Character education through stories: an examination of primary school teachers’ perceptions of, and approaches to, story-based character education

Watts, Paul Michael ORCID: 0000-0002-9031-0496 (2023). Character education through stories: an examination of primary school teachers’ perceptions of, and approaches to, story-based character education. University of Birmingham. Ph.D.

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Stories have long been used as a vehicle to teach about character and virtue. Insight into the efficacy and potential of stories for this purpose can be gained through reviewing historical and theoretical approaches together with research studies which have explored children’s cognitive and behavioural outcomes, virtue literacy development, and the factors that may influence their learning. However, while historical and contemporary theory and research on this topic can be illuminating, there has been a notable absence of research into the perceptions and approaches of those who arguably have the best understanding of children’s learning: classroom teachers. This thesis contributes to existing knowledge in the field through filling this void in the research literature and examining how, and the extent to which, primary school teachers in England value and use stories as a vehicle to teach character education. First, the existing theory and research relating to story-based character education is examined. The rationale, methodology and findings of the research study are then presented, the findings are interpreted, and the implications for the theory and practice of story-based character are discussed.

The research study followed a quasi-mixed design in which there were two strands running sequentially. In strand one, predominantly quantitative data were collected through a survey which was administered to primary school teachers online (N=220). In strand two, qualitative data were collected through one-to-one semi-structured interviews with primary school teachers (n=15). The research findings offer new insight by indicating how primary school teachers value and use stories as a vehicle for teaching character education, and how teachers’ perceptions and approaches align with those documented in the existing literature. As such, the findings highlight areas of current practice that corroborate, but also add qualification to and extend, existing knowledge in the field.

Primary school teachers in this study were found to highly value stories as a vehicle through which to teach character education. Notably, stories were highlighted as the main and most useful vehicle that primary school teachers have to develop the character of their pupils. The findings also reveal that primary school teachers seek to facilitate pupils’ learning from short stories through questioning, discussion, and other reading-related activities. While some of the approaches used by primary school teachers appear to overlap with those documented in the existing literature, the story types used in primary schools differ from the story types advocated in some research-informed and contemporary approaches. Primary school teachers utilise short, simplistic stories and some appear to refrain from using religious stories and more detailed narratives. As a result, it is contended that opportunities to develop capacities associated with the moral imagination and virtue literacy, such as the ability of pupils to deliberate and reason about competing virtues in story and real-life contexts, may be missed.

The findings also indicate that very few primary school teachers have received training in using stories to teach character education, despite the majority reporting that they use stories for this purpose at least once a week. While the findings indicate that primary school teachers are conscious of some of the factors that have previously been found to influence children’s learning from stories, such as the age of story characters and similarity of story contexts to pupils’ lives, the potential detrimental effects of fantastical story content are not acknowledged to the same extent. These findings have implications for the future training and development of primary school teachers; there appears to be a need for professional development in the use of stories to teach character education and related areas in schools. There may be potential to enhance practice through engagement with the existing theory and research literature which points to the value of using rich story characters and contexts as a basis for developing virtue reasoning and deliberation.

Furthermore, the findings indicate that despite the high value attributed to stories for teaching character education, primary school teachers have limited time to carry this out in practice due to the perceived demands of the wider curriculum. The potential value of story-based character education as a means through which to help to develop the character and personal development of pupils may be constrained as a result.

Type of Work: Thesis (Doctorates > Ph.D.)
Award Type: Doctorates > Ph.D.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Social Sciences
School or Department: School of Education
Funders: None/not applicable
Subjects: L Education > L Education (General)
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB1501 Primary Education
L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB2361 Curriculum
P Language and Literature > PZ Childrens literature


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