Image of secondary school students in the playground

Shaping Character in the Curriculum

Image of secondary school students in the playground

Shaping Character in the Curriculum

School educators are well acquainted with the curriculum, both formal and informal, and the central role it takes in shaping and developing young minds.

The current OFSTED framework (September 2019) calls for a ‘broad and balanced curriculum,’ demonstrating clear planning of intent, implementation, and impact. The inspection criteria maintain that the school curriculum should extend ‘beyond the academic’ promoting ‘character development’ and readiness for life in modern Britain.

“Doing God in Education” and the What If learning programme offers a valuable contribution to shaping character in the curriculum and supporting professionals in their design and delivery of a syllabus underpinned by their school’s vision statement and intent.

Doing God in education

Despite often held convictions within British education that teaching should be a neutral or objective process, Professor Trevor Cooling’s report, “Doing God in Education” argues that what teachers teach and how they teach it is heavily influenced by who they are and what they understand as being of value. Essentially, the report maintains that all knowing is underpinned by a worldview that can be religious or non- religious and thus, the idea of a value- free curriculum or classroom is preposterous. For Church schools, Professor Cooling argues that religious faith is too important an influence in life to be ignored in education, and to relegate such teaching to the RE classroom is to assume that secularism is the only worldview that has the potential to be the social glue in a diverse society.

When shaping a curriculum, it is important to recognise that the fundamental role of worldviews in human learning should be acknowledged throughout schooling. How young people consider meaning and significance has a profound impact on their values, shaping their present and future character traits. Hence, it is vital that any curriculum intent does not stand in isolation from the values and ethos that a school community promote.

The What If programme

The What If Learning is a cross- curricular approach that explores what teaching and learning may look like when rooted in a distinctively Christian ethos. It does not require the re-writing of schemes of work or the curriculum itself, neither does it mean the content of individual subjects is compromised. Rather, the intention is to enable a mindset change that will become the intuitive way that school leaders frame their curriculum and teachers plan and implement their lessons. This approach seeks to nurture character traits in pupils which promote success in learning and later life.

To enable teacher confidence in implementing this approach in their classroom practice, it is crucial that staff engage in training in the What If Learning programme. The links below offer school leaders, CPD organisers and teachers, excellent material to support school communities in embracing character education within its culture.

Transforming your school curriculum

The What If Learning Documents: An Overview of the Resources Available

This document provides an excellent guide for school communities who wish to plan and establish the What If Learning approach as part of in- house INSET and CPD. It offers a clear explanation of the What If Learning style as well as practical ideas of how teachers, working collaboratively, can reframe lessons that encourage character development in their pupils’ lives. The intervention document demonstrates that the process should not be viewed as an add-on to curriculum content, but rather a reframing and looking anew at shaping character across the curriculum.

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The quantitative and qualitative research reports contained in this document indicate the positive impact of the intervention within schools. Teachers’ confidence and ability to teach using the What If Learning approach increased and pupils responded positively making fewer negative judgements about those they perceive to be different, following the intervention. This report offers insight into the development of virtue literacy amongst teachers and pupils. It also points out the importance of collaborative working to enhance character building within the school culture. The research additionally reveals the challenges that were experienced by the teachers, which can be read in the qualitative research report. Overall, the report is very encouraging in terms of the positive impact What If Learning can have on shaping character in the curriculum.

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The final report outlines the three main steps of implementing the What If Learning approach; seeing anew; choosing engagement and reshaping practice. It further demonstrates the key findings from the pupils’ and teachers’ survey, the impact of which, presents an incredibly positive outcome. The recommendations for successfully embedding the What If Learning method include the significance of schools working collaboratively to develop a shared understanding of a specific virtue, rather than a vague aspiration to promote “good character.” The virtue in focus should also reflect the Christian ethos of the school community.

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These case studies bring to life the imaginative and exciting ways in which schools have used their Christian ethos to support teachers and pupils in promoting character virtues in the classroom. An audio visual of one of the participant schools provides a helpful example of the What If Learning programme in action.

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This document reports on the research carried out with 14 class teachers from three state- funded church secondary schools in England between September 2012 and July 2013. The primary research question was: Can What If Learning be seen to lead a more distinctively Christian pedagogic approach and the distinctive Christian formation of students in a church school? The findings in this report were mixed and presented some challenges unspecified in the primary sector. Although teachers were able to significantly reframe their practice, some hankered after concrete resources rather than creating their own learning experiences. It was also noted that the demand to prepare students for GCSE often dominated their pedagogy and some struggled finding space for What If Learning reflection in a crowed curriculum. Based on these and other reported findings, the research team present key recommendations for consideration.

The book, Christian Faith in English Church Schools: Trevor Cooling, Beth Green, Andrew Morris and Lynn Revell gives a detailed account of this research project.

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Academic Scholarship

  • Cooling, T. 2017. The threat to better learning in Christian Education. in: Goodlet, K., Collier, J. and George, T. (ed.) Better Learning: Trajectories for Educators in Christian schools Canberra, Australia St Mark's NTC Publishing. pp. 107-116
  • Cooling, T., Green, B. Morris, A. and Revell, L. 2016. Christian Faith in English Church Schools: Research Conversations with Classroom Teachers. Oxford, Peter Lang.
  • Cooling, T. and Smith, D. 2014. Theology and pedagogy: a response to Sean Whittle. Journal of Education and Christian Belief. 18 (2), pp. 207-216.
  • Cooling, T. 2014. The epistemic criterion: a response to Michael Hand. Journal of Beliefs and Values. 35 (1), pp. 86-89.
  • Cooling, T. 2012. Contestable beliefs in education: fairness and/or neutrality? Oxford Review of Education. 38 (5), pp. 551-566.
  • Cooling, T. 2012. What is a controversial issue? Implications for the treatment of religious beliefs in education. Journal of Beliefs & Values: Studies in Religion & Education. 33 (2), pp. 169-181.

More Information

If you would like to arrange for a member of NICER to speak to you or your organisation about this area of work, email