What's Happening in Character Education?
No matter what your political persuasion was in the recent election, I have not heard anyone say, “Let’s do that again!” Maybe there are political junkies that enjoyed the whole experience, but many parents and educators just wanted to hide the kids. Most of us did not see the national election as a role model for the democratic process. While there have been rough elections in the past, the most recent displays of incivility encourage us to revisit the importance of ethics and character as part of the core function of education in a democratic republic.
It is impossible to say if the nation had embraced comprehensive character formation a generation ago, we could have avoided the ugliness in this election. However, we certainly do not want to stand by idly and allow the recent dose of incivility to corrupt our vision of political life. Elections and those we elect matter, and our political future depends on helping society affirm the importance of ethics and character for a flourishing culture. One component of a flourishing culture is the ability to resolve differences respectfully and ultimately work together to advance shared goals. Given the acrimony of the past year, we will need to work extra hard to see people of different views be willing to work together cooperatively.
So what are educators to do? Nationally we have spent more than a generation laboring in our schools without a clear consensus or commitment to research-based practices in support of student character development. In my role as a Character.org National Schools of Character (NSOC) site evaluator, it is clear that the NSOC program only attracts a small fraction of US schools. And even among NSOC schools, it is challenging to have the majority articulate a research-based view of student ethical development and character formation.
To advance a national vision for student character development, Character.org has published the research-based 11 Principles of Effective Character Education. The 11 Principles do not articulate one program for school implementation, but principles that have been demonstrated in research and practice to help improve school cultures, student academic performance, and positive character. The NSOC program was founded in 1999 and has subsequently recognized hundreds of schools that have demonstrated school-wide improvements and positive student character.
One teachers’ story captures the school culture impact of the NSOC program. During an NSOC site visit in New Jersey, a veteran teacher of 25 years told me, “I almost gave up on public education. I was frustrated with issues associated with student discipline and learning. This fall I transferred to my present school, and it has become a joy to be a teacher again.” This public school was only a few blocks away from where she had taught for over 15 years. The school was in the same district and enrolled essentially the same blue-collar socio-economic population. What was the difference between the two schools? The teacher’s current school had chosen to include character development in its strategic plan and participate in the NSOC process. The principal, teachers, staff, parents and students were all working together in support of the understanding and demonstration of positive character. The teacher noted, “This school and its focus on character have revitalized my vision for public schooling. This is a caring and responsible place to learn and a great place to teach." The change in school culture had re-energized this teacher who provided clear anecdotal evidence of the benefits of educating with character and the NSOC process.
Space prevents a full introduction to the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education, but they are available to review online and include things like: (1) The school community promotes core ethical and performance values; (2) The school defines character comprehensively to include thinking, feeling and doing; and (3) the school uses a comprehensive, intentional and proactive approach to character development. The identification and instruction focused on core ethical, and performance values create a distinction between ethical and character education and some other positive youth development programs - programs such as social-emotional learning and growth mindsets. This is not a criticism of these other initiatives, but a recognition that while they may serve to develop a complimentary set of skills and attitudes, they are not a substitute for ethics and character development.
The unique role of modern ethics and character education is to help focus adults and students on the critical need to create and sustain an ethical learning community. As recognized by the founders of American public education, our democratic republic requires a society that is literate and ethical. How we have ignored the second dimension of this equation is a matter of much debate. As an example of this omission, I have observed that many teachers and students struggle to clearly define a strategy to address an ethical dilemma. A minority of those interviewed will suggest steps that include “make a good choice” with little reference to how the “good choice” might be defined. The core ethical values identified in the first principle of the NSOC program help students frame the outline of a good choice. Regrettably, core ethical values are not broadly recognized as an important guiding component of American public education.
The opportunity offered by the recent election helps us all look in the mirror and ask if we are doing all we can to raise up a new generation of ethically literate citizens who seek to demonstrate positive character. Those of us working to advance research-based character education hope the election is an opportunity for reflection and recommitment to this basic purpose of education.
While the NSOC project has been cited as one resource, my agency The School for Ethical Education also supports free resources for educators to advance ethical reasoning and student character formation. Secondary teachers are invited to visit our Reasoning with Ethics blog page to learn about a strategy to catalyze ethical discussions using dilemmas in current events.
