4.3

CHARACTER EDUCATION

In the previous chapter we looked at the theory of emotional intelligence and heard from one of the key voices and writers on this topic, Daniel Goleman.  In the video interview he said:

“I think everyone should care about this (social and emotional learning) – not just people who are parents. So, its not just, ‘I want this for my kid;’ I want this for my community because I want to be safe walking down the streets. I want my friends and neighbors to be safe. One of the strongest effects of this is that it heads off criminal careers. It helps kids who might otherwise go down the wrong alley be able to manage their impulse, manage their anger, tune in to other people, and get along better. And I think it just makes the world a better place for all of us” (Edutopia.org interview).

First, there are implicit assumptions in this statement about the nature of human beings and how our paths in life are biologically wired or determined given how the brain is developed through education and surrounding structures.  Second, when Goleman talks about how social and emotional learning “changes the brain” and can impact how we exist in this world and relate to others, he is essentially talking about what’s been referred to as “character education” – another key term used by schools across the country.

These assumptions and terms can raise healthy debates about human nature and the kinds of values and characteristics that should be a part of “character education.”  In other words, are we born wired to be violent and hence social and emotional learning is a way to alter those natural impulses? What values and characteristics do schools want to encourage their students to develop and practice? How educators answer these questions will determine how character education programs and initiatives are actually implemented.

Read the article, How Not to Teach Values: A Critical Look at Character Education by educational theorist and scholar, Alfie Kohn. In it he explores some of the debates and disagreements mentioned above. In addition, he argues that what is called “character education” in schools can oftentimes be implemented in damaging ways that run counter to the actual goal of helping kids become “good people.”

“Unhappily, the problems with character education (in the narrow sense, which is how I’ll be using the term unless otherwise indicated) are not restricted to such strategies as enforcing sartorial uniformity, scheduling a value of the week, or offering students a “doggie biscuit” for being good. More deeply troubling are the fundamental assumptions, both explicit and implicit, that inform character education programs. Let us consider five basic questions that might be asked of any such program: At what level are problems addressed? What is the underlying theory of human nature? What is the ultimate goal? Which values are promoted? And finally, How is learning thought to take place?” (Khon)

Reflection Question: How can you as an educator teach and promote values without implementing a specific “character education” program? Provide one specific value (Kohn mentions several in his essay, some which he sees as beneficial and others not) and one specific example of a pedagogical decision you would make to promote, teach, or model that value.

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13 thoughts on “4.3

  1. I think every day life is the best character education program there could be.  By examining disagreements in the classroom, for instance, a discussion could begin about a character trait.  The trait that really caught my attention was skepticism.  By teaching young people to formulate their own opinions, to question the world and rules around them, to question authority (respectfully, of course) will ultimate make them better citizens.  They will learn to be more concerned about what happens around them and potentially to take responsibiltiy for something that they deem important.  To explore this value, I would have the class look at a claim made by an advertisment.  Many discussions could sprout from this including a dialog about marketing and the ethicality of it, a claim that seems too good to be true and having the students follow up with research on the claim, etc.  The important thing though would be to empansize that it’s ok to question something that most people take as a truth and examine it further.

  2. Before answering the question, I would like to present an opposing opinion on character education. The indoctrination assertions are rampant through the essay. However, as teachers tend to be from the a similar geographic area of a student and are immersed with the values and culture of the youth, is character education truly brainwashing or preparing and individual to thrive in their community. Logically, parents would raise their voices if they believe their child was being taught immoral values.

    Nevertheless, the most problematic aspect of his argument is the fact that is attacking the wrong issue. His entire argument is not mutually exclusive to character education, rather it is a critique of moral regulation and the ideology of an absolute truth in general. Henceforth, I believe the entire paradigm of how we teach school would need to be altered.

    Outside of this, I believe I could teach respect by having students discuss current issues or everday situation and evaluate how they would address or deal with the situation.

  3. I think autonomy is a value that does not often get talked about in the classroom, or it often gets confused with “responsibility.” I think to take responsibility implies undertaking an action because you owe it to someone or the community, whereas autonomy is more about taking responsibility for the betterment of yourself. With middle school and high schoolers, I think teaching autonomy is really important because at that age, they need to be empowered to figure out who they are and what direction they want their life to go in.

