Character Education: how and what to teach in our schools?
By Jeremy Willinger
The importance of teaching character education cannot be overstated. As posited in the blog’s original post, the goal of character education is to raise emotionally balanced, socially compassionate and caring individuals with a solid value system. The results can last a lifetime: mindful adults, who comfortably navigate life’s challenges to become successful, productive people, and who in turn raise well-adjusted children.
Today’s culture spotlights self-destruction and negative role-models— just look at Tiger Woods and Eliot Spitzer—and glorifies celebrity and the accumulation of wealth at all costs. The results are as easy to find as picking up a newspaper or turning on a TV: escalating violence in schools, antisocial behavior, and the coarsening of public dialogue.
In spite of all the benefits that teaching character education offers to both the individual and society, there are no set standards on how and what to teach. While no universal program appropriate for all students exists, a proven framework for successful character education should follow certain methods and common principles.
It is not enough (and proven to be ineffective) to use abstract ethics and lecturing -- i.e., “Just say no to drugs,” or “Abstinence is the only moral approach to sex education.” For character education to make a lasting impression, it must both involve and evolve.
As children grow older, they interpret messages differently. Lessons appropriate to developmental stages allow children to make their own decisions while reinforcing positive group dynamics. When character education combines solo and cooperative play, it encourages children to apply their own insights and skills while also serving as good role models to their younger peers.
The goal is to inspire self-initiated action (e.g., the ability to say a heartfelt “No,” rather than mouthing a conditioned response), promoted by healthy self-esteem, self-awareness, and personal accountability. These decision-making skills correspond to the maturation of the individual. While children are in school, open forums with active role-playing can provide practical tools to students for handling difficult moments and peer pressure. Moderated by teachers or, in later years, by the students themselves, the sharing among classmates is certain to encourage moral thought, ethical debate, decision-making, and critical thinking.
Avoiding moralizing or the indoctrination of any one type of thought or behavior as being the right one for all (as in automatic compliance with our country’s goals, or the more extreme situations we see in North Korea, Soviet Russia, and modern Iran) is paramount. Instead, common principles based on shared values—justice, equality for all, respect for individuality, empathy, kindness, integrity—should serve as the fundamental building blocks of all character education programs.
Photo Credit: Reuters/President Obama with Elementary School Children