[Paleopsych] Education Week: Character Education
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Character Education -
Updated: July 16, 2004
In a large and growing number of schools around the country, students
are learning more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic. They are
learning what character education advocates call the fourth and fifth
Rs: respect and responsibility.
The formal teaching of morals and values is not a new phenomenon;
rather, it has been part of democratic thought throughout history.
Plato and Aristotle in the Greece of the 4th century B.C.E. believed
the role of education was to train good and virtuous citizens. John
Locke, the 17th-century democratic philosopher, believed that learning
was secondary to virtue. "Reading and writing and learning I allow to
be necessary, but yet not the chief business [of education]. I imagine
you would think him a very foolish fellow, that should not value a
virtuous or a wise man infinitely before a great scholar."
As public schools proliferated in the early United States, McGuffey's
Eclectic Readers, which consisted of collections of stories used to
educate and transmit moral lessons, were "the most widely read books
in 19th-century America" outside of the King James Bible (Gorn, 1998).
The readers were used as school textbooks and were designed to instill
both biblical values and train good workers by preaching sobriety,
thrift, responsibility, and self-restraint. But the influence of
McGuffey's Readers waned in the early 20th century because of their
reliance on religious precepts and because of changes in the way
society viewed morality.
However, by the 1960s, the idea of teaching character and values in
school was regaining prominence. But rather than prescribe a set of
common values to be taught, popular programs of the time would
"contribute to the development of the student in six areas of human
interaction: communicating, empathizing, problem-solving, assenting
and dissenting, decisionmaking, and personal consistency" (Casteel and
Stahl, 1975). In such a program, the teacher would serve simply as the
facilitator, with a mandate not to impose his or her own values on
A program developed by the late Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg
also became prominent during that time. Although based on democratic
ideals derived from citing the U.S. Constitution as the moral document
of American society, Kohlberg's program held that students must be
allowed a certain degree of moral reasoning and that values must not
be imposed by the teacher (Power, Higgins, & Kohlberg, 1989). Under
Kohlberg's program, students would be told short stories that
presented moral dilemmas, placing values like loyalty and honesty in
conflict. While the stories were sure to incite lively conversation,
critics argued that Kohlberg's dilemmas assumed that students already
had strong feelings about the values in question or promoted moral
relativism, rather than helping children to define values (Kilpatrick,
Character education, as it is known today, began to appear in the
early 1990s. A 1991 book by Thomas Lickona, Educating for Character,
reintroduced the idea that there is a set of common beliefs and values
upon which all people can agree. A year later, a group of educators,
ethicists, and scholars met in Aspen, Colo., for a gathering that
resulted in the Aspen Declaration and the beginning of the Character
Since the early 1990s, the federal government has embraced the idea of
offering character education in public schools and has made grants
available to states interested in piloting new character education
programs in their schools. In response, for-profit and nonprofit
organizations have developed character programs for schools,
districts, and states. Most recently, first lady and former teacher
Laura Bush has promoted the use of character education in schools,
saying that "reading and writing are not all we need to teach our
"Respect and responsibility are just as important," Mrs. Bush
continued. "And we need to make sure we're teaching our children to be
responsible citizens who have good values and ethics."
Implementation of a character education program can be contentious.
One of the first questions people ask when learning that their school
plans to implement a character education program is "Whose values are
you going to teach?" (Brooks and Goble, 1997). Most character
education programs in use today are based on the traits developed from
the civic virtues found in the U.S. Constitution and the United
Nations charteras well as common civil and moral values such as
honesty, courage, and respect for others. Advocating that honesty is
better than dishonesty, or that free speech is better than censorship,
rarely invites controversy.