    To help students be autonomous, I would try to get them to contribute their own ideas to the curriculum and assessment, so long as they were pushing themselves to their potential. I could see this playing out in a few different scenarios. For example, if a student does something worthy of punishment, I would have the student assist in making a strategy to learn from the mistake, and figuring out ways that he/she can hold him/herself accountable to the strategy. I think it is also important to have student input on what you teach. For my own content area, English, I might allow students to pick their own vocabulary words from an SAT prep book to be tested on. That way, they feel like they are preparing themselves for college, rather than learning a few words I give them for the test.

  4. One important value that I think is important to discuss and reflect upon is SKEPTICISM. Critical thinking is a key component of learning and digging deeper into course curriculum, and you cannot fully understand an issue without discussing the pros, cons, critiques and various arguments that surround the issue. Students should not agree, support, or believe one piece of information that is given to them. They should (in my opinion) make inferences on their own, question different points of view and the source it’s being taken from.

    I like how Adam encourages his students to defend their opinions and back themselves up. Another way that skepticism can be put into practice in the classroom is by using different texts. Primary sources, secondary sources, conservative and liberal texts. I can remember my US History teacher used Howard Zinn’s A People’s History… as well as a more traditional textbook. We used information from both texts and it created discussions that would not have happened otherwise.

  5. I thought that when Kohn said, “Whether or not we deliberately adopt a character or moral education program, we are always teaching values” was spot-on. I’ve so many times seen adults yelling at children about being respectful and I think sometimes we don’t realize how contradictory what we are saying and doing can be. I’m fortunate in that our school has a leader that genuinely respects the children – they perceive this as he is greeting them in the morning and speaking with them throughout the day. We have many teachers in the building who take that same approach and these tend to be the classrooms that have fewer disputes that escalate and the students are generally more calm. I do think that “respect” is a value that can be a “slippery term” as Kohn said, but it definitely does not have to be and I also believe it’s necessary for people to really understand what that means. I teach that value in my class by modeling it myself.

    Pedagogically, I’ve tried different things, but I like to get the students to do as much of the teaching as possible. During our advisory, I’ve had them create skits about situations where people have acted disrespectfully or respectfully and then lead a discussion with the group about their skit.

  6. Personally, as an educator I would never cease to try and keep an open mind; meaning, always be willing to be introspective and to change my mind. I think it can be dangerous to assume that once our own formal education is over, the ideas we’ve formed about values are set in stone. Facilitators can also encourage their colleagues to challenge themselves similarly, too.

    The value that I find most interesting and potentially problematic is “citizenship.” It’s a concept that isn’t introduced in American schools until middle or high school, when lessons about the role of government and the meaning of democracy begin. By that point, students may already have basic political biases formed (thanks to parents, friends, the media, etc), and so their concept of and how they might value citizenship is already conflicted. Citizenship is never presented as a choice, and the idea of nationalism follows that closely. Students in France, by comparison, go to school specifically to become citizens (or not — the idea and practice of anarchy is much more developed and realistic there). Education is the key to active citizenship in their republican system. The French have their own problems, but this process with its clear expectation for and development of active citizens results in a population that is much better-education and engaged than our own.

  7. Kohn talks about alternatives to students raising their hands in order to maintain a controlled conversation. He argues that there might be room for students to develop their own methods of learning the importance of taking turns and sharing time. While Kohn does not hit on the ever so important “form a line” part of every school kid’s learning, I think that his approach to raising hands could apply as to line formation. Whether it’s getting students in from recess or getting them to patiently wait for snacks, the line seems to be an important part of American education and American society. However, I agree with Kohn that just by instructing the students to form a line may not be entirely beneficial, help students to understand the importance of waiting their turn, and line formation might not actually be the best practice in general for classroom or group order.

    I might first let all my students practice a “free for all” technique the first day of class everything for coming in from recess, snack time, games, etc. I think that before teaching children the importance of forming lines or waiting their turn, it might be important to let them experience the difficulties of impatience and battling peers for time, space, and resources. Then I might break the class into small groups and have them strategize how they might maintain class order. Each group would be in charge of teaching and sharing their strategy with the class and each group would have one day where the whole class would have to practice their strategy.

  8. As an educator, I can teach and promote values without implementing a specific “character education ” program by (a) personal empathy – opening up and sharing stories of my own struggles, choices, mistakes, and eventual path; and (b) mainstreaming the values into the normal curriculum e.g. Literature, history, civics etc. two specific set of values which I would seek to share as complementary have to do with empathy and skepticism and autonomy and self determination. The pedagogical decision I would promote to teach or model these values would be the perspective taking approach. This fits well with my predisposition away from the banking model of instruction to the more problem-posing or liberation praxis approach.

