“When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.” – Billy Graham
Why Character Matters
Why does character education in schools matter? In “The Purpose of Education,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1947) states it best when he says, “Intelligence plus character, that is the true goal of education” (para. 6). While many children seem to have an inherent sense or knowledge of right and wrong, it is essential that character is explicitly taught, just like all other subject areas.
Fullan (2016) supports this claim and further asserts that schools have a moral obligation and commitment to teach students to become responsible, caring and contributing citizens. So what exactly is character education and what does it encompass? Character education has existed and been a main feature of education since the very first school ever opened, both intentionally and unintentionally: “Character education is as old as education itself. Down through history, in countries all over the world, education has had two great goals: to help young people become smart, and to help them become good” (Lickona, 1991, p. 6).
Character education addresses a broad range of skills, while maintaining a focus on academic achievement (Sojourner, 2012, p. 14). The objective of schooling is multifold. Developing students who possess the ability to contribute to society is a key priority. Character education provides students with the skills they need to reach their fullest potential and to being an integral part of their communities.
There are two key features of character education. First, there are the core ethical values and second, the performance values. Character.org best explains these two fundamental components of character education.
“The core ethical values enable us to treat each other with fairness, respect, and care, and ensure that we pursue our performance goals in ethical, rather than unethical ways. The performance values, in turn, enable us to act on our ethical values and make a positive difference in the world. We take initiative to right a wrong or be of service to others; we persevere to overcome problems and mend relationships; we work selflessly on behalf of others or for a noble cause, often without recognition or reward. In all realms of life, good intentions aren’t enough; being our best requires work.” (“Performance Values,” n.d., para. 1).
Students must be taught core ethical principles as well as how to act in accordance with their values.
In order to teach character, we must first understand what it is. So, what is Character? It is often referred to as a quality, virtue or trait, that oftentimes is exemplified in moral or “right” behavior or actions. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, explained that character “reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses and avoids” (Poetics, part VI).
Political and cultural leaders also recognize the importance of character to the betterment of society. Former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, states that “vision, integrity, courage, understanding, the power of articulation, and profundity of character” (Newton, 2012, p. 180) are the key qualities that lead to greatness. Booker T. Washington (1900), African-American educator and author, reveals the power of character when he writes, “when we give out this spirit, something of this healing power, we receive in return more strength for ourselves, for virtue, like vice, thrives upon what it feeds” (p. 23).
Fullan and Quinn (2016) describe character as, “learning to learn, grit, tenacity, perseverance, resilience, self-regulation, responsibility, empathy, contributing to the safety and benefit of others” (p. 85). For character to be evident, it will often require that we not act upon our first reactions to what happens to us. We must be disciplined enough to have our vision of who we want to be to take precedence over how we feel in a given moment.
We have two goals for this chapter. First, we hope to help educators understand the importance and need for character education. Second, we wish to provide strategies and tools to ensure character education is a feature of learning every day.
How do we really know students are learning? What role does character education play in learning? Many students sit quietly in class, looking like they are engaged, but they are failing to learn. According to Dr. Amel Karboul, we are facing what she is calling a “global learning crisis.” She states that “…there are 330 million children in school, but [they are] failing to learn. And, if we do nothing (if nothing changes by 2030, just 13 years from now) half of the world’s children and youth, which is 1.6 billion, will be either out of school or failing to learn” (Karboul, 2017).
In “The Case for Values Education,” Lickona (1991) quotes Kilpatrick: “The core problem facing our schools is a moral one. All the other problems derive from it. Even academic reform depends on putting character first” (p. 3). Today, with the support of technology and the intentional integration of character across grade levels and disciplines, this crisis can be averted. We can transform individuals’ abilities to make ethical choices and be part of the healing that needs to take place in so many of our communities.
In fact, Fullan (2016) believes engaging students in deeper learning has already started “a learning revolution” (p.77). Through “urgency, knowledge, and capacity,” schools can “create synergetic breakthroughs in societal learning” (p. 77). Thus resulting in “the early stages of a potentially powerful confluence of factors that could transform education” (Fullan, 2013).
Most educators enter the profession to make a difference and to help “individuals to become self-actualized, reaching their fullest human potential” (Northouse, 2016, p. 234). However, once teachers embark on their career, they are given little guidance on how to do so. Many educators feel overwhelmed, ill-equipped, and afraid. They want to help, but they’re not sure how.
If you’re an educator who is reading this, we have good news for you. You matter! Do you know that you influence the lives of your students more than anyone in the educational school system? According to John Hattie’s (2009) research, teachers have the greatest impact on students. Do you realize just how much students look up to you and see you as a role model?
