A Broader Notion of Character

This summer, I’m spending some of my time reviewing the scholarship on Character Education. Much of the research makes clear that developing character in students is more than an exercise in ethics and manners, but includes student capacity for mastering activity, as well as capacity for relating to others.

“While core ethical values remain foundational in a life of character, character education must also develop students’ performance values such as effort, diligence, and perseverance in order to promote academic learning, foster an ethic of excellence, and develop the skills needed to act upon ethical values. ”

The Character Education Partnership is proving a useful portal in helping me build my understanding. A must read for anyone interested in motivating young people towards excellence ought to read Paul Tough’s NY Times article ‘What If the Secret to Success is Failure’, and Tough is included in a terrific roundtable discussion in this hour-long video.

Stephen has asked the contributors to this site to consider What is Quality in Education? For me, for an education to be of value, it should prepare a student to lead a flourishing life. In the 21st century, it seems this has something to do with capacity for excellence (commitment, optimism, resiliency), connection to community, and sustainable models of living. The broader notions of Character Education offer some grounds for what this might look like in practice.


  1. Eric, interesting references. I bookmarked a couple of these sites.

    I’m wondering how easy it is to separate the general idea of character from what a particular culture determines character to be. In other words, is there a “universal” agreement on what it means to be “of good character”.

    In reading through your descriptions, it seems to me that some of your indicators of character, while important (and even attractive) are driven by something on the outside of the individual…something that is being promoted as a means to an end.

    For example, why is “effort” an important performance value? Is it because it is important to my life as a human being, or is it important because of my life as an economic agent? Or is there really a distinction between the two?

    To refer back to your post, in terms of discovering an underlying purpose for schooling, what does it mean to live a flourishing life? Is it necessary that my flourishing life take place within the bounds of the culture or society in which I am being educated? Is my reference point of quality, therefore, always going to depend on what that culture determines is of value and importance in terms of character.

    Like most of my comments this evening, this one may seem a little confusing. Perhaps its because I have just watched the Blue Jays lose two in a row to the New York Yankees!

    Let me know if any of what I’m saying/asking makes any sense to you.

  2. Robert /

    I agree with Stephen, environment & culture play a role in determining values & character.

    What is meant by “ethic of excellence”?

    • So, Eric, I’m not saying that character development is not important, but I know that there are some that would say that this type of education doesn’t belong in school as much as it does in the home and family.

      But you have got me thinking about a central question (I think) in our discussion of purpose: Is the purpose of school (public school, in particular) to foster individual development or is it to carry out the task of socialization into a particular society?

      If, you say, it is a combination of both, where are the points of tension?

  3. Hey, terrific Stephen. Thanks so much for your thoughts and interest. I put a lot of my mind and practice to these ideas, and so I welcome opportunities for dialogue. In this particular case, I will try to address each of your prompts as briefly as I can.

    I think we can find common ground among many that a reason for educating young people is to create opportunities to live as healthy, thriving adults. We may have differing opinions concerning what that adulthood may look like, and how to best go about fostering that experience, but probably there is some consensus around education as apprenticeship for adulthood.

    As a simplified parallel, we can likely find common ground over why we value music. To feel rhythm, to relax, as an expression of feeling. In the 20th century, the record industry established itself as the framework for producing and distributing music in the marketplace. In the 21st century, barriers to entry for producers and access to digital downloads for consumers disrupted the industrial model, and there have been vast changes in the ways music makers and music listeners connect with one another. Is a similar change in store for school, the industrial approach to educating our young?

    The industrial model is one that is predicated on the availability of inexpensive, readily available inputs. Waste byproduct that cannot be used elsewhere in our system is another characteristic of industrial practice (see plastic piling up in your local dump, lake, ocean). Industrial systems become entrenched through the practice of a lifestyle that prizes cloned consumable experiences and then assumes jobs that fuel our ability to continue consuming the outputs of the system. By contrast, the post-consumer experience more closely ties choice to consequence and prioritizes inclinations for building over the instant gratification of consumer-oriented cultures. As such, we work instead of job, building up capital (including family, social networks, as well as spiritual and physical well-being) instead of committing our life energy to the interests of our bosses.

