I have just finished a literature review on character education in schools. After thirty pages of writing and references I feel I have barely scratched the surface of this convoluted and controversial subject. Berkowitz describes the world of character education as “mush,” as there are a plethora of competing terms, qualities and voices in this field. In order to organize my thoughts (and paper), I had to simplify my thinking about it and break it down into four categories. These four categories are civic (i.e. democratic values), moral (i.e. what leads to human flourishing), intellectual (i.e. curiosity) and performance (i.e. self-control) characteristics. However, even inside these four categories there are disagreements about the particulars. As I said, it was a difficult slog through pages and pages of literature. What was interesting to me as I continued to negotiate the maze of character education was that although each of these four categories differ in their understanding of what character education is, there was little disagreement in how it should be taught in schools. Teaching students to be good, hard-working, honest citizens can’t be done just by conveying information.
All four categories of character education agreed that in order to teach students good character, the characteristics had to be taught as habits practiced in the classroom and had to be embedded in the curriculum. If you want to teach students how to become good citizens, don’t have a class about civics, rather integrate good civic practices into your language and math classes. If you want to teach students intellectual characteristics such as curiosity, don’t tell them to be curious, rather give space in your science classes for students to explore. If you want to teach your students moral characteristics, practice a restorative justice circle considering the moral implications of choices made in history. If you want to teach your students performance characteristics such as perseverance, give students opportunities to try, try again in art class. As Annas suggests, just like playing the piano, practicing character every day in their everyday learning embeds character in students. John Dewey in Democracy and Education says it this way,
Just because the studies of the curriculum represent standard factors in social life, they are organs of initiation into social values. As mere school studies, their acquisition has only a technical worth. Acquired under conditions where their social significance is realized, they feed moral interest and develop moral insight. (Dewey, 1938)
In our Christian schools we want our students to have the characteristics of kingdom builders. People who will work for God’s glory both now and in the future as they desire the best for others and the world. I believe the same pedagogical ideas can apply to our desire to build up the image of Christ in our students.
If we want our students to have the characteristics listed in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10), it is not enough to have posters on the wall in neon colours suggesting that our students be meek and merciful and to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Nor can the exercise of our faith be merely an intellectual exercise in a Bible class or our devotions. We are a people formed by our habits and our stories. These characteristics of our faith need to be integrated into the pedagogical practices and curriculum of our school year. Our curriculum story can teach who God is and what He desires for our lives; it is a story that can shape our students to be Christ-like images on earth. The practices used in our classroom are practices that, both now and in the future, can have people asking our students “That’s different! Why do you do that?” When we think about shaping our students into kingdom builders, the shaping isn’t done by asking “what is it?” but rather “how is it?” and “why is it important”?
When we shape our curriculum, the how and why of kingdom builders needs to be built in. They can’t be only descriptions of what the kingdom or its builders look like, but rather a practice of how it is done and a reminder of why God’s kingdom should be built. When students are able to practice their part of The Story in the curriculum, they are better able to live out the image of God in their lives. This is the desire of our Christian schools – creating images of God that influence, through their own embedded characteristics, the world around them.
Dewey, J. (1938/2008). Democracy and education. Project Gutenberg. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/852/852-h/852-h.htm.
Berkowitz, M. W. (2021). Primed for character education: Six design principles for school improvement. Routledge.
Annas, J. (2011). Intelligent virtue. Oxford University Press.