If you want to help your students develop character, start by being the person you hope they will become. Cultivate your own character, and realize, “example is not the main thing in influencing others – it is the only thing” (Grumble, 2017). You are the key and catalyst for this reform. John Wooden, famous coach and educator, would often quote this poem by an anonymous author: “No written word, no spoken plea can teach our youth what they should be. Nor all the books on all the shelves, it’s what the teachers are themselves” (Gallimore, 2006, para. 16).
In the book Happiness Advantage, Harvard Researcher, Sean Achor (2010) explains a phenomenon called mirror neurons:
Thanks to these…. mirror neurons, our emotions…are enormously contagious. As we pass through the day, our brains are constantly processing the feelings of the people around us, taking note of the inflection in someone’s voice, the look behind their eyes, the stoop of their shoulders. In fact, the amygdala can read and identify an emotion in another person’s face within 33 milliseconds, and then just as quickly prime us to feel the same. In addition to this subconscious process, people also consciously assess the mood of those around them and act accordingly. Both processes together make it possible for emotions to jump from person to person in an instant. In fact, studies have shown that when three strangers meet in a room, the most emotionally expressive person transmits his or her mood to the others within just two minutes (p. 262).
Since the teacher is typically the most emotionally expressive individual in the room, it takes only two minutes for them to set the mood for their students.
John Maxwell explains this in similar terms when he states, “Eighty-nine percent of what people learn comes through visual stimulation; ten percent through audible stimulation and one percent through other senses” (Grumbel, 2017). Students will not necessarily do what teachers say, but rather emulate what they see. With this in mind, each educator must realize, they are role models and must continually strive to develop their own character and to lead by example.
A teacher’s example and expectations have a profound impact on developing student character and is something that is done every day; whether you realize it or not. So, be intentional about your example.
Students are constantly being exposed to new ideas, thoughts, and beliefs. If educators are not deliberate in shaping their student’s character, it will be shaped through other means like the internet, social media and the entertainment world.
The first part of developing character is for students to be taught how to learn, or as Fullan puts it, “learning to learn.” The teacher or administrator must serve as the lead learner. If the teacher loves to learn, the students will too. Learning must not be seen as a chore or duty, but rather a new exciting opportunity.
One way to do this is for students to develop a sense of gratitude. If a teacher declares that opportunities for growth are something they are grateful for, it will help students to view learning in a positive manner. In order to further a student’s character, the educator may want to also teach students about specific traits, virtues, or skills. Some of them include but are not limited to grit, tenacity, perseverance, resilience, self-regulation, responsibility, respect and empathy.
In the following section of this chapter, “technology tools/strategies/lessons to accelerate learning,” we will present a variety of ways to teach these character traits. First, let’s take a look at the standards and digital pathways linked to character education.
We know that a major feature of life and education today is technology. In addition to the Common Core State Standards, there are also the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards. The main objective of the ISTE standards is to help educators better utilize technology as a tool in education. The founders of ISTE utilize the following questions as the drivers for the standards they’ve created:
- What if we gave students powerful tools allowing them to take charge of their learning?
- What if we let students follow their passions and work with peers to solve problems?
- What if teachers didn’t lecture, but served as guides and collaborators?
- What if we let computers do what they do best, freeing up humans to create, to dream, to change the world?” (“ISTE Standards for Students,” n.d.)
It is essential that technology is leveraged as an accelerator in learning. The ISTE standards are a tool to help ensure this happens. ISTE includes five sets of standards for educators, students, administrators, coaches and computer science educators. The standards for students were created to prepare students for the evolving world of technology, to give them a voice, and to ensure that learning is a student-driven process. The seven standards for students include empowered learner, digital citizen, knowledge constructor, innovative designer, computational thinker, creative communicator and global connector.
Why have these standards evolved you might ask? Well, consider the following: In 1998, students were learning to use technology. In 2007, students started using technology to learn. Now, transformative learning is taking place via technology. All of the ISTE standards align to the 6 C’s.
Standard 1, Empowered Learner (“ISTE Standards for Students,” n.d.), relates strongly to character as it puts the student in the driver’s seat of their own learning. Students with strong character values and skills will seek this. It requires students to “leverage technology” and to take a more “active role in choosing, achieving and demonstrating competency in their learning goals” (Standard 1). Students “set personal goals,” for themselves to “develop strategies leveraging technology to achieve them” (Standard 1a). After they have set these goals, it is important for them to reflect upon them and determine how they can improve their practice in the future. It is helpful for students to even create a daily goal and share it with the class.
