Character education not just about ethics,but also about good performance in school

When asked if she was a “character educator,” one science teacher, not having the time to discuss ethics in her classroom, replied “I teach chemistry; I don’t teach character.”

However, as soon as she was asked if she talked with her students about academic responsibility– doing homework, getting assignments after being absent, keeping organized–she readily agreed that she did spend time talking to her students about responsible behaviors, write Matthew Davidson and Thomas Lickona in a recent article on character education in Independent School.

“When you get to this point in the discussion, a light bulb goes on,” write the researchers. “Practitioners say, ‘If this is what you mean by character education, then, yes, I’m a character educator. In fact, I spend much of my time and energy trying to get these outcomes, because without these qualities of character, students are not likely to succeed in my class.'”

A paradigm shift is needed in the way educators think about character and character education, the authors write. Character really has two essential parts, they write: performance character and moral character.

Character is not just about doing the right thing in an ethical sense, they explain. It’s also about doing one’s best work. A person educated in morals who is a poor performer is at least as detrimental to society as a high performer who has no morals. “Who wants an honest but incompetent doctor, lawyer or mechanic?” they ask.

Redefining character in this way, as having both a performance and ethical component, helps all educators, especially secondary teachers, see character education as central to their daily work, the authors write.

After assembling a database of 1,400 books, articles and reports on high school reform and adolescent character development and conducting site visits to 24 award-winning high schools, the authors two years ago published a report, Smart & Good High Schools: Integrating Excellence and Ethics for Success in Schools, Work and Beyond, which describes promising practices for building eight qualities of character.

Few schools focus on both aspects

Few high schools focus on dual character development, the researchers say. High-performing schools may be doing the job academically, but not on the moral front. At one high-performing school, for example, one faculty member said littering was an issue. When students arrived in the morning, the school was spotless; when they left at the end of the day, the school was trashed, the authors said.

But even at high-performing schools, there may still be many performance issues. Many students may not working to their full potential or are focused only on individual achievement and not bringing out the best performance in everyone, the authors write. Cheating is also an epidemic at even the best schools.

Principals and superintendents are familiar with two common kinds of problems with teachers, the authors note. “One is the teacher who has high moral character (gets to know every student individually, treats all with kindness and respect) but does not simultaneously demonstrate high performance character (e.g., doesn’t teach the content well or challenge students to develop their talents),” write the authors. “Other teachers have the opposite problem: they have high performance character (know their content well and challenge students) but demonstrate poor moral character (e.g., they insult and embarrass students, sometimes justifying such behavior as a means of motivating them).”

When students are asked if teachers care about them, previous research has found that students identify two behavior patterns: The teacher stays on task and makes class interesting and the teacher is respectful and fair, the authors say. The teacher, in short, displays both performance character and moral character.

“Smart & Good: Integrating Performance Character and Moral Character in Schools” by Matthew Davidson and Thomas Lickona. Independent School, Winter 2007, Volume 66, Number 2, pp. 24-28, 30.

Published in ERN November 2007 Volume 20, Number 8

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