By Garth Sundem, author of Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Character
In a 1978 episode of the Muppet Show, Sam the Eagle says to rock star Alice Cooper, “Let me come right to the point. You, sir, are a demented, sick, degenerate, barbaric, naughty freako!” For educators of a certain vintage, this was our first experience with character education. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Cooper says, “Why, thank you!” and poor Sam the Eagle chalks up one point for freakos and zero for civilization. Since lecturing students about their character flaws does about as much to instill grit, kindness, creativity, humility, persistence, and courage as a moralizing puppet’s attempts to reform Alice Cooper do, the question is, what does work?
One good source for answers is a report titled “What Works in Character Education” by Marvin W. Berkowitz, a Sanford N. McDonnell Endowed Professor in Character Education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis College of Education, and Melinda C. Bier. It is a summary of research-based character education programs.
“Character education is not optional in school—it is inevitable,” Berkowitz and Bier write. According to their research, here are five characteristics of successful character education programs:
1. Family and/or Community Involvement
In some successful character education programs, parents, families, and community members are “consumers” of the program themselves—they learn about character along with students. In other programs, family and community are partners in character education, working with schools and teachers to implement and deliver a character education program. No matter the mechanics of exactly how parents and the community are involved in a school’s character education program, this involvement is an important feature of a program’s success.
2. Explicit Agenda
Character education takes place in the background of everything you do every minute of every day in your classroom. The extent of this background learning depends on the unmeasurable, and sometimes ephemeral, sum of how you interact with your students and how you shape your students’ actions and attitudes in your classroom. However, Berkowitz and Bier find that programs designed to specifically improve character do best when time is set aside for character education. When you’re teaching character, tell your students that you are teaching character. In addition to the implicit learning of your classroom environment, when it’s time for character education, make the learning explicit.
3. Integration into the Academic Curriculum
On the surface, this seems to contradict the previous point: How can you set aside time for character education while making it part of the curriculum? What Berkowitz and Bier mean by this is that character education shouldn’t be a modular tack-on to the “more important” work of content-area education. Integrating character education into the academic curriculum means recognizing it as a tool to “promote academic learning and achievement.”
4. Professional Development
Teachers have hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of training in the best ways to help kids understand and become skilled in content areas like language arts, science, and math. The idea that we are qualified to teach character education because our own lives have (supposedly) turned out okay seems a little thin. Instead, effective character education programs invest in their teachers’ skills. Whatever character education program your school uses, Berkowitz and Bier show that it is most effective when teachers are trained to use it.
5. Providing Models and Mentors
“Many programs incorporate peer and adult role models (both live and literature based) and mentors to foster character development,” Berkowitz and Bier write. Every good writing class teaches the lesson “show, don’t tell,” meaning that a reader can best understand a fictional character through the character’s thoughts, words, and actions rather than through the writer’s blunt statements about the character. Berkowitz and Bier show that it’s the same with character education—like Sam the Eagle, we can tell our students all about character, but being inspired by the presence of character in action goes about a light-year further toward affecting students’ expressions of character after the bell rings.
Berkowitz and Bier show that character education, when done right, works, leading to long-lasting effects on the “head” (knowledge, thinking), “heart” (emotions, motivation), and “hand” (behavior, skills). Evidence also shows how to do it right . . . and, by extension, how to do it wrong. Using these guidelines can help students not only know character, but also feel it in a way that will help them carry character outside the classroom and into the hallways and homes where life happens.
Garth Sundem is a TED-Ed speaker and former contributor to the Science Channel. He blogs at GeekDad and PsychologyToday.com. He has been published in Scientific American, Huffington Post Science, Fast Company, Men’s Health, Esquire, The New York Times, Congressional Quarterly, and Publishers Weekly. Garth grew up on Bainbridge Island, Washington, and currently lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife, two kids, and a pack of Labradors.
Free Spirit books by Garth Sundem:
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