Character Education and Psychological Models of Virtue

Dr. Kevin Ryan

Teacher Education’s Muddled Models of Character Education

The topic I was assigned is “character education and the psychological models of virtue.” Since most of my work for the last forty years has been in teacher education, my response will be from the purchase of what teachers are taught about character education and what if anything they learn about the acquisition of virtue.

While the formation of one’s character is influenced by many factors [parents, the siblings, friends, neighbors, church, clubs], formal schooling undoubtedly has a mighty effect. Anyone who is a parent knows the impact of teachers and the school culture on their children. It is close to “all consuming.” Durkheim would have fully appreciated the core idea behind that 1980’s books, “Is There Life after High School?” Schools present us with the culture’s vision of itself, what we should be and what we should guard against becoming. Much of our moral heritage is delivered to our children through the school curriculum’s stories and history texts. Also, the moral lives of the teachers are on daily display, as are those of classmates. As Edmund Burke once told us, “Example is the school of mankind and he will learn at no other.”

In subtle, and not so subtle, ways, our schools tell us who we are and what we should become; what is a good person; what habits define a successful person, an unsuccessful person; what is a worthy life, what is an unworthy life. And, particularly, what is the moral code by which we ought to live. It is my belief, however, that in the last half century that mission, that role, of schools has changed dramatically.

When I presented myself to Columbia University’s Teachers College in the summer of 1955 to be prepared as a high school English Teacher, this teacher training institution was quite confident letting me and the others know what we were to become “moral educators,” that we had an almost sacred responsibility to teach the nation’s core moral ideas and principles. And, while the training to actually teach was dreadful in the extreme, the mandate was quite clear. We were educators of the culture’s moral heritage. And, as such, for better or for worse, we felt that as public school teachers we had a good deal of moral authority and we were expected to exercise it. While largely unarticulated, the psychological models for the character education of those post WWII and pre-Age of Aquarius classrooms were, first, modeling [or Burkian good example] and second, what we have come to call, behavior modification. Regarding, modeling, the teacher, of course, was expected to be a good example, but also to present to children good examples, real and literary, to fill their minds and to alight their moral imaginations. Second, there was behavior modification or behavior shaping through a combination of direct instruction in the code, what is right and wrong in civic life, and the attendant consequences for good or bad behavior. All of this was given labels and theoretical support later on by B.F. Skinner and his many followers in education.

All of this was pretty well swept away, though, by the cultural upheaval of the late Sixties and Seventies. Moral education was seen as the handmaiden of a repressive, exploitive elite which was using the school to turn out conforming worker drones, conditioned to live out sexually repressed lives in ticky-tacky box-like homes in scrawling, faceless suburbs and so on and so on. The leading educators of the period warned teachers not to lay on children “the cold hand of orthodoxy,” but rather to facilitate students’ efforts to clarify their own values. Not their parents’ or society’s moral values, but to discover and clarify their own moral values. Behind all this is the long and, in educational circles, enormously influential hand of Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau’s Sixties spokesman was the psychotherapist, Carl Rogers, who developed Client-center therapy. The core idea behind client-center therapy is profoundly anti-authority and as a technique continually directs the patient to answer his own questions [Why don’t I have any friends? Why has my third wife walked out on me?]. This entire set of techniques, in turn, was infused with the warm balm of the I’m-okay-you’re-okay movement. Together values clarification and client-centered therapy quickly and enduringly filled the space left when moral education retreated before the relativism that engulfed the Sixties.

In an era of moral confusion, the idea of simply letting children clarify their own personal values, moral and otherwise, had great appeal to educators. Amid the widespread sense among educators that they had no right, let alone mandate, to impose their values or, Good Heavens, indoctrinate students with our nation’s core moral values, this seemed to be a good solution. And so, values clarification won and won, in the words of Vice President Cheney, it won “big time!’ This in spite of the fact that the research demonstrated clearly that the positive claims of its advocates were unsupported and that many thoughtful observers worried about the strong possibility that in the name of moral education values clarification was promoting mortal relativism among our young. Although the term has in recent decades gone underground in educational circles, still for twenty-five years the dominant model of moral education has been and continues to be values clarification. It is in the deep structure of teacher education and our public schools.

