Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Character Should Be An Integrated Element Of Education’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 25, 2014 15 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the first in a multi-part series)

John Bennett asked:

I’ve always been a strong believer that an educator cannot TEACH anything - only FACILITATE learning. With regard to character then, my question: What approach to character can an educator take? Even if one decided to try to teach character, can it be done?

Ah, the ongoing question of teaching “character” in schools. I’ve previously covered topic in two previous posts (see An Interview With Paul Tough On Character & Schools and Teaching “Character” In Schools -- Part Two).

I’m a big supporter of teaching “character” (in fact, I’ve written two books on the topic), and have collected many resources on the qualities of “grit,” self-control and Social Emotional Learning in general.

At the same time, however, I’m very concerned and wary about how some -- in the name of “school reform” -- are using this idea as an excuse to not provide the support schools, teachers, and their students and families need. In other words, some are turning the idea into a sort of “let them eat character” refrain. Teaching character is not enough....

I am also concerned about how others are applying concept in the classroom (see Why Schools Should Not Grade Character Traits) and in their political strategy.

Nevertheless, there are still plenty of ways we educators can teach “character” and help our students in the coming weeks and months. Guest responses in this series, and comments from readers, will provide many different suggestions -- and some might even be contradictory!

You might want to listen to my weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio Network podcast. The latest one features educators Debbie Silver and Jason Flom. Their written thoughts also appear in this post.

In addition to guest contributions from Debbie and Jason, David B. Cohen’s thoughts are also featured today .

Response From David B. Cohen

David B. Cohen is a National Board Certified Teacher in the English department at Palo Alto High School. Now in his twentieth year of teaching, and twelfth at Palo Alto, David is also the associate director of Accomplished California Teachers:

Character education is among the more nebulous aspects of public education, challenging to define and difficult to place in the traditional curriculum. We probably all agree that we want students to develop an understanding of morals and ethics (and the difference between them), but I don’t think we’ve agreed on how to do that in public schools, nor have we as a nation necessarily agreed that it’s up to public schools to teach character explicitly.

Taking the larger argument first, I’d say that character education certainly belongs in public schools; to omit it sends a message that character is something unrelated to the college and career skills we address in schools. I think every college, university, profession and community has clear expectations and even explicit requirements about honorable participation. Students’ abilities to understand and make moral, ethical decisions about civic participation will determine not only their futures, but also the character of our nation, and ultimately, its survival.

Any attempt to adopt specific standards or content for character education is certain to spark difficult conversations for a school, district, or community. That’s a difficult conversation that we need to have, regularly, as part of a thriving democracy.

For my contribution to any such conversation, I would recommend that educators and community leaders look to Facing History and Ourselves. This organization began over thirty years ago as a Holocaust education program in Memphis, Tennessee. It has grown to become an international organization that has reached millions of students and tens of thousands of teachers. Their mission is “to help teachers and students confront the complexities of history in ways that promote critical thinking, academic achievement, and moral development.”

I’ve been continuously involved with Facing History and Ourselves in various ways for almost fifteen years. My personal experiences and endorsement of their effectiveness are consistent with a robust body of research demonstrating that they help students learn. I’ve seen in multiple ways how their resources and trainings help teachers to address most of the components of character education - but through deep scholarship rooted in history, literature, science and the arts. It’s an approach to education that refrains from preaching morals and ethics, but provides students and teachers with the tools to understand and analyze hard history such as genocide, apartheid, segregation and eugenics. Viewed through lenses of identity and membership, inclusion and ostracism, these historical examples provide the foundation for individuals to better understand the past and the present, and to articulate how moral choices and decisions are essential to participation in a democratic society.

In my high school English classroom, “facing history” means that when we read study Gus Lee’s novel China Boy, we also study how Americans of Chinese descent have been perceived and treated over time; that context sheds further light on the protagonist’s difficult choices, and offers a helpful perspective to inform students’ good choices in reality. When we study Cry, the Beloved Country, we learn about the rise and fall of South African apartheid, and try to understand how otherwise good people could tolerate or support an evil system. Then students are in a position to evaluate the author’s prescription for a more just society, and to explore any parallels for solving problems closer to home.

