills to succeed in a world that is complicated, unpredictable and challenging, even for the most able.

There are already enough issues facing young people today without them having to worry about whether to attend university or have a gap year, what jobs might suit them, buying a house, protecting the environment. Concerns about adolescent mental health, academic expectations, social acceptance, personal health and cyber safety are just some of the challenges that students face today and not just at school. It certainly isn’t easy growing up as a young person in the 21st century.

Belonging to a school is a deeply formative experience for all children and the quality of the individual that they will become is greatly influenced by the experiences that they have whilst at school. I fundamentally believe that a child’s education should focus on developing the holistic needs of the individual and the skills that they need to thrive, and ultimately be successful in life. I certainly want my children to be independent, feel secure and supported as an individual, and respond well to challenging situations. I also want them to show resilience and learn from their mistakes, to develop a moral and social conscience that enables them to make a positive, and valuable contribution to society in the future.

Key to achieving the development of the whole child is an effective partnership between all key players involved – the child, the parents, and the school. All must play their part and be aligned in their belief that all this is possible. If we are successful in achieving these outcomes, it is possible to help our children develop their own understanding of what is excellent in all domains of human endeavour – and in turn to develop their true purpose in life both at school and beyond.

Prince Alfred College is an environment in which we want boys to extend themselves. We want our boys to develop the confidence to risk error, explore the unknown and have the courage to persist with an idea that just might make a difference to themselves and others. It is importantfor boys to be self-reflective, to recognise their motivations for, and benefitsgained, bymoving beyond their comfort zone and extending themselves. We should never be satisfied with mediocrity but instead strive to be achieve our best in all endeavours.

The motto of Gordonstoun School in northern Scotland, which was founded by the German educator Kurt Hahn in the 1930s, is ‘Plus est en vous’, which means literally, ‘More is in you.’ Those at Gordonstoun usually translate it more loosely, but more expressively, as ‘There is more in you than you think’. It is our desire that all our young Princes Men take intellectual risks by exploring and asking, ‘what if?’ questions; that they all challenge themselves in a co-curricular setting to learn new skills to be better athletes, a better musician, a better chess player; to support each other, show kindness to others, to respect all and be a good person.

A core underpinning of a boy’s education at Prince Alfred College is therefore to focus on the development of character and this is reflected in our core beliefs that guide our actions as a school:

Our goal is to nurture and develop Princes Men.

Men who know who they are, work hard and value their roles and contributions.

And at the same time, to develop men with kindness, who care and support others.

Men with empathy, humility and a respect for diversity, spirituality and the beliefs of others.

Men who form strong networks and enduring relationships.

Men with a sense of duty, honour and integrity. Men with courage and emotional strength.

Men with a good sense of humour, confidence and self-reliance. Men with purpose and a capacity to contribute to a better world.

Prince Alfred College Core Beliefs (Strategic Plan 2016)

Focusing on these beliefs provides a mechanism through which our boys learn how to act ethically and that doing so for the right reasons is essential if they are to become independent, resilient and successful. This prepares them to be able to respond well and appropriately when faced with challenges, be able to live, cooperate and learn with others, and perform in whatever area they choose. By focusing on the College core beliefs and the notion of character in all aspects of school life, we can help our young Princes Men to be more attuned to what it takes to truly flourish in life,

Few would argue that a focus on student wellbeing is one of the most important priorities facing a school today. Our College appreciates each child is unique with individual needs, potential, limitations, circumstances, feelings, opportunities and expectations. Our philosophy centres on the child as an individual and in developing the maximum all-round potential that is inherent in every boy. Being clear in our own understanding of wellbeing and how we can provide a transformative experience in which a boy can acquire the skills for long term happiness and fulfilment, is extremely important in implementing this philosophy

In a 2008 report from the UK Government Office for Science, The Foresight Report, Wellbeing is defined as:

‘…. a dynamic state, in which the individual is able to develop their potential, work productively and creatively, build strong and positive relationships with others, and contribute to their community. It is enhanced when an individual is able to fulfil their personal and social goals and achieve a sense of purpose in their society.’

UK Government Office for Science (2008)

This definition resonates with our own philosophy of service to others and which places a strong emphasis on not only the development of a student’s potential, but the skills that will allow them to contribute to others and the world around them. In a contemporary educational setting, the notion of wellbeing can and should be situated within the broader narrative of preparing boys for life beyond school and equipping them to flourish in life, a view supported by John White, author of Exploring Well-Being in Schools: A Guide to Making Children’s Lives More Fulfilling, states:

‘Education for wellbeing involves preparing children for a life of autonomous, whole-hearted and successful engagement in worthwhile activities and relationships.’
John White (2011)

Societal perceptions of what promotes a state of wellbeing, however, vary greatly with some associating the notion with activities such as aroma therapy, herbal teas and mud baths. A glass of wine in front of a fire on a cool winter’s evening will certainly strike a chord with many including me! Whilst each of these have their place, wellbeing is of course a much richer concept that relates specifically to an individual’s experiences and how they function.

There are largely two conceptions of wellbeing that revolve around two distinct, but related philosophies:

  1. Hedonism
  2. Eudaimonism

A hedonic view of wellbeing associates wellbeing with pleasure and happiness, and focuses on subjectively determined mental states. A eudaimonic view of wellbeing on the other hand focuses on self-realisation, the extent to which a person is fully functioning, acting in accordance with one’s deeply held values and contributing to the greater good via experiences that are objectively good for the person. Eudaimonic theorists attest that many desired outcomes that are pleasurable are not necessarily good for the individual and therefore do not promote wellbeing in the long term.