  9. I really like the concept of ‘perspective taking’ that Kohn suggests. We can foster this through such activities as role-playing, writing from certain perspectives or debating ideas. It is a great way to build compassion and understanding of different points of view starting with taking perspectives of people far removed from us (such as people- single or collectively- in history) and apply those same concepts to people we encounter in our own lives. These kinds of activities don’t necessarily need to have a ‘right or wrong’ answer, but can allow students for more critical thinking by giving them an avenue from which to consider all sides.

  10. One of the values I have always tried to implement is skepticism. I’ve done this by questioning everything with students and refusing to accept their opinions until they have fully defended them. Now, this doesn’t work as well with students who love to argue just to be arguing, but it has worked especially well with students who have never been forced to address the origins of their own opinions. A common phrase in my class is “I don’t care what opinion you have as long as you support it.”

    As far as implementing this, I actually had a lesson plan today where students were given 25 statements they had to ponder. Based on these answers they identified as either liberal or conservative. We had a brief discussion of what these terms meant and then revealed to the students which political party each went with. A student, who has threatened to drop my class if she finds out I’m not a Democrat, identified as about 70% conservative before proceeding to redo her answers so her results would make her more liberal.

    Getting students to think about why they hold their opinions is essential to a successful class and they can only do this with a healthy dose of skepticism.

  11. As an educator, I think it is most important to consider the environment of the school and the atmosphere of the classroom when you are teaching and promoting values. By modeling the values you wish to teach, you have already proven their success, and don’t need to provide students with rewards for them to see the benefits of the cliché values like respect, honesty, responsibility, etc. By eliminating superficial rewards, an educator bypasses the extrinsic motivation factor, and leaves intrinsic means as the sole motivator. By modeling values, a teacher demonstrates the necessity and expectation of appropriate behavior, and does not suggest that “doing good” deserves a gold star and a trophy.

    One value Kohn mentioned that resonated with me was emphasizing the cultivation of autonomy. I have always been a proponent of giving students independence and the opportunity to self-govern. Pedagogically, I would instill this value by allowing the students to make decisions about their learning and how they want to build a community in their classroom. With older students I would allow them to contribute to the syllabus, set their rules, and have influence deciding when assignments are due. In my experience, when students are allowed ownership over their education, it suddenly seems a little more valuable.

  12. Daniel Knoll – I think that on some level, the purpose of this course is to learn how to create a classroom that promotes the development of community and individual maturity without implementing a “character education” program. By creating classroom centered around community building through peaceful means, we are learning to create a classroom where the values Kohn highlights are common but not indoctrined into students. The value that stands out to me that is the basis of both a peaceful classroom and a students character is empathy. By creating lesson plans that encourage students to assume a different role or provide readings from various perspectives teachers create opportunities for increased understanding.

    I also think Sarah touched on an essential part of empathy in her reflection assignments for her students. By asking students to put pen to paper to describe their feelings, students build a better appreciation for their perspective, and can then share that perspective with others, building that community of learners. One thing that Kohn mentions repeatedly is that teachers often search for the “right” answer for a certain value. By focusing on personal reflection and sharing, you can start to avoid keeping “score” in the classroom.

  13. Although Kohn deems teaching “respect” to be a slippery value, I still think it is the foundation of so much character development to render it essential. The idea of what is considered respectful does change between cultures, and I’ve always found this fascinating. I think it opens us up to a learning opportunity, forcing us to ascertain the values of another community in order to know how to best respect them. I have these conversations all day long.

    “Please sit up when I’m teaching.”
    “Why? I can hear you. I’m not bothering you.”
    “It sends a message that you don’t care what I’m saying, and this is disrespectful.”

    and so on, so forth.

    These exhortative lessons only go so far. I prefer to use the pedagogical device of a reflection to try and burrow down to the root of the issue. In other words, when there is a pattern of disrespectful behavior exhibited by a student, I ask them to write an explanation of how he/she sees the situation. Sometimes this work, sometimes it doesn’t. But when it works, I usually discover that the student wasn’t intentionally trying to be “disrespectful.” There was a logical reason for why the student felt it necessary to behave this way. Once this is unearthed, we can learn each other’s code. I can reveal to them why I’m so keen to have them comply, and they can reveal to me why this doesn’t always work for them – no harm intended.

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