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Introduction to Character Education

Teaching Values in School

Steve Johnson and Kirk Hanson

How do children become moral people, and what role do schools have in that process? In this conversation, Ethics Center Executive Director Kirk O. Hanson discusses the issues with Director of Character Education Steve Johnson

Kirk O. Hanson: Steve, let me begin with a simple question: What is character education?  

Students working together at the computer

Steve Johnson: Schools have always been interested in three kinds of outcomes:
1. skills—what our students are able to do
2. knowledge—what they know
3. character—the kind of people they become

Sometimes character is talked about in terms of citizenship. When I was in school, we used the term deportment. But whatever we call it, as educators, we've always been interested in building positive, productive citizens.

H: What are the objectives of character education in the schools today?

J: In some schools, it's about promoting pro-social thoughts, values, and behaviors and having students act as good citizens should in school. In others, it's about developing specific desirable values. For schools in general, character education is about finding some way to help students develop good habits or virtues.

H: What is your approach to character education and how does it differ from other approaches?

J: We say that character education is a way of doing everything in the school. It's not one particular program or focus; it's everything we do that influences the kind of human beings students become.

To break that down, we use a triangle model to explain moral development. Basically, we look at three sets of factors that influence how human character develops.

The left section of the triangle deals with values. We recognize that there are core common values, and we are socialized to develop them through

1. role models, such as parents, other adults, peers, and mass media
2. legends and heroes, people we look up to
3. stories and narratives in print, film, TV, or video games
4. reinforcement (We're all more likely to continue to do what pays off or works for us.)

At the same time, coming from the right side of the triangle, are thought processes. These are the rational, cognitive ways we grapple with the moral life, and they include

1. problem solving processes for helping to make choices
2. thinking in a way that is clear and straight, not distorted; seeing many possibilities in a situation—shades of gray instead of black and white
3. the ability to reflect on our experience and to learn from it
4. the ability to use a framework to make decisions when we genuinely don't know what to do in a hard case

The triangle sits on the foundation of skills, which we group into two sets: coping and cooperation. To understand coping skills, think about the moments in our lives when we have the most trouble and ask, What else was going on at the same time? Were we tired or stressed or angry? In order to build character, we have to learn to deal with the times when it's hard to be the kind of person we want to be. Those coping skills are emotional management, anger control, impulse control, stress management, and so forth. Cooperation skills include dealing with people and dealing with conflict situations.

In every lesson we do, in every program we put on, we balance the triangle, taking into account values formation, thought processes, and skill development. That's our reference point.

Another thing that makes our program distinct is that we said right from the beginning, "We are not going to be another character education program that's just for the most privileged. If it doesn't work for kids who read across the spectrum—below the 20th percentile as well as above— and if it doesn't work for kids who have trouble in school as well as those who don't, and if it doesn't work for kids who like school and kids who hate school, it isn't for real."

H: Why do you work with the language arts curriculum?

J: We wanted to tie the program to things schools already need to do. We spend so much time on the English language arts program because everyone takes English, and the curriculum is already full of strong narratives that provide an excellent vehicle for character education. Literacy is fundamental.

H: Do you have to teach character education to kids in the mainstream differently from the way you teach at-risk youngsters?

J: I don't think so. Kids throughout the population face the same needs, the same challenges, the same realities in their lives. Perhaps more privileged youngsters have been able to struggle with them better because they've had more nurturing, better role models, wider opportunities, and so forth. But the substance is very much the same.

H: What about differences in culture and language?

J: Ethics is not about being part of any culture; it's about being human. Whatever your background, culture, language, etc., you cannot be successful, you cannot run a society without human minimums in the way of conduct.

When I work with groups, I take the core values and I go around and ask if anyone is opposed to them: "Is anyone around here opposed to respect, at the least in the way other people treat you? Is anyone opposed to responsibility, at least in the way someone drives if he borrows your car? Is anyone here opposed to self-control, at least by the person holding a gun in the same room with you?" And so forth. What we find is everyone realizes right away that these are human minimums.

Even the most jaded kids recognize the importance of values. Now, they may not be able to demonstrate them, but they at least agree that values are significant. For example, no matter how disrespectful they are toward other people, kids are very clear that they would like people to respect them.

H: Where did you get the specific values that are taught in your program and why those?

J: That took a long, long time. When we look at values and virtues, there's no end to the list. Actually, we came to ours from a couple of different directions. One was Thomas Lickona's work on educating for character. His notion is that two virtues, respect and responsibility, frame a public, teachable morality.

Respect is the regard due to me and to all other persons on the planet by virtue of our being human. It's not honor or something we have to earn, but precisely that which we don't. Respect forms the restraint side of morality. It's what I restrain myself from doing because it might harm that which I value.

Responsibility is the positive, proactive side of morality—the things I do because I said I would, because I ought to, because they promote the common good.

We see respect and responsibility as the two hinges of a public, teachable morality, which integrity fills in. When we say "integrity," we mean the whole person, undivided, developing all aspects of the self.

H: But you go beyond respect, responsibility, and integrity.

J: Yes. We were interested in what happens to young people who score below the 20th percentile on standardized tests and who may have a history of anti-social behavior. We wondered what virtues we could emphasize that might make a difference in the thoughts, values, and behaviors of those kids. What helps people to be more pro-social than anti-social, more virtuous than criminal? What could keep someone who's having trouble from continuing to get in more trouble?

