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#SELChat: Exploring Character Education – a Return to Basics Part 2

In this follow-up article to #SELChat: Out of Darkness, a Return to the Basics – Part 1, I continue my examination of character education in the aftermath of the tragic events of January 6, 2021. Moving forward and healing requires a concerted effort to take responsibility as adults and equally teach virtue and character development to children who need our guidance.

There are twenty-four character traits identified for moral development. Seven of these – Choice, Self-awareness, Self-control, Purpose, Creativity, Organization, and Moderation, are foundational capacities, basic or necessary for virtue development. The virtues are divided into two categories: 1. Responsibility, which deals with a relationship to self, and 2. Respect, which deals with relationships with others.

The responsibility virtues are courage, honesty, humility, perseverance, and dependability. The respect virtues are kindness, caring, courtesy, gratitude, patience, fairness, generosity, cooperation, and forgiveness. These traits are arranged in a hierarchical order of development.  

The highest order trait is the sum total of all the foundational capacities, virtues and supportive factors working together. It correlates with Kohlberg’s Stage 5. It is entitled Love In A Big World.  

Teaching character

According to William Kilpatrick, the most effective method of teaching character is to follow the classical and Judeo-Christian tradition of instruction, dialogue, heroes and stories. The instruction is clear communication about what virtue is. This instruction does not include moral dilemmas. Plato argued that a person is not equipped to reason through moral dilemmas until he is first taught what virtue is. He added that only after the age of thirty was a person old enough to contemplate moral dilemmas.

Kilpatrick asserts that children “need to build the kind of character that will allow them to act well in the very clear-cut situations they face daily” (88). Therefore, speculating about hypothetical moral dilemmas is not beneficial to children. In fact, it only causes moral confusion.

The dialogue about virtue is a purposeful dialogue with a teacher. Keep in mind parents are children’s first teachers. It is discussion that leads to further understanding of virtue. It is not an argument or debate. Such dialogue, as Lickona suggests, “combines good examples and direct moral teaching by giving importance to moral issues by taking time to discuss them when they arise and by offering personal moral commentary that helps students understand why behaviors such as cheating, stealing, bullying and name-calling are hurtful and wrong” (80).

Storytelling and the role of hero

Heroes and stories go hand in hand. Every hero has a story, and every story has a hero.  Flannery O’Connor says, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate” (Kilpatrick 132). Learning from heroes and stories makes virtue more clear, more real.

Bruno Bettleheim states, “After his relationship with his parents, it is literature that best conveys meaning to the child. Why? Because they teach that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable and is an intrinsic part of human existence. But that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious” (Kilpatrick 192). We want our lives to have meaning, and stories help us see that our lives are worth living. Therefore, children need to read stories and be told stories, both fiction and non-fiction, personal and mythic, that communicate life’s value and meaning.  

The teacher plays an important role as a storyteller. Not only is she a communicator of the virtues through the stories she tells or reads, but she is also a role model of those virtues. The students look to her as an example, a mentor, for how to apply the virtues to everyday life.  

Living up to the students’ high expectations can be a seemingly impossible task. However, by sharing personal stories of how she has lived these virtues or failed to live these virtues, the teacher is humanized in her students’ eyes, and a stronger bond develops between them. By bonding with students, the teacher meets primary emotional needs that may or may not be getting met at home. As Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests, these primary emotional needs must be met for children to be ready and able to learn. This bonding has many additional benefits, such as the child looking forward to being at school and the development of a nurturing environment.

The use of interdisciplinary activities

Interdisciplinary activities are useful for teaching character as well. These activities can be directly related to the story through which virtue is taught, or they can be a broader application of virtue across the curriculum. Story related activities include an art project, a language arts assignment, and a drama skit or role-play. Activities with broader application involve applying the learning of virtue to another subject, such as a current events report or a research project.

For example, when studying the Civil Rights Movement talk about the Courage of Rosa Parks.  History and Social Studies are subjects that easily lend themselves to discussions about virtue.  Similar applications can be made to almost every subject. In Music, discuss the lives of great composers and the character traits that made them great, Mozart’s Imagination or Beethoven’s Perseverance. In Science, dialogue about the Patience of scientists which led to invention, such as Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone.

Not only can associations with virtue be made across disciplines, but the application of virtue can also be made to every place and situation at school, on the bus, in the hallways, in the bathrooms, in the cafeteria, on the playground, and even in the faculty room. In order for this to happen teachers must deliberately discuss the application of virtue in various scenarios throughout the school day before, during and after everyday life moral conflicts.  Teachers must seize teachable moments. This requires a great deal of time and effort from the teacher, but it is time and effort well invested.  

