The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

Crafting Character through the strategic use of stories, spaces and symbols

“Strive mightily but eat and drink as friends”

These words are prominently emblazoned in enormous font, carved into the sandstone as the centrepiece of the Dining Hall at the Tennessee Prep School for boys Montgomery Bell Academy (MBA). In this setting, a Shakespearean quote may be seen to add an academic flourish to an educational institution, yet on a deeper level, one may question what this text reveals about the values of this American school. By extension what intention is behind these words when considering the type of young man that this school seeks to mould and guide into adulthood? Are the words employed as a nice Shakespearean quote related to food in a Dining Hall? Or on a deeper level can their usage be viewed as a deliberate approach to the communication of certain values deemed important in this specific context. My own interpretation, albeit as an English teacher, but particularly as an educator of boys highlights the employment of these words as a symbolic reminder of a central value of the school. Namely that eating together is an act of community, where all other endeavours paused, however momentarily.  Whilst a great deal of debate has emerged about the importance of quality relationships, reinvigorated curriculum and specialised programs in successfully educating boys, this article serves as a provocation for educators to consider the symbolic impact of the physical spaces, actual symbols and stories in crafting the distinctive character of young men in our care. This piece argues that it is perhaps high time educational leaders moved beyond merely advocating the explicit teaching of good values and character, to give prominence to the adapting and refining the place of school culture and ethos in approaches to developing young men. Such a perspective serves to broaden the discussion, allowing consideration of how educational leaders can leverage aspects of culture and ethos to assist in developing people.

There is no doubt that contemporary schools are complex entities, offering similar products in essence, yet differentiated by often subtle and at times dramatic disparities in culture and ethos. Thus, when considering how best to educate the young men in our care, it would appear imperative that educational leaders closely examine key elements of their unique organisational culture and ethos to investigate both the substance of, and manner in which, messages about values and character strengths are being communicated. For instance, what subtle and overt reminders about desired values and character strengths are being conveyed in the ceremonies, traditions and rituals of your school? Just as powerful is a consideration of visual elements and representations of the same messages evident in the display of artefacts, symbols and archives. What messages are being conveyed to students about values and character in the stories that are told in formalities such as assemblies and chapel services? Importantly, do these aspects of culture and ethos align with your stated vision, mission and values?

The work of American academics, Petersen and Deal (2009) has been influential in shaping my own thinking on these issues. These authors have written extensively on the manner in which educational leaders can nurture the existing culture and ethos within a school to communicate key messages about an organisation to various audiences. For these authors, schools comprise “a complex web of traditions built over time, where often unwritten rules, informal expectations and rites and rituals” (p.14) express what is important in a specific context. Importantly they argue that elements, including school history, stories and tradition can and should be used to connect contemporary student bodies in meaningful ways with what has gone before them arguing that “successful schools nourish and adjust their heritage.” (p.57)   Renewed interest in programs of character education may suggest that successful character education is most effective when embedded within the actual bedrock of an organisation, rather than existing as an “add-on” to existing curriculum. Thus, non-traditional means can be employed to communicate to students precisely the type of values and character strengths desirable within a specific context. Therefore, an important, but perhaps understated, function of educational leaders may the process of auditing and adjusting the manner in which aspects of culture and ethos are employed to educate about values and character in a contemporary setting.

For instance, a starting point may be to consider how your school represents its history.  For Deal and Petersen (2009) the richness of school history allows for the mining of the past for “important lessons and principles” to “let people know what is the best or the right thing to do.” (p.75) The stories that are told and celebrated “carry the genetic code of values…reinforcing certain forms of behaviour and crystalizing beliefs.” (p.74)  Representing school history in the physical spaces of an organisation is an interesting topic and the messages conveyed may prompt some reflection. Is history celebrated? If so, what aspects-victories, celebrations or setbacks? Often the archives, photos and artefacts are kept away from the light of day when the reality is they comprise a richness and heritage with the capacity to inform students in the current day of precisely the values and behaviours important in this context. Space can be an issue but how can the stories of school history be better conveyed to connect students with something larger than themselves. In these instances, stories of school history including the courage, service and sacrifice of former students can be profoundly powerful in the representation of values and character strengths in contemporary settings.

My own Doctoral research investigated the culture and ethos of one specific school as part of a focus on student perceptions of character and leadership education. Through the completion of an ethnographic examination, the study considered the manner messages about values and character strengths were communicated.  The findings revealed the strategic leveraging of specific elements of culture and ethos, whereby the stories, symbols and spaces of the school were being used as a deliberate and effective means of communicating and educating students about values and character strengths. The educational leadership of the school had a clear vision of the values and character strengths to be promoted to students and employed every opportunity to do so. The use of story, particularly drawing upon the history of the College, was supported by the highly visible presence of symbols and artefacts, employed within various key spaces within school. Whilst there is a tendency within many schools to showcase trophies and other spoils of victory, in this instance, these artefacts and symbols often reinforced the importance of service and helping others rather than triumph.  The spaces within the College where these symbolic representations were most readily identifiable were those where students tended to congregate both formally and informally.

At The King’s School in Sydney, we are fortunate to have an extensive history which has shaped our ceremonies, traditions and rituals. Our history filters through readily into our stories, spaces and symbols on a daily basis. This in turn shapes our values and the types of character strengths we endeavour to develop in our students.  The manner in which our curriculum devoted to the development of character and leadership capacity in students is supplemented by several other forms of communication. Notably the stories shared and celebrated the symbols on display and the embellishments and details in our learning spaces are readily identifiable and accessible for external observers as much as they are for our students.

Some of these elements are explicit whilst others are more subtle.  For instance, a visitor to the campus would see our Mission Statement, our reason for existence emblazoned in large and bold letters above our reception area. Our “Centre for Learning and Leadership” the academic heart of the school provides the rich symbolism and space required to convey the values and character strengths which we aim to develop in our students in explicit form. The importance of Leadership as central to our approach toward the development of character is depicted through quotations, images and symbols within this learning space. Displays of former students, their stories and artefacts from their lives who have displayed leadership in diverse fields are prominently displayed in the foyer to this centre, an area where students congregate. Student art work, depicting historical leaders and their achievements adorn the walls. There is little doubt that the development of leadership capacity in each individual is central to the purpose of this space. At the entrance to the Centre is a granite bench where students of sit to enjoy their lunch or conversation. On the surface of the bench is a verse from Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If,” contemplation from Father to Son about what it is to be a good man. The thinking behind the use of this space, the story it contains and the symbolic meaning of the words is apparent. At its heart is the goal that student’s immersion in this space will provide them with the opportunity to consider these elements, through curiosity and their own exploration, to develop their own values and character.

Whilst all schools have a distinctive culture and ethos, there is perhaps further that can be done to leverage aspects contained within the stories, symbols and spaces of a school to allow them to communicate the right messages about values and character strengths. A starting point may be a critical walk around a school, as a means of evaluating the manner in which values and character strengths are communicated. As an approach to both developing and enhancing existing approaches to character education for boys within schools, it seems to make sense to make adjustments through changes in culture and ethos before implementing large scale programs. Whilst these programs are essential in many ways, I would argue that they will be more effective when embedded within the existing aspects of the culture and ethos of a school.  Such an approach can ensure that consistent verbal and non-verbal messages, from a variety of additional sources are regularly communicated to students highlighting the types of people our organisations seek to develop.


Petersen, K.D. & Deal, T.E. (2009) The Shaping School Culture Fieldbook. (Jossey Bass, San Francisco CA)

Dr Steven Middleton, Director of Leadership at The King's School, Sydney Australia
About Steven Middleton