In simple words, character education is education that nurtures and promotes the ethical, intellectual, social and emotional development of individuals. It is a continuous learning process that enables young people and adults to become moral, caring, critical, responsible individuals.
The need for character education lies in the ‘moral crisis’ found in today’s societies. Character education is important and necessary as modern societies are struggling with disturbing trends such as racism, xenophobia, violence, to name a few. Character education can help people build good character that in turn can help build good societies.
We had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Nicola Brown, High School Principal of St. Joseph’s Institution International School Malaysia (SJIIM) about the role of educators play in forming a child’s moral character as well as several reasons for its importance.
Q. What does character education really mean?
Character education is a movement within schools which recognises that the ultimate aim of education is not the acquisition of grades but, rather, to enable young people to live fulfilling lives as members of society.
Through character education programmes, schools can guide students away from individualistic behaviours towards healthier relationships that are founded upon respect and tolerance.
Q. Why is character education so important for students?
Character education is so important to students because the development of virtues – for example, respect, tolerance, humility, resilience – are traits that will stay with them well beyond their school experience. Their ability to show these virtues will shape their experience in the home and workplace. Whilst we recognise that grades are important, becoming people at peace with themselves and each other is of far greater importance. Aristotle argued that happiness and wellbeing – eudaimonia – comes from living well and doing well. At SJIIM, we want our students to understand that good character and a sense of wellbeing stem from not only taking care of ourselves – physically, mentally, socially and emotionally – but taking care of each other too.
Q. How do students develop good character?
Firstly, it is important to remember that the greatest influence on a child’s character is what happens in the home. Parents have a lot to do with the types of virtues that students display in school and the types of things they value.
Having said that, there is a lot that schools can do to develop good character in children.
Good character can be caught by being in an environment that places value on fairness and respect. If schools authentically prioritise character over the acquisition of grades, these environmental factors help character to flourish. The relationship between the child and the teacher or the child and the school is incredibly important. Teachers should act as role models and exhibit the types of virtues they wish their students to display.
Good character can also be taught – and this is perhaps trickier. In this sense, teachers should look for opportunities to have moral discussions with students so as to develop their moral reasoning. This is often done through PSHCE (Personal Social Health and Citizens Education) but, where possible, other subjects should look to take these opportunities too. Many times questions of morality are implicit in what we teach. However, making that explicit can be a powerful way to guide students towards more virtuous behaviour.
Q. Which virtues are really important to you?
Aristotle, regarded as the father of virtue ethics, believed that the most important virtue of all is ‘practical wisdom’ or ‘good sense’. In other words, the ultimate virtue is understanding how to use wisdom as a means to determine the right thing to do in any given situation.
In my opinion, I think that it is really important that we recognise that nobody can be virtuous all of the time. Rather, it is incredibly important that we know when situations require us to behave in certain ways so that we do the right thing. That is ‘practical wisdom’.
Another virtue that is really important to me though is humility. When anyone walks into our school, they see the words ‘Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve.’ It is important that we are reminded that we are not the centre of the universe and have a greater responsibility – we should do what we can to help others.
Q. What is SJIIM’s approach to character education and how does it differ from other approaches?
Our approach to character education, based on academic research, is different from other approaches in the way that it also draws upon our Lasallian traditions. Owing to these Lasallian traditions, which place great emphasis on faith, service and community, our approach to character education is one that greatly encourages students to use that moral compass to guide their actions.
Another approach that I think is unique is that, in addition to character being caught through the type of environment we cultivate, we explicitly teach character through subjects like PSHCE (Virtues and Practical Wisdom is an area that all students will cover each year). Our first week of term this year was also ‘Character in the Classroom Week’ with all teachers using their curriculum areas as a vehicle to deliver lessons on moral behaviour.
Finally, also in this first term, all of the students will go away for ‘Character Camp Week’. In addition to outward bound type activities, students will engage with service projects. At the end of each day, our older IB students will lead our younger students in reflection with the aim of helping them to internalise how the activities have helped to develop them as people.
Dr. Nicola Brown is the High School Principal at St. Joseph’s Institution International School Malaysia (SJIIM). Prior to her current position, Dr. Brown was the founding Head of Sixth Form and founding Head of Science at Epsom College in Malaysia. She holds a PhD from St. Bartholomew’s Hospital Medical School (London, UK), a BSc (Hons) in Chemistry, and a Secondary Science PGCE from the Institute of Education (London, UK). Dr. Brown expertise in international education is bolstered by her extensive experience in independent & international schools, including Garden International School, City of London School for Girls, City of London School for Boys, Queen’s College, and Channing School for Girls. Her particular interests are research skills and independent-learning techniques, as well as international student experience.