ISTE Standard 2 is Digital Citizen. Again, there is a strong correlation between being an ethical digital citizen and the presence of character. We know that character extends beyond our physical world and into the digital world. A student who understands the core values of good character will then choose to act/perform accordingly. They will recognize the responsibility they have to live, learn, and work with integrity within a global society. Students with character will manage their digital identity and engage in safe and positive online behaviors. They will also understand and act ethically.
The final ISTE standard with a very strong connection to character is Standard 6: Creative Communicator. How and what students choose to communicate is also a reflection of their character. Students with strong core values and knowledge of character will choose appropriate platforms and tools for communicating. They will express themselves respectfully and ethically.
These are the three ISTE standards that best connect to and support character education. Our integrity should not be left behind when we enter virtual spaces. The ability to have a digital identity that is aligned with our ethical framework is essential to being an authentically educated person.
Technology tools/strategies/lessons to accelerate learning
We want students to grow in their core values and performance of character with plenty of opportunities for practice. Character will therefore primarily be referred to as a skill, rather than a quality, trait, or virtue (even though it is those things, as well). A skill is something one is able to learn, practice, and grow into. This is true of character as well. Similar to the philosophy of growth mindset, character can and should be continuously developed.
The tech tools listed below are supported by the ISTE Standards and can be used as accelerators in deepening learning about Character. For ease of use, the technology tool will be listed as a heading, with a brief description and link to the resource following. We provide ten great technology tools for teaching and developing character within students.
As mentioned earlier, there are many terms associated with character. One of the easiest ways to begin to teach character is through the use of vocabulary instruction. Students must understand what character, morals, ethics, grit, perseverance, integrity, tenacity and the like mean. This is also a great way to increase students’ vocabulary. Flocabulary is a great tech tool that can be utilized to assist with vocabulary instruction. A free trial is available for educators. This platform uses songs and videos to make learning accessible, engaging, and relevant. Students really enjoy learning new vocabulary this way: it is easy to learn how to use it and, most importantly, it helps students gain mastery of their vocabulary in a fun and engaging way.
Next, quotes can be used to help students further develop their understanding of character. It is important for them to not merely read the quote, but also to discuss what it means and how they can apply it to their own life. The Brainy Quote website allows one to search content by topic, author, or current event. This a great tool for finding relevant quotes. Under the topic of character alone, there is a lot of great content that can be used as a springboard for discussion as well as to deepen learning through application and relevance.
Photos for Class
After students increase their vocabulary, you may also ask them to illustrate these words to demonstrate their understanding. Photos for Class is a tool that can be used independently or collaboratively to do this. Before you have students do this, you may want to provide them with a word or quote. Students can then add images and create their own collage. After students have created their project, they can share it with the teacher and class.
To further students’ understanding, literature and expository text should also be included in instruction. Plato is quoted as telling us that, “the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts” (Bennet, 1993, p.17). After reading a story, or examining a piece of expository text, the teacher should also help students connect the content to their own lives. Newsela is a database full of rich text, both expository and literary. Content can be easily filtered and utilized. As an added feature, teachers can show their students how to change the Lexile (reading) level in order to better meet the learning needs of each student.
To further deepen learning, videos relating to the topic of character can be viewed, discussed, and written about with students. One way to organize videos on Youtube is to create folders on the site. Once you have established a folder structure, you can continue to add to videos to your system. Before you know it, you will have a wealth of resources on many topics, to access at any time. Videos provide a rich platform for discussion and writing. Videos may be shown whole class or personalized depending on student’s needs.
Another site that provides great examples from current films of character in action is Wingclips. Teachers can search for short video clips from character-building movies by title, scripture (for religious schools), category, and theme. The MPAA rating is clearly displayed so that teachers can choose clips that are age/grade-level appropriate.
Blogs and Vlogs
Weblogs (or blogs) provide online places to read others’ work or create a space of your own. Vlogs are similar to blogs, except in video form (video blogs). Our doctoral cohort has been blogging as a part of our program. Many of us have found it essential to our learning and to establish a way to convey our identities in digital form. If you would like to learn more about how to implement character from an administrator’s point of view, we strongly recommend a blog called Dean of Students. If you are looking for lessons on how to teach character, a blog called Be grateful will help. It is also a great resource for anyone who would like to learn more about gratitude.
Students can reflect on their own learning about character and ethical decisions by starting a blog of their own. Students can work independently or collaboratively to create positive, safe and ethical content on a variety of subjects in addition to character.
