Think about a time you faced a moral dilemma. How did you come to a decision? Did you put yourself in the shoes of someone involved? Or were you thinking about what a trusted mentor might do in your situation? Many of the skills used in decision-making like this, come from character education. Character education is a necessary part of education. It builds a reliable moral foundation that students need. Because, similar to your experience, real life will also present them with situations that look more grey than monochrome.
“Intelligence plus character, that is the goal of true education.” - Martin Luther King
Character education focuses on developing positive values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours in students. This helps them become better citizens, leaders, and role models. It was considered a key component of school reform back in the 1960s and today, it continues to be a powerful tool for teaching empathy, self-awareness, and social skills.
However, even though schools are familiar with its benefits, they struggle to really integrate character education into students’ day-to-day experience. There is a higher priority placed on academic excellence when character education is sidelined to one subject a week. Effective character education requires more than that.
The Jubilee Centre Framework for Character Education in Schools describes character education as something that is experiential and holistic:
It has a place in the culture and functions of families, classrooms, schools, and other institutions… it develops gradually out of the experience of making choices and the growth of ethical insight.
To design an environment for character to develop takes effort and time. Teachers might assume a change of curriculum is required and many already feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities they have. So perhaps, a good place to start is by understanding what character education can look like.
In Session A of The HEART Course, Dr Goh Chee Leong talks about three elements of character education: community, role-modelling, and exposure. Understanding that character development is a long-term process by nature, focusing on consistency in these small areas would be the goal instead of changing a curriculum. Let’s explore these ideas through the Jubilee Centre Framework, which suggests that character can be ‘caught, taught, and sought’.
Having a community of peers to grow with, provides a place for character to be caught. Teachers can create that sense of community so that students support each other. One way of doing this is to start the day with time for reflection. Get everyone in the class to agree on the kind of outcome they want from this day. Then have students take turns to list out the attitudes or behaviours that are needed to make it happen. This creates a sense of shared ownership in designing their classroom culture. At the end of the school day, set aside time for everyone to reflect on what actually happened, what can be learned, and how everyone might do better together as a class.
As a teacher, you are also part of their community, as a role-model. This doesn’t mean pressuring yourself to portray perfection. It means being a reference for how real emotions can be managed with maturity. Saying, “I feel frustrated when you do that in class” instead of “You are a very difficult student” is a great example of how one can take ownership of their feelings and articulate them calmly. As you try your best to choose your words and actions carefully, there will be difficult days. It’s important to let students see that mistakes do happen and that apology and forgiveness can be a norm in class. This is also part of good character development.
During reflection time, real-life issues that arise are opportunities to teach. Teachers can teach self-awareness strategies that students can apply in various situations. Perhaps when facing peer conflict or when feeling upset about something. Instead of telling them what to do, facilitate the discussion. Give them the chance to express their thoughts and help them recognise their choices.
Another way to teach character is by highlighting it through movies, history, or even current issues in the news. Let students read or watch these stories in their own time then gather to discuss their thoughts on the story, character, or news affair. Ask them to share how they might respond in the same situation and why.
When students realise they are in a safe space, they may start initiating casual conversations about character in the context of peer relationships and personal life. When this happens, praise your student for their effort to work on their own character and support them as they practice how to make wise decisions.
For character to be sought after, teachers need to provide students with the right exposure. For example, if a child has never seen what poverty is, it might be hard for them to understand why learning to give is necessary. You can initiate class trips that expose students to communities of need or encourage them to keep updated on social justice news. Then, let them contribute towards a solution together in their own way. This helps students' character to naturally develop outside the classroom and school curriculum.
Exposure can also be in the form of cultural experience. You can encourage students to engage in each other’s cultural celebrations and make time to share what they learned and what they appreciate about each other’s ethnicity. In a culturally diverse nation such as Malaysia, we have plenty of festive occasions for this. The need to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion among students is crucial to building a strong foundation for the future of our nation.
The little things that you do over the school year, adds up to an experience where character is fully integrated in education. It's about creating the environment for character to bloom, finding teachable moments to teach, and exposing students to situations that naturally develop character. You don’t need to try and do it all at once, start small. Perhaps pick one out of each category and make them part of your goals for the year. Most importantly, when students see that you are present and willing to have open and honest conversations with them, that’s a great start.
To help educators start meaningful discussions about topics like this with one another, we launched The HEART Course - a free online course which creates a space where educators are excited to connect over ideas in education and start conversations that bring change to their classroom, school, and community.
In five sessions you can WATCH discussions and best practices from global thought-leaders following five themes in education. There also conversation prompts to help your group of educators DISCUSS ideas after each video, and toolkits to APPLY what you have learned. Each session also has a growing curation of resources from over 30 education partners in Malaysia and beyond. Educators like yourself can CONNECT with these partners to bring students’ learning beyond the classroom!
Get started with The HEART Course here.