To illustrate this, consider the differences between dining at a fine restaurant and participating in the ‘Tour Down Under’ cycle race. Both activities are likely to yield similar hedonistic qualities, for example the experience of enjoyment and pleasure. The experience of dining in a restaurant provides physical pleasure that will dissipate in the short-term (and at its worst be replaced by guilt of overindulgence). It is likely, however, that taking part in a cycle race would provide an individual with the opportunity to achieve personal growth, self-development and feelings of self-confidence and achievement. This activity is inherently good for the individual and associated with enduring wellbeing

For many students, success (or happiness) is likely to be measured by the quality of the job they will one day have, the amount of money they earn or the type of house they will one day live in. This is a rather limited concept of happiness that is based on hedonism. Careful distinction must be made with the things that make us feel nice – having a good house, nice car, quality clothes – and the deeper, more important aspects of the way we live life; the view of the eudaimonists.

Eudaimonists believe that happiness and wellbeing comes from living well and that it does not come as an end-point or when one meets certain criteria. This is not a new concept –  the Greek Philosopher Aristotle argued that true happiness is achieved by leading a virtuous life because it is the right thing to do and that realising human potential is the ultimate human objective. Many of our modern-day values are based on Aristolean virtues, which are explained as follows:

‘A virtue enables us to act or feel in the right way, about the right things, toward the right people, at the right time, for the right reasons: what Aristotle called the doctrine of the mean, or the middle way.’

Ian Morris (2016) adapted from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (n.d.)

Helping boys, and young men, to understand that acting with ‘good character’ is the right thing to do and is an important focus for the pastoral care program at Prince Alfred College. To do this means placing a strong emphasis on teaching boys about the virtues of good character and this is an area in which we believe we can add the enormous value. The following definition of Character Education from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham in England supports this philosophy:

‘Character education is about the acquisition and strengthening of virtues: the traits that sustain a well-rounded life and a thriving society. Schools should aim to develop confident and compassionate students who are effective contributors to society, successful learners and responsible citizens. Students also need to grow in their understanding of what is good or valuable and their ability to protect and advance what is good. They need to develop a commitment to serving others, which is an essential manifestation of good character in action.’

Jubilee Centre statement on character education

There is much discussion about character education within Australia and abroad. Indeed, the teaching of character now forms part of the political agenda. The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians (December 2008) promotes the notion that all young Australians “develop personal values and attributes such as honesty, resilience, empathy and respect for others” and that they, as active and informed citizens, “act with moral and ethical integrity”.

In the UK, the former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan focused attention on the teaching of character in UK schools. She noted that lessons to build character of pupils should be as important as academic subjects in preparing students for life in modern Britain. Following on from this she introduced awards to celebrate excellence and diversity in character education including a £3.5 million fund to promote classes and extra-curriculum activities that build ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’.

Not only is, Our own character, and the character of othersis constantly being called into question, the media showers us daily with a barrage of examples of poor character.– riots, financial crises, mistrust of authority. We are experiencing global political unrest at an unnerving level. These stories remind us about why character matters in a local, national and international context.

The challenge for us is to make the building of character  relevant for the modern age. Our responsibility is to develop the environment at both home and school so that boys can flourish, make mistakes, learn how to behave and respond to challenges. To enable opportunities for character to be both ‘taught’ and ‘caught’. At school It is caught through the interactions with all students and in the language, that we use with them. We also teach students about the virtues of good character through our ‘Princes Man Program’. This is an explicitly taught course that all students in years 7 to 12 undertake during timetabled lessons. The program is one aspect of the broader Pastoral Care offering at the College and this year it has been re-developed to focus on the explicit teaching of virtues.

The Princes Man Program focuses on the following core virtues and associated character behaviours:

  • Civic virtues
  • Spiritual virtues
  • Moral virtues
  • Performance virtues
  • Intellectual virtues

The pastoral and wellbeing themes and topics that we explore within each of these virtues include:

  • Manhood – exploring masculinity, sexuality, emotions and relationships
  • Safety and risk taking – exploring the benefits of taking risks in developing character but also in harm minimisation within adolescence
  • Transitions – exploring changes between learning years, curriculum, careers, vocations and post-secondary opportunities
  • Personal Health – exploring physical, spiritual and mental factors which encourage human flourishing and maximising one’s potential
  • Leadership and Service – exploring opportunities to serve, support, inspire and empower self and others within school as well as global environments
  • Connections – exploring opportunities to connect with peers, with House, with College community and with old scholars
  • Learning Performance – exploring opportunities to maximise learning performance through developing sound habits of study and effective approaches to learning

It is our belief that a virtues approach to the teaching of character has significant potential in developing the long-term wellbeing of the boys at Prince Alfred College. We believe that character can be ‘taught’ through the deliberate teaching of virtues and also ‘caught’ through the implicit actions of students, staff and parents, all of whom are aligned to our College ethos. As we strive to develop boys of good character, we expect that they will recognise virtuous behaviours as the middle ground between deficiencies and excesses, and that they identify the limited value in pursuing hedonistic pleasures which do not add value to one’s life in the long-term. Through our Princes Man Program we are helping our boys to focus on achieving long-term wellbeing by living a life that is healthy and prosperous, and that they have the skills to succeed in life. We have a responsibility to develop young men who are imbued with the knowledge of how to respond the right way at all times, so that they can flourish in life and manage their own wellbeing.

‘…the function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.’

Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a13