    Is it possible to distinguish between life as a human and as an economic agent? For me, economics is a framework through which we can look at the world. Economics describes the nature of choice, value and how we come to manage personal and communal resources through networks of exchange. It is not the only framework through which the world can be viewed, but it is a perspective I value. I believe I appreciate other frameworks as well, including aesthetics, language, and flavor (have you tried beer, cheese and mustard? Such a delicious combination!). In fact, this is the perspective I try to share with my students, in that first we identify projects they are curious about and for which they have inherent inclination, and then we practice using the frameworks of each particular course (English, Geography, Business).

    “Which would have advanced the most at the end of a month – the boy who had made his own jackknife from the ore which he had dug and smelted, reading as much as would be necessary for this – or the boy who had attended the lectures on metallurgy at the Institute in the meanwhile, and had received a Rogers’ penknife from his father? Which would be most likely to cut his fingers?” Thoreau.

    For the purpose of this framework, let’s describe ‘effort’ as an active movement in some given direction, which can be contrasted against ‘leisure’, which is an idle experience. We can recognize that full-time leisure can be a characteristic of extreme poverty, where healthy adults can live without productive purpose and their potential contribution to themselves and their community goes unrealised. This is to create a distinction in a space where there is grey area, but it is useful insofar as we can see that there is a difference between active and idle. Which activities constitute ‘effort’ and which as ‘idle’ is clearly a matter of perspective. I have little interest to start a list. The key is to ensure learners are engaged in ‘effort’, through which they develop all sorts of Performance Characteristics, including optimism, gratitude, perseverance, and confidence, all markers of successful adulthood. At best, they become capable of recognizing effort in themselves. As facilitators, we have an opportunity to model ‘effort’ to learners, to challenge learners to demonstrate their ‘effort’, and to engage them in conversations they encourage additional ‘effort’.

    What’s ‘love’ got to do with it?

    The current literature on Character Education describes it as development of relational character, to oneself, one’s community, and one’s environment. It does not prescribe a practice in how a loving person looks or behaves, but instead suggests that the ability to be our best ethical selves in our relationships and in our role as citizens is an important characteristic for successful adulthood. The types of qualities that develop include integrity, justice, caring, respect and cooperation. And while we live in a pluralistic society with many approaches to life’s practice, research indicates that there is a common moral standard that transcends culture and bonds all human experience (I can’t find the research reference tonight, but I know I have it somewhere). Developing the capacity to engage with one’s human experience is a fundamental skill that I believe education can strive to facilitate.

    “I mean that students should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living.” Thoreau.

    It seems clear that the institutionalised experience that took many 20th century Canadians cradle-to-grave is becoming less available to future generations. When I hear some say that school exists to prepare students for the ‘real-world’, I understand that they mean capacity for getting a job. But the time has passed when securing a ‘good’ job was the key to success as an adult. Today, developing capacity to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, abilities to build personal foundations, and to collaborating with others are skills required for a thriving adulthood. As a society, we can look to education to develop those skills in our young. But as Napster and Apple disrupted the music industry, school is in jeopardy of being displaced if it cannot develop students equipped with the relevant skills. Character Education offers us a foundation of research and practice that those of us working in schools can look to as an entry for developing these skills. It is a point of personal frustration that in the high schools in which I work, so much focus is put on content and administration, and so little is given to context and process.

    Anyways, I could go on for pages, but I hope I’ve addressed some of the impressions you shared upon reading my post. I welcome the chance for heady, pedagogical discussion. For me, baseball seems the perfect accompaniment. Perhaps we carry on the conversation over peanuts and beer sometime?

  4. Nancy /

    What is up with quoting Thoreau? He was a man of his time, that could wax elegantly on life and nature, without ever knowing the true meaning of struggle and living to supplied the necessities of life. To put the last quote in context – a link – on page 49 http://tiny.cc/zl8ohw

    Rather curious, since Thoreau is well known for his beliefs and values for individualism, which runs counter to much of the underlying philosophies in education, and character education.I wonder what Thoreau would say today, in the year 2012?

    Character education in the historical aspect – “What is termed ‘character education’ in today’s world has been called many things throughout the history of education in this country. Character education has been both a formal and informal part of schools. Much of character education in the United States can be closely tied in its roots to the education of character in Europe, which laid the foundation for the formal American system of education. Through historical analysis, this article will seek to uncover and reflect upon one pathway that brought character education to the shores of America. A variety of contributions from significant figures and organizations, from the 18th century through today, will be highlighted in order to provide some understanding as to the complexity of the roots of character education in America.”