I just finished reading Brain on Fire , a powerful memoir of journalist Susannah Cahalan’s descent into madness. It is a gripping personal story as well as a fascinating look at the cutting edge of neuroscience. But one small story in the book really captured my heart--the story of Dr. Souhel Najjar, the doctor who was instrumental in diagnosing Cahalan’s disease. No one else had been able to figure it out. Dr. Najjar was impressive with his heartfelt and sympathetic bedside manner, but it was his backstory that touched me and explained why he had such an affection for the weak and the powerless.
“Leaving Your Ex(trinsics)” is the title of Chapter 6 in my book You Can’t Teach Through a Rat, and the one I most frequently recommend to educators, because the issue of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation seems the most nagging and intractable issue that educators in general and character educators in particular struggle with. There are multiple reasons to struggle with this issue. On the positive side: (1) it is the point of Character.org’s 7th principle in their 11 Principles of Effective Character Education (which is used to evaluate schools nationally for excellence in character education, namely Schools of Character); (2) it is after all the point of character education; that is, getting kids to internalize core values so they become part of who they are and take them wherever they go in life; and (3) it works.Read More
Topics: intrinsic motivation
The 2012 Presidential election coincided with my very first year of teaching. My students often came into my classroom asking if I watched the debates or if I’d seen the latest attack advertisement on President Obama or Governor Romney. Of course they’d always follow up asking which candidate I was voting for and what party I supported. As a new teacher, this all felt so overwhelming. I knew it was critical to teach my students about civics, but how?
If you are a new teacher or a veteran, this election cycle might feel overwhelming. The seemingly 24/7 media coverage of the candidates and the issues is not going unnoticed by your students. It is our responsibility as educators to engage our students in thoughtful civic conversation, but without allowing our own opinions to influence our conversations. I’ve collected a list of resources you can use in your classroom to teach about civics and the democratic process in an educational, bipartisan and thought-provoking way.
REALITY CHECK: During the past decades, the U.S. prison population skyrocketed, and so did the number of children experiencing the consequences of having a parent incarcerated. From just 1980 to 2000, the number of kids with a father in prison or jail rose by 500 percent.
Today more than five million children in the USA have a parent who is incarcerated.
The number of women in prison has also increased dramatically which poses a marked risk on children: incarcerated women are much more likely than their male counterparts to be primary caregivers of minor children at the time of their imprisonment. Derek Kreager, professor of sociology and criminology at Penn State points out: “Previous research indicates that if a mother becomes incarcerated, it increases the child’s risk of entry into the foster care system, which can further disrupt child well-being.”
I strongly suggest you watch Ava DuVernay’s powerful new documentary “13TH” about our broken prison system. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world.
America is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the prison population.Read More
Being an educator caught me by surprise. I had a different route in mind when young, even though my older sisters were both teachers and I admired their work. During college, while an apprentice at a summer theatre company in Western Massachusetts, I was assigned to (or “gifted” with) developing a day long theater experience for kids coming out from Boston. Under a canopy of trees with a lively bunch of tweens, suddenly I found myself in a role I had not expected, and absolutely loved.
Today my inspiration comes from a vision of young people engaged in a world that extends beyond classroom walls. Of course I admire what occurs inside schools and universities. However, not all environments operate equally.Read More
Topics: National Forum
Over the years my bullying language has evolved and I’m grateful to the students, educators and parents who have helped me rethink my vocabulary. To begin with, my first book on bullying was written in 1996, three years before Columbine. The title was “Bullies and Victims, Helping Your Child Through the Schoolyard Battlefield” But, today I would never use those words!
Last week we celebrated Character Day along with 90,000 organizations in 124 countries around the world. It has been exciting to watch the exponential growth of Character Day in just three years. Clearly there is interest in the idea of character and momentum is building.In Tiffany Schlain’s Character Day movie “The Science of Character,” she inserts this quote that she attributes to Frank Outlaw. “ Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything.”
What is Character Day?
Character Day is tomorrow, Thursday, September 22. The beauty of it is that it can be whatever you want it to be! It is the day to have conversations about character, to hold an event or kick off a new initiative. It’s a great day to connect with others in your community to learn about their commitment to character. Tomorrow is a great opportunity to use the Character Day films and discussions as a powerful catalyst for reflection.
While we believe that every day is Character Day, it’s nice to set this day aside to spread the message to a new group or to focus in and begin a longer-term conversation. Part of the beauty of Character Day is you can develop an event around just about anything related to character. In fact, this year, Character.org D.C. staff decided we wished we knew our neighbors better, so we’re holding an open house on Character Day to get to know one another.
While we always like flexible approaches, maybe you’re looking to learn more specifics about Character Day and get some ideas for how to celebrate.
Topics: Character Day