Common Sense Media
This is a great resource to teach students how to be digital citizens and is accessible at commonsense.org. It is free to view the videos on their site. There are resources for educators, students, and families. A paid option allows schools to embed the videos on their websites and as a part of classes. The lessons utilize a variety of engaging content and schools can even become digitally certified upon completion of the units. Teaching students digital citizenship skills enhances their character and prepares them to participate ethically in a globally connected world and workforce.
PBIS: Positive Behavior Supports and Interventions
PBIS World is a database full of vast resources to handle tier 1, 2, and 3 behaviors. Every educator should be familiar with and utilize the resources available on this site to support their school and classroom culture, meet students’ needs, and fulfill the interventions required in multi-tiered systems of support. Tom Herner, former NASDE president, makes an excellent and thought-provoking point with this statement, “If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to drive, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we…………teach?………punish? Why can’t we finish the last sentence as automatically as we do the others?” (Counterpoint, 1998, p.2) As we proactively teach character development, negative behaviors will minimize.
Mindshift is another free phenomenal resource every educator should know about and use. Their research is reliable, current, and very relevant. Teachers and school administrators can access trending articles about how learning is affected by technologies, social issues, new discoveries in social and emotional learning, brain-based learning, etc. The site is aptly named Mindshift because it highlights how the practice of education shifts as teachers apply innovative ideas in response to new knowledge and understanding in how students learn. They also offer KQEDTeach which provides lessons and resources for the variety of topics they report on.
Apps: Just Serve and 7 Habits
Two of our favorite apps for developing character are the “7 Habits” app and The “Just Serve” app. They are both free and engage students in living their character. The 7 Habits app provides access to a variety of tools and information based on Stephen Covey’s work The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Included with the app is a daily booster. The 7 Habits encompass all of character education. Students and adults who understand the 7 Habits are living and acting with character.
Just Serve allows an individual or group to find service opportunities in any vicinity they choose. For example, a class, family or individual may be looking for a service opportunity in their community for the weekend. They enter their zip code and all service opportunities available in that vicinity are listed. You may then sign up. Users also may post service opportunities and request help. Service is a mainstay of character. Students who learn this early in life continue to give back as adults.
ClassCraft and Class Dojo: Classroom Management Gamified
Both Classcraft and ClassDojo are tools that teachers may use to monitor and reward classroom behavior. They reinforce the expectations a teacher has established in their classroom. They are also a great communication tool as parents/guardians are able to receive information in real time regarding their child’s behavior. Students are motivated to meet the expectations as they also earn and receive incentives via these tools. They add the element of gaming to the classroom, which is highly motivating.
These tools are free and enhance any classroom management system in an engaging and relevant way. They are also a great way to help students understand and build skills in character.
U.S. Department of Education – Character Education
The U.S. Department of Education is committed to supporting and partnering with schools in character education. The department states that “throughout history, character education has been the shared responsibility of parents, teachers and members of the community, who come together to support positive character development” (“Character Education: Our Shared Responsibility,” 2005). The great thing about character education is that it is for students of all ages. Developing it earlier in life allows one to act with integrity longer and perhaps make better choices while still young, potentially reducing hardships and consequences throughout their lives. However, it’s never too late to grow your character. In fact, we all do, daily.
This site lists multiple resources, from lessons, to interventions, to character building projects, that can help teachers, schools, and districts establish and maintain strong character education programs.
Theory to Practice
Character education and development is a necessary and invaluable component of schooling. It is necessary for preparing students for life. We recommend you complete the theory to practice exercise below before moving onto the next chapter as a starting point for linking theory to practice.
- Why is character education essential for 21st-century learners and educators?
- How do you currently teach and develop character within yourself, classroom, school?
- How can technology be used to deepen the two components of character: core values and performance?
Consider the capacity in which you teach. There are many ways we unintentionally teach and develop character; our examples primarily. Are you intentionally teaching character? If so, how will you deepen this learning and utilize technology to accelerate it? If not, how will you start and what tech tools will you use?
Do you have a role model you look up to? What character attributes do you most admire in this person? Do you possess these same qualities? If so, what other qualities of character would you like to continue to develop or add to your character? If not, how might you use another’s example or your knowledge of character to help you improve your own character?
Think of a person, living or deceased, that embodies the character you hope to achieve. List the 3 qualities you most appreciate about this person’s character. Now, put these qualities in order of greatest importance to least importance. Take these top three qualities you identified to be most important to you and develop intentional instruction, utilizing any of the tools provided in this chapter, to teach students these qualities of character. Share your experience and lesson plans with a colleague as well as via Twitter or another global sharing platform. Once you’ve taught all three qualities, repeat this activity.
* Theory to Practice Exercise Adapted from Hooper and Bernhardt’s T2P framework (2016)