    On a more practical side – Character education and the costs? “It is difficult to estimate the amount of money that is spent each year on character education programs because of the complex mix of funding that comes from federal, state, and local governments, and also from individual schools, businesses, and fundraising campaigns. It is certain, however, that the total measures somewhere in the billions of dollars (p. 11).”

    One wonders what are the costs to the public education system in Canada, as well as the time and energy being spent considering the end results – the outcomes. Eric states, “. But the time has passed when securing a ‘good’ job was the key to success as an adult. Today, developing capacity to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, abilities to build personal foundations, and to collaborating with others are skills required for a thriving adulthood. As a society, we can look to education to develop those skills in our young. But as Napster and Apple disrupted the music industry, school is in jeopardy of being displaced if it cannot develop students equipped with the relevant skills. Character Education offers us a foundation of research and practice that those of us working in schools can look to as an entry for developing these skills. It is a point of personal frustration that in the high schools in which I work, so much focus is put on content and administration, and so little is given to context and process.”

    As a parent, it is a little to late to instilled the character ‘values’ of the 21st century at the high school level when the students have already been condition through the first 9 years of schooling to model their behaviour and character values on the much beloved students the top achievers. As a parent, dealing with a child who have difficulty in early learning, I got to hear if only my child would act and behave more like little Suzie. Hard to do, in the best of worlds when little Suzie has no problems in the basics and is an excellent reader. How do you tell a child to persist in his or her school endeavors, if the child is lacking the foundation of skills and abilities to persist?

    It is why I cringed, when I reviewed the video on the Character Education Partnership. under bullying prevention – at the 2:52 mark. That it is the second tier kids that should be look at, and not the first tier kids – the popular kids. I cringed, because school culture breeds social and academic models based on the ideal models based on the deficits of children. Children learn really fast, what they are lacking in character but are not taught the skills necessary to overcome the character deficits to obtained the ideal model in behaviour and academic traits.

    In the next article, ” What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?”, and to one article that I agree with, because it is based on the cognitive science. But do keep in mind, it is all about an exclusive private school, a principal that has the luxury to explored character education in a more or less homogeneous population of high-income students. However, the KIPP school is not, and the article attracted me because there is serious attempts to define character education and going after the root problems. For example, ” ‘Gosh, not only were you chewing gum, which is kind of minor, but you lied to me twice. That’s a real disappointment. What does that say about your character?’ And she was just devastated.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/what-if-the-secret-to-success-is-failure.html?_r=3&pagewanted=all

    Pointing out the obvious, and than call out the behaviour. Today, it is known as outing or owning you. I see it as good parenting, and as I have experienced with my own children it is rather effective to build moral character and fabric, much to the dismay of my children. Schools don’t do a very good job in outing students, and perhaps it is because of the times we live in, where outing a person is considered rude, or worst, the person doing the outing is seen as exhibiting anti-authority behaviour or the opposite anti-discrimination behaviour.

    Is character education only moral or performance? I would say both, and cannot be separated. However, as I believe and experience as a parent, character education and the current policies in the public education systems are doomed to fail, when the focus and energies are within the public school institution and than expect the external community that lies outside of the education system, to follow through replicating the values that are desired by the education system. How about the education system adapting to their users, the students, parents and the communities? One might be surprise to see the same type of values of Randolph, and the KIPP educators, based on desired individual traits, and not necessarily the kind that can be applied to the collective. .

    • Hey Nancy, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. It seems to me that we have much in common as far as our experiences with institutionalized education and our hopes for future learners.

      I find that I struggle to use language as effectively as possible, and wonder to what extent my messages are influenced by the coding of the words I choose to use. For instance, you describe Thoreau as a voice for individualism, and suggest a tension with modern education as a more collective interest. For me, I see a harmony between the personal and the communal, and envision learning spaces where students take on increasing levels of autonomy for their personal enterprises while operating within the communal learning environment.

      To the extent that I’m able, I’ve already implemented platforms that encourage my students to design their own learning experience and maintain participation in the classroom community. My basic approach has been:
      1. Get students to understand and participate in program design;
      2. Support students to identify their existing aptitudes and curiosities;
      3. Introduce simple tracking students that help students account for their performance of classroom jobs and responsibilities.

