How effective is character education in international schools?

I’m currently developing a course for students in international schools which focuses on “Ethical Global Citizenship.” In doing so I have been reflecting on the nature and purpose of Character Education courses that are offered in many schools in the international sector. I am of the mind that Character Education is a valuable part of the curriculum, but I am also conscious of the fact that in some schools the subject is not planned or delivered effectively.

When planned and implemented well, Character Education adds tremendous value to the curriculum. An effective Character Education program exposes students to diverse perspectives and cultural traditions, and can help young people develop empathy and a deeper understanding of different ways of life. Moreover, by through a study of the core values such as honesty, respect and responsibility students can be aided in developing their strength of character, and when Character Education is integrated into the curriculum it can make these core values relevant to the daily lives of students.

At the same time, it does worry me that too many Character Education programs focus on a celebratory look at core values, without necessarily exploring the values in any depth, and moreover it does seem that sometimes the values studied in a Character Education course are randomly picked out of a hat. To my mind, the core values that a school embraces should be rooted in the vision and purpose of the school or the wider society. In the European and North American context, the core values might be derived from Virtue Ethics and the works of Aristotle. Studying a set of values that are rooted in philosophical history gives a richer and deeper meaning to a course in Character Education. Aristotle’s moral virtues may not all be directly relevant to the context of modern life, but if one also considers the works of more modern virtue ethicists then it is possible to develop a set of virtues that are relevant to the modern world whilst being rooted in Aristotelian philosophy. One of the beauties of the Aristotelian approach is that it also encourages students to consider the dangers of an “excess” or “deficiency” of a virtue, and this can make the planning of a Character Education course far more meaningful and intellectual stimulating for the intended audience.

Of course, the deeper into philosophy one goes in developing a Character Education course, then the more challenging it can become to deliver the course in a school. Not all teachers would feel equipped to teach a course in what essentially becomes virtue ethics, when previously all they have been expected to do is get their students to make posters about how important it is to be honest or respectful! I say this a little flippantly, but my scepticism is born out of experience. As a solution, it might be pertinent for schools to employ or train teachers to be specialists in Character Education, as we routinely expect to be the case with every other subject, rather than rely on form teachers to deliver a course consisting of material with which they are not expert. Schools and groups of schools who genuinely wish to develop character in a meaningful way, rather than just be seen to be “doing character” perhaps need to consider these issues and seek to formalise their approach to the teaching a Character Education. Similarly, by delivering Character Education through a team of experts, schools can then draw upon their expertise in developing resources, and thus integrate an agreed set of values into the school culture.

The old adage “character is caught, not taught” certainly isn’t negated by this approach. Even if the subject is delivered by experts, it is still the role of every member of the school community to live and exemplify the values of the school community. Essentially, every adult in a school is a role model for the students. This applies to non-teaching staff as much as teachers. The best planned Character Education program, delivered by experts in the filed is easily undermined if not all member of staff is prepared to “walk the talk.”

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