Sunday, August 5, 2007

Character Development in the 21st Century: Part I

Over one hundred years ago in her book, Education, Ellen White wrote: "Character building is the most important work ever entrusted to human beings; and never before was its diligent study so important as now. Never was any previous generation called to meet issues so momentous; never before were young men and young women confronted by perils so great as confront them today" (1903, p. 225).

If character building was important at the turn of the 20th Century, it is a hundredfold more important now.

Character education programs have come and gone, and many, though well received, seem to have little impact. After researching some Atlanta area schools, Bulach (2002) made this recommendation: "An effective character education program involves the entire faculty, staff, parents, and community. Cooks, custodians, and bus drivers, as well as the teachers, parents, and community must be involved if student behaviors are to be positively affected. The current practice of designating a character trait of the week or the month is not working because a word such as 'respect' has a different meaning for each person. The student receives mixed messages about the trait. The second problem is that many school systems teach all of the mandated character traits each year. If a system has twenty-five traits to cover and they are repeated each year, students will say, “We did that last year.” They become bored with it and do not take it seriously. Consequently, there is very little change in the behavior of students, and most character education programs, although they may be meeting state mandates, are ineffective and take time away from the regular instructional program" (p. 82).

Bulach adds that another part of the reason for failure is that the character curriculum is time limited and not infused throughout the day. In addition to that, it is administratively mandated and the teachers are the only ones accountable to teach it. Bulach says these three things (not including the whole staff, time limited, and only teachers accountable) ensures that character education fails.

However, Bulach points out a program that has been and still is working quite well. It is not only cognitively taught, but also is behaviorally based and infused throughout the curriculum. Everyone in the program is accountable to each other, so if there is any misbehavior, even the youngest can report it. It is the JROTC program. Bulach was not promoting the JROTC, and I am not either. What Bulach was pointing out was that a behavior based program that includes everybody in the school, will most likely work. I concur.

Recently, I read a book by Nel Noddings. She is essentially saying the same thing as Bulach: Character Education has to be infused throughout the system to have real and lasting impact on the students. The fundamental character trait she advocates is caring. “I want to suggest,” she says, “that caring is the very bedrock of all successful education” (2005, p. 27). Again, I concur.

For the good of our students, schools, community, and society as a whole, let us dedicate ourselves to that most important work: character building.


Bulach, C. (2002). Implementing a character education curriculum and assessing its impact on student behavior. Clearing House, 76(2), 79-83.

Noddings, N. (2005). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

White, E. (1903). Education. Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press.


catherine said...

Hello Jamie,
I could not agree with you further more that "character building" involve parents, family, teachers, school and community's common effort. Especially young children, they start to explore this world and learn any new things by imitating from surrounding people and environment. What kind model we make that decide what kind character the young child will own in the future. Young child just like a piece of white paper, what color you paint on it, s/he will carry it around. By recognizing this part, we can consciously create a good environment and make good models for young children to build their character.


Mike said...

Just to add to Aizhi comment, we need to remember that old addage: "it takes a village to raise a child." Too many times have I seen the flag of character development being raised, and too many times I've seen it fall in tatters because something was missing. We have to remind our schools that we need the entire community (parents included) to send a unified message to the children. Otherwise, the message of character building is lost on the students in a hailstorm of conflicting ideologies.

Angela Nicholson said...

Character development is probably our best hope for establishing successful schools. As always, education begins with the individual. A community of committed learners will benefit everyone. Character development can and does need to begin in the earliest years. When teachers, parents and administrators are dedicated to supporting children at this level success is assured. When a well designed and implemented curriculum is agreed upon and established, our children, our schools and ultimately our world will benefit. I have worked with a very successful system that has changed the lives of students. I am thrilled that character development is back in the schools. It has been the missing link for years!

cbulach said...

I read you article on character. I have a book coming out on how to create a high performing school. You can order it from amazon or one of the other on line companies. Chapter 5 describes how to implement a character ed program that involves the parents and the community.