      From there, my work is mostly about helping students make connections between their curiosity projects and the content requirements of the course. Once a student accepts my challenge to think about their learning in a more critical light, I must then prove myself of value. After all, it is their learning time, and engaged students will have high standards for their teachers,

      I still use teacher-designed approaches for some of the most cut-and-dry learning targets, but for the rest, there exists a broad range of possibilities to demonstrate the learning. By getting students to design how they will demonstrate they’ve met curriculum mandates, they become increasingly invested in their own learning experience.

      This year, I had the chance to operate this decentralized classroom structure with two different groups, one a grade 12 economics class in an affluent suburban neighbourhood where most of the students were focused on post-secondary study, and another, a grade 9 remedial English class in an inner city high-rise community, working with students who were low achieving in academics and had varying degrees of parental involvement in their school experience.

      As you suggest, by the time I worked with these high school students, they were so entrenched in the system that they initially resisted the opportunity to develop their own program. In the case of the Grade 12s, several students said that they just wanted me to tell them what they had to do to get their 97%, so they could get themselves into the ‘right’ university program. With the Grade 9s, some of the classroom routines reminded them of elementary school, and I hadn’t anticipated the ‘dummy’ stigma they carried in to class. In both cases, we persevered, and while a few Grade 12s decided to drop the course, every one of the students who completed the semester produced at least one project of their own design, then stood in front of the class and spoke with confidence and passion about the things they had learned. There is no reason that these students cannot build upon this experience, as long as future facilitators are willing to encourage pursuit of the productive inclinations of each particular student.

      For sure it’s preferable to develop capacity for personal enterprise before students enter high school. But by no means is it a wasted effort to develop the practice at some later point in time. In fact, I see myself as a reluctant entrepreneur, happy to let someone else drive the bus if only they would take me where I want to go. It’s my privilege and hunger that have helped me find capacity to create my own approach. Combined with my experience in the classroom this year, I absolutely believe that institutionalised people are capable of developing capacity for enterprise. If they are not, then teachers are in trouble, because as much as anyone involved in school today, transitioning to a more fluid, enterprising learning model will prove a challenge for our teachers.

      It’s interesting that you cite the cost of implementing Character Education in schools, because I have come to see that, in an age of declining funding, the most underutilised resource in education today are students. For the most part, they sit idle, waiting to consume the learning. The Canadian Educators Association reports that, by grade 11, 60% of Canadian students say they are bored in school.

      My sense is that we have an opportunity to enable our students, as well as our teachers, to validate their inclinations for ‘effort’, and develop communities that affirm the value of every member’s unique contribution. This requires little in the way of funding, but a shift in perspective on how a learning space operates. The era has passed when a teacher was required to be the expert in class, quick with an answer to every question. As students now have access to the library of human knowledge whenever they like, it’s no longer relevant for teachers to be providers of information. Instead, they can act as mentors and coaches, helping students become invested in learning, in part by investing themselves in their own learning initiatives. Tomorrow I’ll be taking part in a conference about Positive Psychology, and I hope to have a better sense how to integrate elements of this research into my own education designs.

      By extension, my interest in the second wave of Character Education is as a basis of research and language around the models I have been investigating in my practice. Learning to build, as contrasted with yearning to consume, is at the heart of Character Education, and I am finding value in learning more about this scholarship.

      Of course, no approach is ever perfect, and John Taylor Gotto does a terrific job of describing the perils of localized learning in his book Dumbing Us Down. Basically, he suggests that it creates opportunities for some to develop ill-conceived programs, like the instance where southern schools were resistant to racial integration. He resolves this challenge by stating that a centralized system would ‘force’ these interests to align with the mandate, though they would do so out of compliance rather than desire. In the situation that fostered the ill-conceived program (schools able to maintain segregation), over time, those involved would be more likely to choose a different course of their own volition when they discovered the successes of those that had chosen a different path.

      Finally, I’d like to address my citing of Thoreau. In some circles, he is considered the first ecologist, and Walden is highly critical of the industrialization of America, including its education system. I find Thoreau’s voice poignant and insightful on the connections between ecosystems and human design, and believe that educators are well served to consider the connections between the economics of learning and ecology when envisioning what our future classrooms will look like. It is in that spirit that I share these quotes.