Consistent behavior code, correction and community

The teacher cannot convey these important lessons alone. A school-wide commitment to virtue must be established. This commitment requires three C’s:  Consistent Behavior Code, Correction and Community. A Consistent Behavior Code is a clear set of expectations for both students and teachers that remain constant from teacher to teacher. The expectations and rules can be explained in terms of the virtues that are studied in the classroom. An example of a rule is, “I will listen when someone else is talking because I am respectful of others.”  To achieve consistency, teachers must discuss the rules and expectations together, and then they must work together to enforce them.  

Correction is a discipline that is appropriate for the offense. It does not belittle the student in any way by using sarcasm or embarrassment. Correction is a tool for learning when properly administered by teachers. It should not be looked at to control the classroom or remove a problem child. Instead, it must be viewed as a catalyst for personal discussion about the Consistent Behavior Code and how the student in the classroom can uphold that Code.  

Community is a sense of belonging. To develop a sense of community, schools need vision that gives purpose and ceremonies through which the students, staff and parents of the school connect. As Kilpatrick notes, the academics, character, pride, symbol and ritual of the classroom and of the school are interrelated. As Wynn and Ryan put it, “Public, collective activities have teaching power because we are properly impressed with values to which large numbers of persons display dramatic, conspicuous allegiance or respect” (232-233). Community can be achieved through quality leadership and through a commitment to virtue.

Through Consistent Behavior Code, Correction and Community, the school provides opportunities that invite students to practice good habits. In Ethics, Aristotle says:

“The moral virtues are engendered in us neither by nor contrary to nature; we are constituted by nature to receive them, but their full development is due to habit. It is a matter of no little importance what sort of habits we form from the earliest age. It makes a vast difference, or rather all the difference in the world (Damon 26-27).”  

These opportunities can range from the expectation of raising a hand in class in order to be called upon to school service projects for the town. However, character education aims not merely to institute good habits; it shapes the heart.

Shaping the heart

To shape the heart, the educator must acknowledge and teach that every human being has a choice, the opportunity and the power to choose what he does and what he says. The educator must also acknowledge and teach the fact that negative behaviors produce negative consequences and positive behaviors produce positive outcomes. Instruction of virtue and institution of good habits creates within children an appetite to do the good. It empowers students to live productively beyond the classroom. It teaches them how to think through what they do and say when they are at home, in the neighborhood, wherever they are in the world.  

It also prepares them to live purposefully now and in the future by helping them realize the importance of their choices. As Heraclitus said, character is destiny.  Schools teach students about Kindness and expect them to use their hands to help not hurt; the aim is for them to apply this morality not only with their classmates at school but also with siblings at home and friends in their neighborhood. Of course, school personnel are not at home or in the neighborhood to enforce such behavior.  However, if educators have done their job and are teaching to the child’s heart, he will make a positive choice even when no one is looking. The applied morality is not habit; it is thoughtful choice.

Character education benefits the school and individual

Approaching character education in this manner produces benefits for both the school and the individual. The school becomes a warm and nurturing environment where high expectations are held and students participate in meaningful ways. As Hawkins and Cataleno have stated, these three elements move children from risk to resiliency. In addition, these resilient children are individuals who possess integrity with wholeness or completeness. They possess nobility with a strength of character, and wisdom to discern what to do and when to do it.  Therefore, the older generation is obligated to teach the younger generation character to equip them to function within civil society, prepare them for the challenges of life, and instruct them how to live with purpose.  

Damon, William, Editor.  Bringing in a New Era in Character Education.  Stanford, CA:  Hoover Institution Press, 2002.

Kilpatrick, William K.  Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Lewis, C.S.  The Abolition of Man.  1943.

Lickona, Thomas.  Educating for Character:  How Our Schools Can Teach Respect and Responsibility.  New York:  Bantam Books, 1991.

Ryan, Kevin and Karen E. Bohlin.  Building Character in Schools:  Practical Ways to Bring Moral Instruction to Life.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999.

About Tamara Fyke

Tamara Fyke is an educator and social entrepreneur with a passion for kids, families, and urban communities. She is the creator and author of Love In A Big World, which provides mental health, SEL, and wellness curriculum and content. During quarantine, Tamara created MusiCity Kids, an online educational show for kids ages 6-12 that addresses health, movement, character development, STEAM, and more.

Tamara is editor of Building People: Social & Emotional Learning for Kids, Schools & Communities, a book that brings 12 wide-ranging perspectives on SEL to educators, parents, and leaders. Follow her on Twitter @Tamara_Fyke

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