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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Teaching Character

High School Students

High School Students

Shaping the moral compass of Generation Z

Yael Kidron

Yael Kidron is the director of Character Education at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.  Views are her own.

The last year in the news has stirred discussion about values such as tolerance, respect, and integrity. According to a Gallup poll, 81 percent of Americans today believe that moral values of society are only “fair” and “poor”, and 77 percent believe it is getting worse.

This is troubling because of the growing number and complexity of ethical questions today. 

The moral compass of Generation Z will shape many critical issues, such as equal access to health care and quality education, neighborhood safety and information security. The question that parents, educators, and policymakers should be asking is: How well we are preparing Generation Z for making ethical choices?

That depends on the prevalence and quality of character education in schools.

On Sept. 13, educators and their students celebrated Annual Character Day nationally and globally. The day was dedicated to discussions about ways to promote character development of children and youth.

Character education is the deliberate, proactive attempt to foster the skills, attitudes, motives and beliefs that lead to pro-social and ethical behavior. Character education programs address universal values such as honesty, kindness and responsibility. The underlying assumption is that dispositions and moral reasoning abilities are malleable and shaped through social interactions and introspective reflections.

School-based programs often address factors that support character development, such as social and emotional skills, self-efficacy and community engagement. Well-designed and well-implemented character education programs can affect a broad array of outcomes including caring behavior, reduced drug use, ethical reasoning skills and a safe school climate.

Character education is less prevalent in secondary than in elementary schools, although it is critically important in adolescence.

Neuroscience research shows by the time adolescents reach the age of 12,  they acquire the cognitive skills that they need to consider diverse and even conflicting moral points of view and apply systematic rules for critical ethical analysis.

Character education can help adolescents acquire the skills they need to succeed in school and prepare for college and work. Character education has gained support by the California Education Code, Section 233.5, which requires that “Each teacher shall endeavor to impress upon the minds of the pupils the principles of morality, truth, justice, patriotism, and a true comprehension of the rights, duties, and dignity of American citizenship, and the meaning of equality and human dignity, including the promotion of harmonious relations, kindness toward domestic pets and the humane treatment of living creatures, to teach them to avoid idleness, profanity, and falsehood, and to instruct them in manners and morals and the principles of a free government.”

Across the curriculum, schools make classroom connections to real-life experiences. Real-world examples give learning a sense of meaning and motivate deeper levels of inquiry.

One way to connect character education to real-world examples is through experiences, such as outdoor education and community service. For example, in Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, students create posters in a Sanctuary Print Shop and discuss immigrants’ rights.

In the classroom, teachers can help students become smart news consumers and caring citizens. Websites such as Newsschool, PBS NewsHour Extra, and the offer lesson plans for news literacy activities.

Character education is relevant and can make a difference.

This article appeared originally in The San Jose Mercury News.


Oct 24, 2017

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