When it comes to effective character and values education, Professor Marvin W. Berkowitz asks educators to think of the Head, Heart and Hands. This article is based on his keynote speech “Understanding What Really Fosters Character and Values” at the Teachers’ Conference 2014.
What Is Character?
Character is more than values. You can have the right values but don’t have the right skill set to act on them, the courage to act on those values, or the moral reasoning capacity to adjudicate between two values that come into conflict with each other. Having a set of values is good, but it’s not enough. You need so much more.
You have the values but you also need the cognitive understanding and the critical thinking capacity to reason about social and moral issues. You also need the motivation to care about them, and the skills set to enact them. All in all, you need the Head, the Heart and the Hands: to understand, to care about and to act effectively.
The Head has two parts. One is knowledge about character and values. Students don’t necessarily know what’s right or wrong, what’s civil and polite. So we want to help them learn it.
That’s traditional education. But this isn’t the challenging part. What’s challenging is getting the permission to include character-building in what you teach. Fortunately in Singapore, you have that permission.
Some feel the pressure that there is no time to do character education even though they value it because time has to be allotted first to the content. It’s true in many places in the world. But if you invest effectively in character education, you will find you will have more time for content and instruction.
And you will get through your curriculum more efficiently and effectively if you take the time to focus on building relationships, classroom culture and expectations, norms and routines. Taking time out of academics will help you be a better academic instructor and your students will learn.
The other part is critical thinking. We cannot teach students every single value and moral fact that they might need to know. The world changes so they have to be able to think for themselves. I think that every human being needs to be a “moral philosopher”, every one of your students included, even the 3- or 4-year-olds!
We need to nurture critical thinking not just in academic areas, but also in character and values education. And that’s a different pedagogy than transmitting knowledge and we have to build it explicitly into our lessons, both in plans and spontaneous moments.
We need kids not to just tell us what the core values are, but also to really care about them. Teaching to the heart is very different than teaching to the head. It’s not the same method.
You teach to the heart from who you are and from what you do, not from what you say. Kids need to emotionally bond with their teachers, classes and schools – all these need to embody the values that children can internalize. You need to care. That’s a different pedagogy.
But even caring is not enough. You may know something’s right, you may authentically care about it, but you may have no clue how to do it. Kids don’t necessarily come to school knowing how to disagree respectfully. They don’t necessarily know how to manage their anger either. They know it’s wrong and don’t want to do it but they don’t know how to control their anger.
So we need to teach them the skills of how to be a competent social being; how to function as a member of a caring community. And that’s another pedagogy. We teach children the skills how to do an equation in a molecular fashion, and we have to do the same thing with the skills of character.
We need to teach them the skills of how to be a competent social being; how to function as a member of a caring community
– Professor Marvin W. Berkowitz, University of Missouri-St. Louis
What Is Character Education?
It’s very different for me. It’s not old-fashioned stuff; it’s something new. It’s a way of being. How do you “be” with others, can you “be” with others in a caring, just way, can you transform the way you “be”?
As educators, that’s where the transformation comes. The key point is that you have no choice. Aristotle told us 2 millennia ago that there is no “off” switch. If you are around children, you are impacting their values and character all the time. You’re in this profession so you’re doing it. In character education, we just want you to do it systematically, intentionally and effectively.
It is rocket science; it’s not easy. It takes learning and struggling. It takes learning communities and adults to understand the nuances, the pitfalls, the good practices, techniques, and somewhere along the line understand the theory and research that tell us things that could be counter-intuitive.
If you want different results, you need to change the design of classroom and school. Redesigning starts in your mirror. You have to look into the mirror and ask, “How can I be different as an educator and get closer to the results that I want?”