Until recently, with the rise of what is called “the character education” movement, the only serious challenge to the predominance of values clarification has been Cognitive Developmental Moral Education, championed by the late Lawrence Kohlberg. Building on the earlier work of Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist, Kohlberg’s research claimed that human beings are capable of moving through six distinct stages of moral thinking, and that while movement is related to maturation and intellectual development, there are things that educators can do to help students move from one stage or habituated way of thinking about moral questions to next higher [meaning more complex and inclusive] stage of thinking. Prominent among the recommendations to teachers was to have students engage early and often in moral discussions, grappling among themselves over ethical dilemmas. This moral cognitive clashing is supposed to help children free themselves from other lower stage and move sequentially to the next higher stage. While this stage bumping approach was popular in some educational circles during the 70s and 80s, its popularity was primarily among psychologists. Subsequent research dealt harshly with Kohlberg’s claims for his methods, plus the fact that classroom teachers found dilemma discussions difficult to manage. By the time Kohlberg took his own life, some ten years ago, his influence was difficult to discern.

In the mid 1980s, educators moved away form the term “moral education” because it sounded overly religious or indoctrinative and because it was associated with failed and dubious efforts, such as values clarification and cognitive moral developmental approaches. “Character education” became the new flag under which some educators concerned with the transmission of our moral heritage rallied. As a term, “character” seemed fresh and evocative, but at the same time traditional and substantial. Fueled by soaring rates of out-of-wedlock births, promiscuity, rising school violence and falling student performance, everyone started talking about the need for schools “to address issues of character.” Politicians, parents and finally educators seemed to be for “character education.” Even the White House got into the act with President and then First Lady Clinton hosting and participating in five annual White House Conferences on Character Education.

As the ‘character education movement’ picked up steam, some of us wondered what teachers and teacher educators thought were their responsibilities, if any, to prepare teachers to responds to and deal with the ethic and moral domains. At our center at Boston University, the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, we did two related studies. The first was a doctoral thesis by Professor Jane Wells of Gordon College. Wells wanted to know what professors of education taught their students about issues of morality, civic values, and ethical decision-making. She developed a lengthy interview protocol and then carried on taped interviews, running between one and two hours with 31 professors in 31 different colleges and universities. Some small; some large; some religious; some private; most state supported secular institutions. All interviewee were professors of education involved directly with teacher education. She made transcriptions of all these interviews and then analyzed and eventually categorizing their responses. Wells found a riot of understandings around what these teacher educators thought they ought to pass on to their students. After much sorting, she found she could group this great range of responses into several categories. We, then, used Wells categories as the basis for an Olin supported study we conducted with the Character Education Partnership of what the leadership in teacher education thought was their institution’s responsibility to prepare teachers as character educators. In this 1997 study we defined the leadership as deans of school of education and chairpersons of teacher education departments We surveyed half of the 1200 plus colleges and universities, which prepare teachers and had a very respectable 35% response rate to a long instrument.

Here is some of what we found. First, more than 90% thought the public schools should teach our nation’s core values. Nevertheless, when these deans and directors of teacher education were asked if they were satisfied with what their institutions were doing to prepare teachers for their responsibilities as character educators, only 13% indicated satisfaction. However, and this goes to the heart of the trouble, when asked what they thought character education was and how they taught it to prospective teachers, deep disagreements and confusion surfaces. Table 1 captures the range of responses. There is not only no consensus, but there is extremely wide disagreement about what character education is and how it should be taught. Table 2 indicates the more popular approaches with Caring Community garnering the most votes. On the other hand, of all the available choice, this term is the most slippery and illusive. On the other hand, as a term, caring community resonates with the idea that schools and teachers should be nutrient and supportive of feminine virtues, such as cooperation and empathy.

