Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Teaching Character Is Not A Program Or Curriculum’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 29, 2014 7 min read
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(This is the second in a three-part series on teaching character. You can see Part One here.)

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?

Part One in this series including guest responses from Debbie Silver, Jason Flom and David B. Cohen. I also shared some of my own thoughts and concerns.

You might want to listen to my weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio Network podcast. The latest one features Debbie and Jason.

Today’s post features contributions from Maurice J. Elias, Dr. Sherrel Bergmann, Dr. Judith Brough, and Thomas R. Hoerr.

Response From Maurice J. Elias

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University where he also directs the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab. He is the author of the new e-book, “Emotionally Intelligent Parenting,” and a book young children, Talking Treasure: Stories to Help Build Emotional Intelligence and Resilience in Young Children. You can read his blog on social-emotional and character development at Edutopia:

James Comer has said that teaching character is like catching a cold- children “get it” from the air around them, not from any specific program. Teddy Roosevelt said that to education people in mind and not in morals is to create menaces to society. And Martin Luther King, Jr. said that true education is the combination of intelligence and character.

From these wise individuals, we can derive an approach to teaching character. First, we have to build it intentionally. It is part of the definition of education. Second, it’s not a program or curriculum. That does not mean one can’t use a program, and excellent ones abound and can be used (see www.CASEL.org for a list of validated, tried-and-true programs and see www.character.org for information about schools that have been recognized as National Schools of Character and how they have gone about it). But it does mean that character is absorbed from the modeling and actions of others. So one must not only “do” a program, but also “live” its principles. And the more theses are shared in a school, the more likely it is that children will “catch” the principles. If you as an individual educator are teaching your children to swim against the current, it’s a lot harder than going with the flow. Again, it’s not that you can’t do it, but you are going to have to do a lot more on your own to get your message across in ways children can internalize.

Finally, character is built by how classrooms are run. The quality of respect, responsibility, patience, tolerance, problem solving, cooperation, listening, fairness, justice, honesty, and caring as revealed in all of the everyday interactions that take place from the moments before entry until the moments after dismissal and in other interactions that educators have with students. From this atmosphere, students will “catch” the kind of character that is airborne. Programs can be valuable in helping to define the climate of classrooms and schools but when children are given a choice of doing what adults say, vs. doing what adults do, they invariably choose the latter.

Response From Dr. Sherrel Bergmann and Dr. Judith Brough

Dr. Sherrel Bergmann, retired professor, National Louis University and Dr. Judith Brough, Professor Emerita, Gettysburg College are award-winning educators and authors. Their research and practical approaches to working with reluctant learners, motivation, parent-school relationships, and building life-essential skills are widely used in classrooms. They are the authors of Reducing The Risk, Increasing The Promise:

A sixth grade student who was frequently in trouble with her teachers said that the problem is that everyone tells her to mind her manners, but no one tells her what those manners are. Too often our school day from a student point of view is filled with the “what not to do” model. All adults in the building are teaching character development every time they interact with another person.

Character building is about teaching students to interact positively with others, to make productive decisions, to learn to solve problems, to develop and show compassion, and to set immediate and life-long goals. While there are many curriculum guides for teaching character education, the most productive lessons are the ones that occur in response to classroom and school-wide situations that involve those skills. Simply asking students to set personal and curriculum goals for the day and week is a start in the teaching process. Checking on those goals with the students helps to ingrain that process in their daily lives. *

Character education is, of course, age specific, but all students interact with others during the school day and skills such as sharing, listening to others, and helping are all part of the early childhood curriculum of caring. As students get to middle and high school, they need activities that enable them to discuss the differences they see in handling various situations. Using lessons from history and literature to recognize what type of character is being portrayed and asking questions regarding the decisions made, the problems solved, and the consequences of those actions help a student to understand that character is developmental and everyone is capable of becoming a productive citizen.

If your students don’t understand what good character means, try completing a graphic organizer with them. What does good character look like? What does it sound like? What are some real-life examples and non-examples?

Response From Thomas R. Hoerr

Thomas R. Hoerr, Ph.D., is Head of School at New City School in St. Louis, MO, and author of Fostering Grit: How Do I Prepare My Students for the Real World? (ASCD , 2013):

We need to recognize that teaching character is as important as teaching the 3R’s. Children must learn how to read, write, and calculate, but that is only the beginning. They also need to learn how to respect and appreciate others, how to work as a member of a team, how to be honest and true, and how to develop grit. As I often say, “Who you are is more important than what you know.”

We need to embed teaching character throughout our curriculum and in our interactions with our students; it cannot be an add-on. If we want children to respect and appreciate others, for example, we need to ensure that others, however that is defined, are shown in positive ways in our studies, and we need to devote time in class to talking about caring and character. At my school we don’t have a Black History Month because we believe that studying the contributions of people of color should be done every month of the year. Human differences are recognized and embraced. For example, at early ages children compare their skin color to various shades of milk with chocolate powder. They learn that skin color is simply a color. Socio-economic differences are also part of our curriculum.

We value what we measure so character is on the first page of our report cards. We report on confidence, motivation, problem-solving, responsibility, effort and work habits, appreciation for diversity, and teamwork. Beginning parent-teacher conferences by talking about students’ growth in these areas is a wonderful way to ensure that teaching character is a priority for everyone.

Recently we’ve been talking a lot about grit - resilience and tenacity. If we want to prepare our children for success in the real world, they need to be able to bounce back after frustration and failure. We need to ensure that they experience this so that the can learn from it. This needs to be done prudently and with care, but we have failed our students if they have not learned how to respond to failure. Teaching for character must be a priority for everyone.

Thanks to Maurice, Sherrel, Judith and Thomas 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 the next post.

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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....

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