So we looked at research not only in the usual places—such as philosophy—but also in special education, correctional education, and criminology. We looked at psychological research on cognitive distortions that cause people to twist their filter of reality in a way that causes them to miss-see and miss—think about the world. And we looked at virtues that were a counter to the misperceptions that get people in trouble. In that process, we realized that virtues like self-direction and self-control are important.

We also saw that many at-risk kids valued courage, but they had a self-destructive vision of it. To them, the most courageous thing you could do was the most outrageous thing you could do. The more dangerous it was, the more courageous they thought it was. We try to teach the idea that courage is about risk, but for a purpose not for a thrill. Courage is about risk that promotes some greater good, which justifies the danger. So courage gets linked to the idea of self-control. We also developed a unit called "change requires effort," in which we teach that change is both desirable and requires work in the way we go about it.

In addition, we're interested in values like moderation because we work with many kids who tend to go to one extreme or the other, for example relative to drinking or using drugs. In this area, we try to help them find a way to moderate their impulses and desires.

And we focus on justice, which for us means recognizing that there are other people in the world and that they make legitimate demands on us. When we work with kids, we always start by saying, "Ethics might not be necessary if you were the only one here, but you're not. Because we have to share this planet with other people, we have to have some way of getting along together. We call that ethics. Ethics is about relationships, and justice is necessary in order to preserve those relationships."

So, respect, responsibility, integrity, self-control, self-direction, change requires effort, moderation, and justice—those are the eight key values that frame our program.

K: Tell us about a core value unit. How do you teach self-control?

S: Typically a unit is two months long and involves a variety of activities arranged under four levels:
1. Which of the Language Arts Standards does the unit address?
2. What texts will we use?
3. What products will students create?
4. What processes will we use to teach the big ideas in the unit?

We start with a basic understanding of the value. With self-control, we use the notion of courage and risk for a purpose and the idea that courage requires self-control. You've got to be able to manage yourself in order to take purposeful risks.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the core work in this particular unit. In addition to our core novel, we have several hundred other items that teachers might choose from, including novels, poetry, nonfiction, plays—all of them dealing with the courage theme.

Of course, the unit is embedded in the English language arts curriculum, and, as it happens, the standards that are addressed in this particular unit involve academic proficiencies such as writing narrative responses to literature and exposition. Actually, the unit cuts across the six language arts: reading, writing, listening, speaking, feeling, and visually representing.

With each text, we work with students to create a visual product, which they then explain and eventually turn into written language. In a classroom that's studying To Kill a Mockingbird right now, students started by making a bookmark that represented the town. As they made that bookmark, they indicated where all the various places in the town were, which not only helped them to keep track of where they were in the story but also gave them a visual reference point as we talked about the place.

In the first four weeks, we did open-mind portraits, for which students created a bust of a key character in the story. Then they surrounded that character with cartoon bubbles, which included things that character might think or say. As the unit goes on, they'll add bubbles in different colors to show how they see that character changing through the story, and they'll make open-mind portraits of other characters, as well.

They may also make posters. One of the things kids notice right away is the subject of racism in To Kill a Mockingbird. To address that issue directly, we have them make posters with some solutions they might suggest for dealing with that problem. When we get to the courtroom scenes, we do an actual cross-examination and create a newspaper to show what happens.

We follow each of these activities with daily journal writing, where the kids are really looking at characters and how they exhibit courage. Eventually, we ask them to choose the character they think is most courageous and, in small groups, they create a campaign ad for that particular character. We also have them do negative ads about characters that they think don't exemplify courage, and why not.

After we put those ads up, we ask them to do a radio show, which they then write a paragraph about. The following week, we teach them how to turn that paragraph into an essay, where they compare four characters as to courage, with an introduction and conclusion about how their definitions of courage have changed.

Every teacher who works on this unit is going to do it somewhat differently. We offer about 300 basic strategies that we mix and match in various ways, but all of them include visual and oral language products that eventually turn into written language processes. Throughout, we're really looking for ways that move the kids to think about values. We test and try to change kids' concept of courage so that it includes a willingness to use skills such as anger control and anticipating the consequences of actions.

H: Character education has been a very popular idea nationally during the past 10 to 15 years. Why is it on the public agenda so prominently?

J: I think a lot of people are afraid of the kind society we're becoming. Oftentimes, they think there's some significant difference between kids today and kids "like we were," and they believe things are deteriorating.

I'm not sure things are deteriorating, but we're all often startled by the world we see. Some people find it easy to blame the schools and say, "The problem is based on character defects, and the schools should teach character." Others say it's about parents and the need for them to take their jobs more seriously.

I think we've almost lost interest in raising children in this society, and a good deal of our problem comes from that. Kids today spend more time with their peers and less time with adults than has ever been true in history. The result is that kids socialize one another.

If we want to have more impact on our children's values, we have to be willing to devote more time to them. I remember the myth of the one-minute manager and that somehow you could apply this to parenting. But it's not about quality time; it's about time.

The interest in character education is very much from parents and schools feeling that they're not doing a good enough job and asking, "How can we better influence the kind of people that our kids become?"

September 30, 2015