Can We Teach Character?

Teaching character in schools has become more popular in recent years and continues to gain momentum, with some boards fully integrating it into their curriculum. At my board, there is an emphasis placed on the development of a specific character ‘theme’. Every month there is a new trait, with each school deciding how they will address these character themes. Our school has monthly assemblies to recognize students that have demonstrated these traits, with each student receiving a certificate. Each day during announcements, teachers can nominate students as a ‘Future Ace’, in recognition of good character. While the name is not ideal, this gesture is rewarding.

The teachers at my school are given the freedom to choose whether or not to explicitly teach these character traits, with some opting to integrate them in art, language or other classes. While I haven’t surveyed the teachers, I would guess that the majority do not explicitly teach them. Finding the time would probably be their number one reason, as the demands of the curriculum leave little opportunity for it. We can’t be expected to teach everything. The result is that character education is often not a priority.

In a new post on character education, David Didau articulates this issue of priority and the problem of trying to teach both academics and character. As he says, ‘you can only ever have one top priority. If you prioritize X then you take away from your ability to do Y. Any attempt to expend some resources on a second priority prevents those resources being spent on the top priority. But maybe by doing one, we’ll just get the other?’

If we decide to take the time to explicitly teach character, will academics suffer? Is it possible to find a balance? As King once said, the true goal of education should be intelligence plus character. It seems though, that in attempting to teach both, something’s got to give. The problem is the opportunity cost.


The debate on teaching character education raises a lot of questions:

1. Should it be taught? 

The nature vs. nurture debate seems endless. Some believe that character traits such as tenacity, resilience and self-control are inherited, and can not be taught, while others contend that they can be cultivated. There are those who maintain that children’s defining character traits are evident by the time they’re 19 months old, with parents and teachers having little impact on their development. This seems a bit early, but then what age would be more realistic? Does our character ever stop evolving?

Do you think it should really be the parents’ responsibility to teach character? If the parents don’t, are schools obligated to?

2. How can it be taught? 

In this post, it is suggested that if we get students to struggle with difficult concepts, to work hard and delay gratification and to strive for academic excellence, we will be simultaneously and implicitly developing these character traits. The traits will be embedded into the everyday culture of learning.

Maybe we don’t need to explicitly teach the non-cognitive skills of character, but instead should focus on a combination of high expectations, accountability and modelling which will provide them in the process. This indirect approach to teaching character is the traditional way. Does it need to change?

3. What should it include?  

Character is a broad term, and reaching a consensus on what falls under it, is hard to do. Where do moral qualities such as honesty, compassion and empathy fit in? Is the contentious growth mindset part of character? What about the trendy trait of grit? I would caution against focusing on this one, as the origins of Duckworth’s research are a serious problem.

When deciding on which to teach, is there a hierarchy of character traits? Are some more worthwhile than others?

The issue of whether or not to explicitly teach character in schools is difficult to resolve. More questions than answers. Maybe it’s best to keep it simple. To help students see that character is really about doing the right thing when no one else is looking.

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