Character education should be considered as an integrated element of education, and Facing History and Ourselves has the depth, breadth, and flexibility to be an effective part of any strategic plan for creating that learning.

Response From Jason Flom

Jason Flom is the Learning and Communications director at Cornerstone Learning Community in Tallahassee, FL. He is an ASCD Emerging Leader, class of 2010, and the founding editor of Ecology of Education, a multi-author blog exploring issues and ideas in education. He is also a BAM Commentator. You can follow him on Twitter at @JasonFlom:

“I regard it as the foremost task of education to insure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self denial, and above all, compassion”

Kurt Hahn

During the years that I worked for Outward Bound, that quote was a part of our everyday lexicon. Now 15 years later, his quote remains foundational to my philosophy of education. Until recently it was the qualities spoke to and inspired me. “How do we give students opportunities to practice these?” I often pondered.

These days, I am struck by a singular word from the quote.


He didn’t write “cultivation” or “teaching” or “creating” or “building” or “developing.”


The implication being that children arrive at school already possessing these qualities when they arrive to be “educated.”

Watch children play alone or with others and there is little doubt that the ecosystem of their world is rich with curiosity, undefeatable spirit, tenacity, and compassion. They wonder endlessly about the world around them and explore that curiosity with a tenacious spirit. They are naturally compassionate and empathize with others from a very young age. They practices sensible self-denial as they toys, food, and possessions with others, or make sacrifices to make others happy.

Character education is really about supporting, nurturing, and creating space for qualities that are, largely, inherent. Some practices that support character:

Response From Debbie Silver

Dr. Debbie Silver is the parent of 5 boys and is an award-winning teacher of over 30 years. Her books include, Drumming to the Beat of a Different Marcher: Finding the Rhythm for Differentiated Learning and Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed. Debbie is an international presenter who frequently gives keynotes and workshops on student motivation. She can be contacted at her website:

“We may not always be able to reach every student, but we must reach for every student.” Scott Sater, teacher, Shakopee, MN.

We are experiencing exceptional challenges in public schools. We are judged by high-stakes tests that give only a snapshot view of achievement and little information about academic tenacity or commitment to lifelong learning. Reduced budgets and increased reporting requirements constrain the time allotments for anything not directly related to standardized tests. Yet , maybe more than ever before, there is a need for attention to what Paul Tough calls performance development of our students. Both researchers and practitioners are becoming acutely aware that no matter how much knowledge is made available to a learner, there are character aspects mitigating whether or not the information will be internalized and used.

In light of the competing demands for time and focus in our schools, how do teachers determine when and how to teach such things as ethics, courage, resiliency, perseverance, and growth mindset? The good news is that most of what needs to be taught requires no additional funds, no new materials, and no add-on time. Rather it takes a philosophical shift from being extremely task-oriented to being more student-centered. It means learning to be one who empowers students to help themselves rather than one who constantly rescues or “fixes all things” for students. It demands teachers who make sure that every student has a reasonable chance at success. It requires that adult advocates are role models for students each and every day demonstrating the essentials of performance character and emphasizing their importance.

Certain subjects lend themselves well to the integration of character development within the parameters of prescribed curriculum. Team coaches have many opportunities to teach and model sportsmanship, perseverance, “grit,” tenacity, courage, and other important character traits. Language arts teachers can guide the selection of literature that discusses important issues dealing with character as well as ask students to write about specific topics. Science and history teachers often have opportunities to present and discuss ethical dilemmas and moral choices to students. Below are some universal strategies all teachers can use within the confines of required curriculum to enhance the performance character of our learners.

Knowing Your Students

The simplest way to reach a student is to get to know a student. Teachers need to make time to understand who their students are - not who they wish they were, not who they are supposed to be, not who the district says they are, but who they are. Through personal inventories, specific writing assignments, conversations with them, and even home visits (or drive-bys), effective teachers learn all they can about the students in their classes.

Things such as how the student best learns, her precise reading level, her English proficiency range, how much adult support there is at home, her favorite things, her fears, her stumbling blocks, and other insights are not only helpful but also imperative for being able to both reach and teach individuals. I recommend that teachers keep a note card on every single student with and other information at their fingertips.


