Character Education as part of the School Curriculum

One of the biggest failures of our education system, in my opinion, is the lack of emphasis on, or total absence of a character education program in schools. I am not referring here to character education being taught as a subject in the curriculum the same way we teach Health and Family life or Religious Education. I am referring to a school culture where the principal and staff capitalize on every opportunity throughout the day to teach or emphasize good values and virtues.
As teachers, whether or not we intend to, we teach values to our students all the time. When you say to a student, “You look so neat today”, or “Why are you always so quiet?” we are actually saying that neatness is a desired quality while being quiet is undesirable. When we spend a lot of time focusing only on certain aspects of the curriculum or certain subject areas and ignore others we are indirectly teaching them what is important and what is not. When we only seem to notice high grades in exams and hardly ever praise our students for their effort or for showing improvement —no matter how small, we send out a clear message that achievement and success are all about examinations. However, character education or values education cannot rely solely on such incidental learning. It must be planned and done consciously and deliberately. Teaching-learning situations and opportunities for practice must be created, since frequent practice leads to the cultivation of good habits; and habits, whether good or bad, are hard to break.
One of the ways in which virtues and values can be taught and reinforced is in the casual interaction between students and staff. The teacher must always assume the role of a sage, turning ordinary, mundane-looking situations and experiences into learning moments. This is the kind of teacher who, through interaction, would help the student who doesn’t want to join the drama group to realize that the reason is her lack of self confidence. Such a teacher would help the overly cynical student to be more aware of his or behavior and to appreciate the benefits of thinking more positively. This approach is most effective when the entire school is onboard— principal, teachers, and ancillary staff. There is nothing more counterproductive than one teacher undoing the efforts of another teacher by allowing students to get away with murder.
Structured group or class discussions, in which critical thinking is the focus, should be encouraged. It doesn’t matter what the subject area is. There are always opportunities for discussing relevant morals and values. The main skill required by the teacher is the ability to ask open-ended, thought-provoking questions and to guide the discussions in the desired direction. In response to a student’s haphazard approach to problem solving in math, for example, the teacher, rather than reprimanding, could initiate a brief discussion on the importance of doing things to the best of one’s ability. A scenario, or moral dilemma, which allows students to critically analyze some sort of conflict, is also a useful way to develop students’ reasoning and problem solving skills and to discover their attitudes toward various social issues.
One of the best ways to get students to practice desired virtues is through role play. Good behavior or good character is all about developing a set of skills, and skills are learned through practice. Role play can allow students from the primary to secondary level, opportunities for much-needed practice in situations which simulate real life. This is where the teacher says: “Imagine that you are . . .”, or “Let’s pretend that we are . . . ” Students will then rehearse the desired responses or behavior with the hope that they will eventually be able to transfer what was rehearsed to real life situations.
Another more practical approach to character education is through group activities and project-based events, such as, fund raising, or doing community service.                 This is where the drama group, French club, school choir, or football team become very significant. Students get an opportunity to plan such activities, coordinate and execute them, with the supervision and guidance of the teacher. From those experiences, students learn skills like communication, leadership, collaboration, tolerance, perseverance, respect for others, and problem solving. They also get to engage in reflective discussions about their experiences.
Clearly, such an approach to teaching demands that teachers have the appropriate attitudes and the same virtues which they intend to instill in students.  Teachers should also possess the knack for recognizing teaching-learning moments to be better able to integrate character education in all aspects of the school curriculum.

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