Character Matters: An R Street Q&A Series on Character Education — Jamie Woodson
Do you have a go-to, straightforward definition for “character” and/or “virtue”? If not, can you provide some rough outlines for those terms that might be helpful for educators and education-policy experts interested in helping form students?
I generally think of character as attributes or moral qualities distinctive to an individual. As I think about the attributes of strong character, my mind gravitates toward traits such as integrity, honesty, fairness, resilience, courage, perseverance and optimism. In my youth, my father loved to talk about virtues. He would boil them down to a simple concept: doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong. In 2015, David Brooks distinguished between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues. “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral—whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful.” I like this distinction and believe that both have a place in how we think about the important work of teaching and learning.
Do our public schools really need to focus on teaching character? Can’t we trust that educators will pass along lessons of character—things like honesty, diligence, public-spiritedness—naturally as part of their day-to-day teaching?
I don’t think of the responsibility of teaching character through a lens of trust or lack of trust in teachers. Teachers absolutely will pass along lessons of character. That said, high-quality character education is simply important. And, it is an important responsibility of families, communities and our public schools. It should involve the life and culture of an entire school. Further, character education is not a single lesson plan or within the scope of responsibility of one individual teacher within a building. It is most effective when it is embodied in the culture of a school and consistently embedded in coursework. Imagine teaching persistence and grit through math; concepts of transparency, openness and honesty through the analysis of data; or using the myriad heroes of history to illustrate bravery, honor and courage.
Concepts like honesty, diligence and public-spiritedness can and should be modeled, but ensuring that students understand these concepts in a deep way, can model them in practice and have strong muscle memory for life beyond their formal education requires intentionality, consistent frameworks, and a culture that values and prioritizes these concepts.
Should we think about character as something that is taught or something that is modeled? In other words, if we care about character, should we focus on standards and curriculum, or should we focus on developing educators who embody key virtues?
We should think about character as something that is BOTH taught and modeled. Having an organized, thoughtful and effective approach to standards and curriculum is important to ensure that each and every student experiences a high-quality character education. That said, it is also important for educators and all members of the school community to model key virtues. Students are exceptional at sniffing out hypocrisy. Having a high expectation for ALL members of a school community—not just students—feels critical to transforming the life and culture of a school.
Some scholars differentiate “intellectual,” “moral,” “civic” and “performance” virtues. Do you find that framework helpful, especially as it relates to what schools ought to prioritize in their instruction?
Such a framework can provide an effective channel for schools to impart the development of character into their students. The right framework is a critical tool for bringing the material to life, building a common language, and ensuring that each and every child has a rich instructional experience.
I’d like to emphasize that the framework is important, but it is just the beginning. Strong and effective programs engage children in hands-on activities where virtues are emphasized throughout the school environment, as well as through the curriculum. We must offer multiple opportunities for students to learn about, discuss, model and enact what they are learning.
Ultimately student ownership—through leadership and involvement—is essential for character education to become a part of a student’s beliefs and actions.
How do you respond to the argument that public schools should focus on knowledge and skills and leave the formation of character to families and voluntary associations?
While instilling values is first and foremost an obligation of families, I believe it’s a false choice to say that either schools or families have exclusive responsibility. Character education is a shared community responsibility. Forging strong character is the responsibility of families, schools, faith-based organizations, youth and civic associations—communities as a whole.
As Americans, we want our children to flourish. We want them not only to “pursue happiness,” but to thrive and achieve their full potential as individuals. We want our children to be prepared for an unknown and evolving future, to be successful learners, and to contribute meaningfully and positively to society.
Given the tremendous amount of their young lives students spend in classrooms and the opportunity to build a school culture that embodies virtues that will help them achieve their highest potential, it is difficult to imagine asking schools to take a pass on this important responsibility.
(Read the full list of questions here. Find the other “Character Matters” Q&As as they publish here.)