One part of character performance is the ability to keep working towards a goal long after the initial desire has passed. In order for students to be willing to work towards a goal they must feel some sense of achievement that is genuine and is earned. Often what is asked of students is not so much insurmountable as it is just too wide a gap for them to span without the assistance of a skilled teacher. Attentive adults can teach perseverance by gradually “raising the bar” so that the student is constantly stretching to the next achievable level.

Scaffolding Instruction Guidelines

In order to give students a reasonable chance at success teachers can use many proven effective strategies including:

1. Assessing accurately where the learner is in terms of knowledge and experience.

2. Relating content to what the learner already knows or can do.

3. Providing examples of the desired outcome and showing the learner what the task is as opposed to what it is not.

4. Breaking the larger outcome into smaller, achievable tasks with opportunities for feedback along the way.

5. Giving students a chance to orally elaborate (“think out loud”) using problem-solving techniques.

6. Incorporating appropriate verbal cues and prompts to assist students in accessing store knowledge.

7. Incorporating time for students to “de-brief” about how well they did. Students need to learn to reflect on what works for them.


In order to consider their own best practices, students usually need the guidance of a focused, attentive adult. Telling students they simply need to work harder is not sufficient feedback. It is important to remember that inefficient learners often have no idea what the adult means by that statement. Adults must purposefully model for students how to set goals and use deliberate practice to intentionally get better. We need to ask them not only what they are willing to give to reach their goals but also what they are willing to give up. An important part of performance character is an awareness of choice and developing the ability to make even the tough calls.

Dr. Carol Dweck, research psychologist and author, recommends that we help instill a growth mindset in students whereby they are willing to confront obstacles, dig in, and put forth the effort needed to reach their goals. With a growth mindset students believe they can get better at anything they choose if they are willing to work hard and focus their efforts. They see hard work as a positive and are not put off by failures or temporary setbacks.

Dweck believes a mindset is learned behavior. Therefore, teachers need to be extremely attentive to the comments we make to learners. When we praise children for being naturally talented, gifted, or smart, aren’t we saying that what we value is beyond their control? For years I told my students things like, “You’re so bright!” “You have so much talent!” “You are such a star!” I am now working to change my feedback to comments like, “Wow, you stuck with that until you finished it.” “You just beat your last score by 33%; how did you do that?” “Tell me how you mustered the courage to take a stand like that.” I believe that words have power, and adults should be mindful of how we influence student’s perspectives with flawed or inappropriate feedback.

Dweck believes that praise of innate talent or ability reinforces a fixed mindset, one that causes the learner to believe that only effortless things are of value and that they must do everything they can to protect their image rather than strive to learn or achieve new things. Students with a fixed mindset prefer to do repeatedly what they already do well rather than take a risk doing something in which they might not be the best, the first, or the most celebrated. Students with a fixed mindset are often perfectionists who miss a lot of joy in learning and become totally disenfranchised in the system when others not so “blessed” pass them by working hard and persevering. Or at the other extreme, students choose not to try at all because they don’t believe they have the natural gifts required for success.

The important character traits of perseverance, resiliency, and growth mindset can be taught with effective feedback that is carefully selected, honest, specific, nonjudgmental, and intentionally chosen to help students figure out how to get better. Additionally, adults often fail to realize that some of the most effective feedback does not come in the form of statements but rather as questions. Teachers can ask questions such as, “Samuel, how did you decide on that particular design for your project?” “If you could change one thing about it, what would it be? “Can you talk me through your thought process?” Communicating high, but reasonable expectations is a tricky business. The subtleties of our words are not lost on students, and they carry strong messages.

Essentially character performance like all character traits are learned best in safe classrooms guided by skilled, compassionate teachers. Students thrive on individual, specific attention from caring adults. It is one of the greatest gifts we can give them as we reach for every student.

Thanks to David, Jason and Debbie for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in post. I’ll be including readers’ comments in my next post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and will be starting the new year with ASCD.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on blog’s sidebar.

You can also see annual lists of my most popular posts.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Last, but not least, I’ve recently begun recording a weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here.

Look for Part Three in a few days....

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.