How to Do Character Education (Part I)

January 28, 2008

byDavid H. Elkind and Freddy Sweet Ph.D.

This article first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2004 issue of Today's School under the title: "You Are A Character Educator."

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear – you are a character educator. Whether you are a teacher, administrator, custodian, or school bus driver, you are helping to shape the character of the kids you come in contact with. It’s in the way you talk, the behaviors you model, the conduct you tolerate, the deeds you encourage, the expectations you transmit. Yes, for better or for worse, you already are doing character education. The real question is what kind? Are you doing it well or poorly? By design or by default? And what kinds of values are you actually teaching?

Simply put, character education (CE) is everything you do that influences the character of the kids you teach. But to put it in a more focused light, we like Dr. Thomas Lickona’s definition, that “character education is the deliberate effort to help people understand, care about, and act upon core ethical values.” In his landmark book, Educating for Character,1 Dr. Lickona asserts that “When we think about the kind of character we want for our children, it’s clear that we want them to be able to judge what is right, care deeply about what is right, and then do what they believe to be right—even in the face of pressure from without and temptation from within.”

What’s especially useful about Dr. Lickona’s model is that it describes a developmental process that involves knowledge, feelings, and action, and thereby provides an integrated foundation on which to structure a coherent and comprehensive CE effort. It tells us that we need to engage our kids in activities that make them think critically about moral and ethical questions, inspire them to become committed to moral and ethical actions, and give them ample opportunities to practice moral and ethical behavior.

What Does Character Education Look Like?
This is a highly controversial issue, and depends largely on your desired outcome. Many people believe that simply getting kids to do what they’re told is character education. This idea often leads to an imposed set of rules and a system of rewards and punishments that produce temporary and limited behavioral changes, but they do little or nothing to affect the underlying character of the children. There are others who argue that our aim should be to develop independent thinkers who are committed to moral principals in their lives, and who are likely to do the right thing even under challenging circumstances. That requires a somewhat different approach, and is the bias of this article.

CE initiatives can be very modest, like one good teacher doing a few things right, or they can be very elaborate, involving everybody and everything in the school. What you do will probably depend on your circumstances. Here are some options.

The Holistic Approach
“Effective character education is not adding a program or set of programs to a school. Rather it is a transformation of the culture and life of the school.” 2-—Dr. Marvin Berkowitz

Popular wisdom holds that the best way to implement character education is through a holistic approach that integrates character development into every aspect of school life. This approach is also known as whole school reform, and it’s a biggie. Here are some of the distinguishing features of the holistic model:

  • Everything in the school is organized around the development of relationships between and among students, staff, and community.
  • The school is a caring community of learners in which there is a palpable bond connecting the students, the staff, and the school. (see Build a Caring Community, below)
  • Social and emotional learning is emphasized as much as academic learning.
  • Cooperation and collaboration among students are emphasized over competition.
  • Values such as fairness, respect, and honesty are part of everyday lessons in and out of the classroom.
  • Students are given ample opportunities to practice moral behavior through activities such as service learning (see below).
  • Discipline and classroom management concentrate on problem-solving rather than rewards and punishments.
  • The old model of the teacher-centered classroom is abandoned in favor of democratic classrooms where teachers and students hold class meetings to build unity, establish norms, and solve problems.

Obviously, this is a best-of-all-possible-worlds approach and requires a significant commitment from the administration and teaching staff. Also, it is usually a multi-year process involving consultants, staff development, and a serious budget.

But, what if you can’t do all the things listed above? Not to worry. CE is not an all-or-nothing enterprise. Even if you can’t restructure the whole school there is still a lot you can do to provide meaningful character building experiences for your students. The rest of this article lays out a smorgasbord of activities that have been shown to produce positive effects. We invite you to window-shop and pick out whatever you think will work well for you. Done right, it’s all good stuff.

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