Table 1 – APPROACHES TO CHARACTER EDUCATION – A Values Clarification/Values Realization

  • Views values as highly individual in nature; teacher acts as a neutral facilitator.
  • Use of provocative exercises to encourage self-discovery and “clarification” of individual’s personal values.

B Moral Reasoning/Cognitive Development

  • Character formation is viewed chiefly as a rational process.
  • Use of exercises involving hypothetical moral dilemmas to encourage students to higher stages of moral cognition.

C Moral Education/Virtue

  • Character formation involves acquiring internal qualities (“virtues”) through the practice of good habits.
  • Draws from academic content, particularly literature and history, to help students gain knowledge about their civilization’s moral tradition.

D Life Skills Education

  • Stresses the development of positive social attitudes and practical skills to succeed in life.
  • Related themes include personal decision-making, self-esteem, communication, and work-related skills.

E Service Learning

  • A pedagogy which de-emphasizes “book” learning in favor of “hands-on” experience to make learning more relevant.
  • Integrates community service opportunities throughout the curriculum.

F Citizenship Training/Civics

  • Focus is on teaching civic values on which America’s political system was founded.
  • Goal is to prepare future citizens to participate in our democracy, often is part of social studies or history classes.

G Caring Community

  • Focus on fostering caring relationships in the classroom.
  • Use of group learning activities to teach cooperation and empathy.

H Health Education/Drug, Pregnancy, Violence Prevention

  • Focus on preventing unhealthy, anti-social behavior.
  • Character development is generally an unstated goal; program-oriented approach to combating adolescent social problems.

I Conflict Resolution/Peer Mediation

  • Goal is to help students develop skills in resolving conflict constructively.
  • Students receive education to act as mediators in conflicts among classmates.

J Ethics/Moral Philosophy

  • The explicit teaching of Ethics or Philosophy, usually as a separate course or unit, generally for older students.
  • Students study significant philosophers and thinkers who have made a contribution to moral philosophy.

K Religious Education

  • Character formation occurs in the context of a faith tradition.
  • Morality is understood to have a transcendent source, often is combined with an ethic of service to others.

Table 2 – DOMINANT APPROACHES TO CHARACTER EDUCATION – Top Three Selections of Individual Deans

Caring Community
Service Learning
Life Skills
Religious Education
Moral Education/Virtue
Ethics/Moral Philosophy

Table 3 (below) breaks down the responses by type of institution: public, secular private, and religious. Again, we see that Caring Community is the most popular across all three types of institutions. Not surprisingly, religious institutions, the majority of which were Catholic, had “religious education” as the second most dominant approach. Finally, “moral education/virtue, ” the approach to character education most prominently addressed and presumably supported at this conference, was only cited as a dominant approach by religious schools.


Secular Private
Caring Community 79.3%
Caring Community 87.5%
Caring Community 71.0%
Life Skills 60.3%
Service Learning 62.5%
Religious Education 64.6%
Service Learning 56.9%
Values Clarification 50.0%
Service Learning 52.0%
Moral Reasoning 51.7%
Moral Reasoning 50.0%
Moral Education/Virtue 45.0%
Conflict Resolution 48.3%
Conflict Resolution 50.0%
Ethics/Moral Philosophy 41.0%

What these two studies indicate to me is that very little is being done and the psychological models behind the little that is being done are quite varied. Anyone looking to schools of education to aid children’s understanding of what is a good and worthy life and then, help them in the formation of good habits that underline a good life is in for a disappointment. Teacher education is the soft underbelly of this character education movement, and certainly a character education based on the acquisition of virtue.

This moral education/virtue approach is the practiced in the Boston University teacher education program and it is the model developed and advocated by Karen Bohlin, director of the Center For the Advancement of Ethics and Character. Table 4 (below), Internalizing Virtue: An Instructional and School Framework, is an attempt to describe economically the process which we attempt to have teachers go through and, in turn, for them to put their students through. Crucial to the process is to help the individual see what constitutes a virtuous life and to see that the proper aim of an education is the acquisition of a virtuous life. And, again, the curriculum and the person of the teacher are fundamental to this process.

Table 4

Character Education