Developing Character in the Classroom

Character can be defined as an amalgam of traits or dispositions embodied in behaviors and actions. A virtue is a positive character trait or disposition that tends to make its possessor a good human being. Virtues involve aspects of how we perceive, respond to, and interact with our social environment. Those aspects include our emotions, choices, values, desires, attitudes, interests, expectations and sensibilities.

According to virtue theory, virtues can be habituated through practice. We become generous, for example, by responding and acting in a generous way. We develop the virtue of courage by acting, even in small ways, courageously. Honesty comes by telling the truth.

I have been developing a character curriculum. The learning objective is for students to, by taking the opportunity to explore their own values, intentionally develop their character. The ultimate learning objective is for each student to become the kind of person they want to be—to actualize their ideal self. The curriculum gives the student the opportunity to consider and practice virtues through a set of assignments that prompt self-exploration. The objective of these anonymously submitted and reviewed assignments is learning about their own sense of self and to stimulate wisdom. My working hypothesis is that when a student develops self-awareness through attending to and practicing their personal virtues, it will help guide both their personal and business conduct.

As I began the project I was overwhelmed by the many, varied lists of human virtues. Initially students considered ten virtues in a semester.  I quickly found that this was too much. I scaled it back starting with Aristotle’s four cardinal virtues—justice, courage, wisdom and temperance—and then I added a fifth virtue, gratitude. The assignments are simple writing prompts. Each of the five virtues is explored throughout the semester. The assignments are ungraded and anonymous. Because of this students can be honest and candid which is imperative for the integrity of the exercise. Although the responses are not graded, I have found reading them to be uplifting. The honesty and self-searching in their writings has given me hope and confidence in my students.

Developing one’s character and as well astheir ethics, moral standards, and values is a personal and intimate undertaking. My experience is that it can be worked on through personal reflection in an educational setting. A common objection to incorporating ethics into a course is time limitations—there is so much material to “cover”. Another objection is a lack of consensus on what constitutes ethical behavior. I have found, however, that if one gives students the opportunity to explore their own moral compass, anonymously and without the pressure of grades or moral conformity, that the outcome is surprisingly meaningful and worthwhile for them and for me as their teacher. It is a way of inviting students into discovering who they are, how they want to live, and how to begin to think about their lives.

A character curriculum works well to support the Eight Key Questions ethical reasoning strategy. The “character question” in the ethical reasoning method is often difficult for students. They may not have thought much or deeply about their own character, their own vision for their ideal self. A semester long emphasis on character provides the stimulus and space needed to reflect deeply on an important consideration in making decisions. What action helps me (us) become my (our) ideal?

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