What has developed from this basis varies by program. For example, the
Character Counts program is based on the "six pillars of character":
trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and
citizenship. Character Works, used throughout Georgia, emphasizes 38
character traits, one for each week of a typical school year,
including courtesy, integrity, creativity, fairness, and
The Character Education Partnership has drawn up 11 principles of
effective character education that schools can use to guide their
efforts. The principles include the advice that the term "character"
must be well-defined, that the program must be integrated into the
curriculum, and that parents and community members must be involved
(Lickona, T., Schaps, E., and Lewis, C., no date). The final principle
is the need to assess the progress of the school involved in the
program. But while there has been much anecdotal evidence about the
effects of character education, not much in the way of scientifically
based research exists.
Of the few studies that have been conducted so far, a few suggest that
"as you facilitate social development, you are concurrently, for many
kids, advancing their academic function," according to Stephen N.
Elliott, a professor of educational psychology at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison. Citing one specific example, an Italian study in
2000 that found children's positive social skills to be powerful
predictors of academic achievement, Elliott suggests that social
skills that are part of character education programs may be "academic
enablers" (Viadero, 2003). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and
Emotional Learning recently examined 242 health, prevention, and
positive-youth-development programs. Its examination resulted in the
report "Safe and Sound: An Educational Leader's Guide to
Evidence-Based Social and Emotional Learning Programs," which reviews
80 nationally available, multiyear, sequenced programs for general
education classrooms (2003). The report identifies 22 programs that
are especially effective in preventing substance abuse, improving
academic performance, promoting general health, or supporting other
Brooks, D.B., & Goble, F.G., The Case for Character Education:
The Role of the School in Teaching Values and Virtue, Northridge,
Calif.: Studio 4 Productions, 1997.
Casteel, J., & Stahl, R.J., Values Clarification in the Classroom: A
Primer, Pacific Palisades, Calif.: Goodyear Publishing Company, 1975.
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, "Safe
and Sound: An Educational Leader's Guide to Evidence-Based Social and
Emotional Learning (SEL) Programs,"
Gorn, E.J., The McGuffey Readers: Selections From the 1879 Edition,
Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1998.
Kilpatrick, W.K., Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong, New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1992.
Lickona, T., Educating for Character: How Our Schools Can Teach
Respect and Responsibility, New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
Lickona, T., Schaps, E., & Lewis, C., "Eleven Principles of
Effective Character Education," The Character Education
Partnership, no date.
Viadero, D., "Nice Work," Education Week, 22 (33), pp. 38-41,
On the Web
GoodCharacter.com offers free resources, materials, and lesson
plans for character education. The site also contains links to major
character education organizations and teaching guides.
Character Counts! is a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of
schools, communities, and nonprofit organizations working to advance
character education by teaching the "six pillars of character":
trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and
citizenship. The group posts lesson plans for teaching good
The Character Education Partnership, a nonpartisan coalition of
organizations and individuals, identifies 11 principles of
effective character education.
The National Character Education Center offers a free newsletter
and discussion board for educators and parents who want to learn more
about character education.
The mission of the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional
Learning is to establish social and emotional learning as an essential
part of education from preschool through high school.
As of FY 2002, the U.S. Department of Education program to support
character education, called Partnerships in Character Education,
has awarded grants to 46 states and the District of Columbia to
start and support character education programs.
The Character Education & Civic Engagement Technical Assistance
Center provides support and information for and about schools involved
in character education and civic engagement across the country.
The Office for Studies in Moral Development and Education at the
College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago provides
an overview of moral education and maintains an archive of
articles regarding character education.
The Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (respect and responsibility)
promotes a 12-point comprehensive approach to character education
that uses all aspects of school life as deliberate opportunities for
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning
Partnerships in Character Education
The Character Education Partnership
From the Archives
"New Web Site Offered on Character Education," News in Brief, Feb.
"Civics Should Be a Higher Priority, State Education Group
Concludes," Nov. 19, 2003.
"Is Punishment Passé?," Commentary, Nov. 5, 2003.
"Teaching Social Awareness Through Reading," Commentary, Sept. 17,
"High-Tech Tools Help Students Put Veterans in Limelight," Sept.
"Nice Work," April 30, 2003.
"Character Education: Our High Schools' Missing Link," Jan. 29,
16. mailto:edissues at epe.org
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