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Character development: Integrating ethical understanding, care, and action
The theories described so far all offer frameworks for understanding how children grow into youth and adults. Those by Maslow, Kohlberg, and Gilligan are more specific than the one by Erikson in that they focus on the development of understanding about ethics.
From a teacher's point of view, though, the theories are all limited in two ways. One problem is that they focus primarily on cognition—on what children think about ethical issues— more than on emotions and actions. The other is that they say little about how to encourage ethical development. Encouragement is part of teachers' jobs, and doing it well requires understanding not only what students know about ethics, but also how they feel about it and what ethical actions they are actually prepared to take.
Many educators have recognised these educational needs, and a number of them have therefore developed practical programs that integrate ethical understanding, care, and action. As a group the programs are often called character education, though individual programs have a variety of specific names (for example, moral dilemma education, integrative ethical education, social competence education, and many more).
Details of the programs vary, but they all combine a focus on ethical knowledge with attention to ethical feelings and actions (Elkind & Sweet, 2004; Berkowitz & Bier, 2006; Narvaez, 2010).
Character education programs goes well beyond just teaching students to obey ethical rules, such as “Always tell the whole truth” or “Always do what the teacher tells you to do.” Such rules require very little thinking on the part of the student, and there are usually occasions in which a rule that is supposedly universal needs to be modified, or disobeyed, e.g. if telling the whole truth might hurt someone's feelings, it might sometimes be more considerate, and therefore more ethical, to soften the truth a bit, or even to say nothing at all.
Instead, character education is about inviting students to think about the broad questions of his or her life, such as:
• What kind of person should I be?
• How should I live my life?
Thoughtful answers to such broad questions help to answer a host of more specific questions that have ethical implications, such as:
• Should I listen to the teacher right now, even if she is a bit boring, or just tune out?
• Should I offer to help my friend with the homework she is struggling with, or hold back so that learns to do it herself?
Most of the time, there is not enough time to reason about questions like these deliberately or consciously. Responses have to become intuitive, automatic, and embodied—meaning that they have to be based in fairly immediate emotional responses (Narvaez, 2009).
The goal of character education is to develop students' capacities to respond to daily ethical choices not only consciously and cognitively, but also intuitively and emotionally. To the extent that this goal is met, students can indeed live a good, ethically responsible life.
School wide programs of character education
In the most comprehensive approaches to character education, an entire school commits itself to developing students' ethical character, despite the immense diversity among students (Minow, Schweder, & Markus, 2008). All members of the staff—not just teachers and administrators, but also custodians, and educational assistants—focus on developing positive relationships with students.
The underlying theme that develops is one of cooperation and mutual care, not competition. Fairness, respect and honesty pervade class and school activities; discipline, for example, focuses on solving conflicts between students and between students and teachers, rather than on rewarding obedience or punishing wrong-doers. The approach requires significant reliance on democratic meetings and discussions, both in classrooms and wherever else groups work together in school.
Classroom programs of character education
Even if a teacher is teaching character education simply within her own classroom, there are many strategies available. The goal in this case is to establish the classroom as a place where everyone feels included, and where everyone treats everyone else with civility and respect. Conflicts and disagreements may still occur, but in a caring community they can be resolved without undue anger or hostility.
Here are a few strategies towards this sort of classroom:
1. Use class meetings to decide on as many important matters as possible—such as the expected rules of behaviour, important classroom activities, or ongoing disagreements.
2. Try arranging for students to collaborate on significant projects and tasks.
3. Arrange a “Buddies” program in which students of different grade levels work together on a significant task.
4. Older students can sometimes assist younger students by reading to them, by listening to them read, or both. If an older student is having trouble with reading himself or herself, furthermore, a reading buddies program can sometimes also be helpful to the older student.
5. Familiarise students with conflict resolution strategies, and practice using them when needed.
6. Many areas of curriculum lend themselves to discussions about ethical issues. Obvious examples are certain novels, short stories, and historical events. But ethical issues lurk elsewhere as well. Teaching nutrition, for example, can raise issues about the humane treatment of animals that will be slaughtered for food, and about the ethical acceptability of using large amount of grains to feed animals even though many people in the world do not have enough to eat.
7. Service learning projects can be very helpful in highlighting issues of social justice. Planning, working at and reflecting about a local soup kitchen, tutoring students from low-income families, performing simple repairs on homes in need: projects like these broaden knowledge of society and of the needs of its citizens.
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