The teaching of virtues and moral character is rift with potential points of friction, especially in a multicultural setting; can we say with utter confidence that there are universal mores that guide all human behavior? Tom Lickona (2003) would argue that virtue or good character is an aspect of the human condition that has been codified the world over through religion and society. He goes on to suggest that the following ten concepts are essential virtues:
- Positive Attitude
- Hard Work
While I agree that this list is comprised of worthy virtues, and are essential aspects of humanness, as an international educator, I must always approach the teaching of what I believe boils down to culturally laden values with caution. Take justice as an example. According to the website Capital Punishment Facts, while capital punishment is practiced in the United States as a means to mete out justice or to prevent a person from committing future crimes, ninety countries around the world have abolished the death penalty for all crimes; 90% of all executions as of 2006 were carried out in the US and Asia. Would a citizen of Canada, who has been educated in the Canadian perspective of social and cultural mores of justice that includes the abolition of capital punishment for all crimes, want their child taught the old biblical saying “an eye for an eye” as a guiding virtue? We can take this argument a step further and talk about types of state sponsored justice. While Americans may be divided on the issue of capital punishment, there are clearly guidelines about what constitutes a crime in the United States; this is a cultural construct. Homosexuality is recently becoming more accepted into mainstream society as a legitimate and in some cases State recognized status, yet in Saudi Arabia, homosexual acts, whether giving or receiving, is punishable by death through public beheading with a sword, stoning and in rare cases, firing squad. While it can be argued that these are extreme examples, they do illustrate the point that “good, virtuous character” perhaps is in the eye of the beholder.
‘Can you conceive an Epicurean commonwealth? . . . What will happen? Whence is the population to be kept up? Who will educate them? Who will be Director of Adolescents? Who will be Director of Physical Training? What will be taught?’
Nonetheless, I do feel it is important to inculcate the curriculum with opportunities for students to be guided in an exploration into their own thinking and development around character. Shields (2011) provides some insight into how educators can approach a school wide support of character building, “The goal of education is not acquiring knowledge alone, but developing the dispositions to seek and use knowledge in effective and ethical ways” (p. 49). In my personal experiences as an educator, I found the deliberate embedding of dispositions within the International Baccalaureate to be an effective, thoughtful and student-centered approach that provides a guiding yet measured hand in the exploration of character development. These are just three examples of the IB learner profile:
Principled—They act with integrity and honesty, with a strong sense of fairness, justice and respect for the dignity of the individual, groups and communities. They take responsibility for their own actions and the consequences that accompany them.
Open-minded—They understand and appreciate their own cultures and personal histories, and are open to the perspectives, values and traditions of other individuals and communities. They are accustomed to seeking and evaluating a range of points of view, and are willing to grow from the experience.
Caring—They show empathy, compassion and respect towards the needs and feelings of others. They have a personal commitment to service, and act to make a positive difference to the lives of others and to the environment.
When I taught grade 5 at an international baccalaureate world school, character development was an essential part of the written, taught and assessed curriculum; it was not a pre-packaged curriculum taught as a matter of course during an Advisory period. Instead, it was through authentic interaction with the local and school community followed by introspective reflection that students were encouraged to explore how they were demonstrating being principled, open-minded, and caring. It was part of our school culture or ethos to strive towards these ideals. As part of reports, I wrote descriptive anecdotal comments detailing instances when my students demonstrated their qualities of character, or did not as the case may be. As Shields (2011) maintains, “To support the development of individual character, we need to promote a culture of character. What we seek in terms of individual virtues must be developed simultaneously as group norms” (p. 52). Behaving in these ways was intentional but at the same time, expected as a normative interaction in this school; students that were unable to behave accordingly, who could not control their epicurean urges, were the exception, not the rule. Yet, it was acknowledged that these character attributes or dispositions or virtues were culturally specific and would look just a little bit different for each child; good character is by no means universal.
This is an example of the Personal-Social Evaluation comments that I wrote for two of my students at this international school. I believe that this artifact meets the standard for the Curriculum and Instruction Standard 2: Evidence of how communication in the classroom supports students in developing and using their own thoughts and voices. I believe that through the writing, then sharing of my comments with students (and parents) during conferences, my students were given summative feedback regarding the development of their character; this was a crucial aspect of student learning within this environment and was taken seriously by all stakeholders. Further, the comments point to different opportunities that I provided students to develop their character (Grade 1 mentor buddies, student council, editor of class newspaper) which in turn supported the development of their “voice”. It is through a diversity of positive experiences that students are able to develop a sense of self-efficacy which feeds into a strong sense of self.
It takes more than watching videos and filling-out worksheets to instill characters and values in a child; it takes discussion, real life application and a willingness to acknowledge the innate differences across and even amongst cultures.
Capital Punishment Facts. Retrieved from http://www.capitalpunishmentfacts.org
Capital Punishment in Saudi Arabia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_Saudi_Arabia
International Baccalaureate Learner Profile. Retrieved from http://www.ibo.org/pyp/curriculum/profile/
Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. (ND).Appendix Illustrations of the Tao. Retrieved from http://www.columbia.edu/cu/augustine/arch/lewis/abolition4.htm
Lickona, Tom. (2003 Fall). The Content of Our Character: Ten Essential Virtues In The Fourth and Fifth Rs: Respect and Responsibility. 10:1.