Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (August 9, 2018)
I find that as I speak to people about character education, everyone will agree with me that it’s really important. The question is not whether it’s important it’s how important because it’s a matter of priorities. But what I find is that parents and educators want one aspect of character the most - they really want their students to exhibit good and positive values but the focus seems to be on the hands – the ‘doing’ of character. They want their students to do acts of responsibility, show acts of being respectful, take part in actions of compassion. But doing should be the consequence of the thinking and feeling. The ‘hands’ should be the result of the ‘head’ and the ‘heart’, not just because someone said ‘I told you so’ and they get in trouble if they don’t comply. If we are getting students just to do the right thing, without really understanding what it is that they’re doing or why they are doing it, we are getting students to just either put on a show in front of us or worse still, doing it begrudgingly. Part of having integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is looking. How do we get students to want to do the right thing? How do we get them to do the right thing when no one is watching? How do we inspire them to continue doing the right thing all the days of their lives?
In order for them to engage in the holistic nature of character, we have to engage in all parts of their head, hearts and hands. We first have to let them understand what character is, what the core values we want them to explore are, what each value means and why it’s important. It’s easy for us as adults to throw words around like ‘respect’ and ‘responsibility’ but what does it mean to a child? How do they understand those words? And then after understanding the definition (what), understanding the importance of the character value (why) and then what it looks like when exhibited (how).
And in the process of explaining the why, we would hope that it triggers their hearts to respond. Reflection is so important is the process of bringing it from the head to the heart. Giving time to write journal reflections, draw an emotion, discuss a time when a character value was exhibited or demonstrated, those are all ways to move a character value from being just logical to emotional. The pace of life is so fast these days that few people seem to have the time to sit and and reflect on questions like ‘what is important to me?’, ‘why are those things important?’, ‘what should my life look like if I lived those values?’.
In addition to giving time to understand and reflect, students should be given time and opportunities to practice character values. In discussing values, there should be discussions about what it looks like when practiced. What does kindness look like in friendships and in school playgrounds? What does respect look like when talking to others? And then schools can give students opportunities to practice those values in action. It should be a regular daily thing but I think having special events or campaigns to highlight action is helpful. For example, having kindness days where students are challenged to ‘pass it on’ for kindness’ or service learning days where students can go out and help people in the community.
Cultivating character takes time, intentional effort and opportunities for students to participate and grow so I think schools have a responsibility to provide the time and opportunities but more than that, I think families must do the same, and all community groups that children are a part of. There’s a tendency for schools to shift the responsibility of character education to parents, for parents to pass to the school but in reality, it takes collective effort. Cultivating character doesn’t just happen in schools or just at home – it should happen everywhere and everyone has a role to play.