      There is no question that the industrial model is under siege, and I for one am delighted by the opportunity to develop alternate models that will better serve the students and families with whom we work.

  5. Nancy /

    “It’s interesting that you cite the cost of implementing Character Education in schools, because I have come to see that, in an age of declining funding, the most underutilised resource in education today are students. For the most part, they sit idle, waiting to consume the learning. The Canadian Educators Association reports that, by grade 11, 60% of Canadian students say they are bored in school.”

    Not when one considers the curriculum and how it is built in. Sometimes, staring at the textbooks over the years, it is more on the social. emotional, and ethical and not so much on the academic knowledge. I also found the curriculum especially in the last 15 years to be a collection of facts disconnected from one another. It causes much confusion for the weaker readers in the lower grades, and the consequences by high school, is what you have described in your last post.

    I know something of it, because my youngest child and her poor reading and writing skills. Obvious, unless one is blind, mute and deaf, but she never did received the remediation, even after she was formally identified as having LD. So, I undertook the rewriting of the curriculum, for the purpose of study notes, having notes to follow while in the classroom, to be able to participate in classroom discussion, and more importantly to raise my child’s self-confidence, and the modeling of what good note taking is.

    In the process, I discovered a student would have to be an excellent reader, to make the connections between the various facts, what is important to learn, and what are interesting knowledge to know, but not necessarily facts. Interesting facts that connects the social, emotional and ethical facts to the academic knowledge. So unlike the textbooks that I had when I was young, and as well as my first child.

    I started half-way in grade 3, but the real work started at the beginning of grade 4. Where once a week, 4 to 5 hours spending time on note taking, and by grade 6, the emergence of my child starting to write her own notes. By high school, I was no longer writing her notes and she finally became a good note taker and in particular summary note taking and paraphrasing. More importantly, she was finally able to answered questions that deals with the emotion, social and ethical facts, and obtained a decent grade. Language arts was difficult, but now in high school English, she is able to nail down the questions dealing with the emotion, social and ethical facts.

    My point is, the expenditures being spent on character education, is across the education span and is rather hard to measure the dollar amount , when much of it is built-in. There is dedicated funding for bullying, social justice, and equity policies, and even though all three have a direct relationship to character education, all four are funded in separate silos. Are kids making the connection between bullying and the social justice policies of a school plus the connection to their own individual character? I don’t know, but what I do know based on my observations and experiences are the outcomes of students after 12 years of schooling.

    It doesn’t look good, and to which you brought up in your last post. The connection between ecosystems and human design, and how it applies to the education of youth. “That educators are well served to consider the connections between the economics of learning and ecology when envisioning what our future classrooms will look like. It is in that spirit that I share these quotes.”
    I now understand where you are coming from, and can relate to it, in the same way I can relate to Thoreau and other naturalists of their era. My only problem is that reading flowering prose waxing on individualism, freedom and industrialization is tedious when one is considering who the author is. I rather read Samuel Clemens. but Thoreau did leave an important legacy that cannot be discounted, especially in the botany science. I just can’t get over the fact, he was the one that chose to live like a hermit, and in the process romanticizing nature and the hermit life-style. Leaving the impression (mind you my own opinion), that to practice individualism, one must remove themselves from society and be in sync to the natural environment. Nature and the components of nature do not act out alone but all are interconnected to one another, and in the same way humans are. The old adage of when a butterfly flaps its wings………..and what are the events that come after the butterfly flaps its wings. Clemens has a lot to say about it, but dealing with humans and their actions, and not so much on nature.

    If the future models of education are to be anything different, they must firmly connect the connectivity between education, life and the knowledge of the past, present and possible futures. And stopped throwing out the baby including bathtub , to only be replaced by the latest fad in educating the youth. Sometimes the best knowledge is the old knowledge, especially for character education. Even Thoreau was dismissed, until recently……..” Even more mysterious was his passion for flowers. “I soon found myself observing when plants first blossomed and leafed,” Thoreau confided to his journal in 1856, “and I followed it up early and late, far and near, several years in succession, running to different sides of the town and into the neighboring towns, often between twenty and thirty miles in a day.”

    Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/walden.html#ixzz21AtIUvHE

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