We spend most of every school day primarily focused on academics, but the work of promoting good character is for us every bit as important.
We teach ‘character’ at The Learning Project so that children may come to understand in theory and practice life’s guiding virtues. We hope our children will be honest in word and deed, and we expect them to be. We want them to treat everyone with civility and kindness, and we expect that they will. We want them to be respectful and caring members of the community and we expect them to behave accordingly. And we want them to be filled with a desire to serve others and to make the world a better place. “The noblest question in the world,” wrote Ben Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac, “is, ‘What good may I do in it?’” We want our students to continuously ask the same question, and to find answers that are right for them and for others.
Character at The Learning Project is taught with a combination of instruction and example. All of us teach good character to children primarily by modeling it. If we want our children to be kind and respectful, we must show them what that looks like in our everyday interaction. If we want them to be trustworthy and truthful, they must see those virtues practiced by their parents and teachers.
In addition to modeling ethical behavior, we also teach virtue by taking advantage of the many ethical occasions that arise in the course of a school day. These ‘teachable moments’ often provide rich opportunities to talk with children about the moral dimensions embedded within their daily lives, to ask them questions about ‘right and wrong,’ to inquire about what virtues are in play and to ask how those virtues might guide their decisions and future choices. “It is not our abilities,” Dumbledore said, “that show what we truly are. It is our choices.” So, we talk with our students frequently about the power they hold in their own hands to make choices—for good or ill.
We also teach ethics using direct instruction, and during the course of each school year, six or seven virtues will be formally studied. To make abstract ideas like ‘justice’ or ‘gratitude’ or ’empathy’ more concrete for our children we draw on a variety of resources such as literature (mostly folktales, fairytales, fables, and poems); accounts from history; films; and sometimes on activities.
Recently highlighted virtues included: responsibility, respect, goodness, courage, hope, forgiveness, gratitude, open-mindedness and fairness. As each virtue is brought into focus for a four to six week period, it becomes the topic for the Monday Morning Assembly talk and the topic of several planned discussions in each classroom. Parents are notified of the current virtue, as well, so they might reinforce the concept at home.
After the story or formal talk is finished, are the virtues forgotten? This is hard to know. Surely our children, like their teachers and parents, have occasional lapses in being their best selves. But over the years, as we have studied and re-studied the core virtues, we have found that the concepts and the words are more frequently part of the conversational vocabulary of the school and, far more importantly, that the virtues have become deeply embedded in the school’s ethos and culture. We believe we are making a difference.
It is the case, afterall, that children learn what they are directly or indirectly taught. If we wish for them to become adults of virtue who lead moral lives by making morally sound choices, then we must teach them what virtue and moral decision-making look like in the lives they are living presently, and in the lives they imagine living later. This is why character education is considered so important at The Learning Project.