Should moral reasoning be taught in K-12?

A new study from the National Liberty Museum promotes the use of 'character education'

What is character, can it be taught, and is it useful to consider when districts are thinking about how to address inequity in schools? And is character somehow different from "grit?"

Professor James Arthur, director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at University of Birmingham, describes character as the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual. They endure no matter the circumstance.

He says grit is about resilience.

"It is about persistence and bouncing back in the face of adversity," Arthur said. "While this is an important character trait, it's only one aspect of a person’s good character."

Without a range of character strengths and virtues, grit alone isn't enough when facing tough situations of moral complexity.

Recently, Arthur and the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues partnered with Philadelphia’s National Liberty Museum to conduct a study examining the role of character learning and "liberty education" in the classroom, and their impact on underserved urban youth.

The National Liberty Museum (NLM) defines liberty as "the right and power to think, act, believe, or express oneself in the manner of one's choosing, without hurting others."

The collaboration defines character education as an umbrella term that encompasses educational activities that help young people develop positive virtues, Arthur said.

The new report, titled "Torchbearers of Liberty," parses the results of a grant-funded partnership between the museum and the John Templeton Foundation that focused on the impact of the museum's character education programs, said Peggy Sweeney, Vice President of Institutional Advancement at the NLM. 800 students participated.

Part of NLM's educational programming includes an initiative called Young Heroes Outreach Program, offered at no cost to Title 1 schools, with a focus on civic leadership and responsible citizenship.

The yearlong intensive is being piloted in 13 Philadelphia schools for students between the ages of 9 and 13.

"YHOP does not lecture at students," its description reads. "Instead, it is based on an interactive approach to learning and investigation through student voice, providing the tools to become positive agents of change."

The new report also specifically examined the Young Heroes Outreach Program's results.

"The evaluation study … marks the first time we have assessed our approach to character education that we teach through the lens of liberty," Sweeney said. "The study's findings have underscored the value of non-traditional learning centers like the NLM to bridge the gap in young people's education, and especially during an era of budget cuts when many of our schools have eliminated character and other social support programs for students."

One example of the open-ended ethical scenarios students in the YHOP grappled with is called "Ty's Story."

"Derek has never gotten good grades in school, but he is very talented at drawing and painting, and has always done well in art class. Recently, budget cuts have meant there is not enough money to fund the art classes at school, and Derek's favorite art teacher lost his job. Feeling upset about this, Derek decided to sneak on to the school grounds one evening to paint an impressive mural on the wall of the school building, with the words, 'Save the arts!' The following day, Derek's best friend, Ty, spots the empty paint cans in Derek's bag and asks Derek what he's done. Derek admits that he painted the mural, and makes Ty promise not to tell anyone. When they arrive at school, the Principal is furious about the graffiti and warns everyone that unless the graffiti artist is identified, the upcoming school dance will be cancelled. Ty and his friends were looking forward to the dance, but Ty knows that Derek will be suspended from school if he is found out." 

Students were then asked to rank a variety of possible responses by Ty and by Derek, from "a very bad choice" to a "very good choice."

That kind of ethical situation illuminates what NLM's Peggy Sweeney says comprises "liberty education," or character-based education.

"Using project-based learning, our programs empower student voice and action," Sweeney said. "The learning outcome is not only the acquisition of virtues such as empathy, respect, responsibility and courage."

That, she says, leads to practicing skills like leadership, cooperation, goal setting and critical thinking.

Overall, the study found that after participating in character-based learning, students felt better-equipped to think about complex situations. They also showed more engagement with the concepts of integrity, respect, responsibility, and empathy, as well as a heightened ability to reason when immersed in ethical dilemmas.

"Knowledge should not the be all and end all," Arthur explained. "It is about helping students grasp what is ethically important in situations and how to act for the right reasons, so that they become more autonomous and reflective."

And because parents can't always be counted on to provide such support and learning, Arthur says, it's important for schools to consider incorporating character education.

Overall, character learning helped students in YHOP become more likely to become civically engaged, by increasing "action-oriented civic and social engagement by identifying a number of social issues and then initiating community service projects to make a tangible impact on their school and neighborhood," according to the report.

Dr. Marvin W. Berkowitz, Professor of Character Education at the University of Missouri- St. Louis, wrote the foreword to the report.

"You don't 'teach character' to people," he said. Instead, the concept is fostered via engagement.

"You engage in systems and practices that foster the growth of character," Berkowitz continued. "You create caring school and classroom climates where students feel safe, empowered, connected, and competent contributors. You provide opportunities to serve others and to be part of a democratic community ... You expose students to adults who model and embody character, and to historical and fictional exemplars in the curriculum.”

The importance of the study, he said, lay in its testing of a measurement to evaluate liberty as an ethical construct.

"It has opened a new area of inquiry for researchers and reflects a new and innovative approach to character education for practitioners," he said.


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K12 Policy & Regulation