Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A More Complex Analysis Is Needed

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

A More Complex Analysis Is Needed

Article excerpt

Alfie Kohn's critique can be healthy, Mr. Lickona points out, because it will force character educators to look more closely at what they do. But Kohn's analysis is not complex enough to do justice to or provide guidance for the field.

Someone once said, "When everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much." In that sense, controversy is a good thing, and I believe Alfie Kohn's critique of character education in the February 1997 Kappan has the potential to stimulate a healthy debate about how best to approach character education. I think it also has the potential to do harm if people not familiar with character education take all its criticisms at face value. Ultimately, I believe Kohn's analysis is not complex enough to do justice to or provide guidance for the field.

Let me summarize five points that Kohn makes and offer a response to each. I will conclude by offering eight ways I think we can legitimately make distinctions among current character education practices.

Kohn: There are two kinds of character education: broad and narrow. The broad kind is good; the narrow is bad. In the broad sense, Kohn says, character education refers to whatever the school might do "to help children grow into good people." In Kohn's view, the emphasis in fostering goodness "should not be on forming individual characters [of students] so much as on transforming educational structures." As an example of transforming the culture of schools, Kohn cites the Child Development Project. This project holds that, by meeting children's needs, we increase the likelihood that they will care about others. Meeting children's needs requires "turning schools into caring communities."

In the narrow sense, Kohn says, character education means a particular type of moral training that relies heavily on exhortation and extrinsic incentives to get children to work harder and do what they're told. The preferred method of instruction in this narrow approach is "tantamount to indoctrination" - drilling students in specific behaviors rather than engaging them "in deep, critical reflection about certain ways of being."

Response: The leading character education organizations, such as the Character Education Partnership, agree on the need for a broad approach. The nation's leading character education organization is arguably the Character Education Partnership (CEP). Its membership includes groups such as the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National School Boards Association, the National PTA, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. In 1995 CEP published "Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education" to offer schools standards by which they could plan and assess a character education initiative.(1) These "Eleven Principles," which follow, have been requested by and distributed to thousands of schools across the country.

1. Character education promotes core ethical values as the basis of good character.

2. "Character" must be comprehensively defined to include thinking, feeling, and behavior.

3. Effective character education requires an intentional, proactive, and comprehensive approach that promotes the core values in all phases of school life.

4. The school must be a caring community.

5. To develop character, students need opportunities for moral action.

6. Effective character education includes a meaningful and challenging academic curriculum that respects all learners and helps them succeed.

7. Character education should strive to develop students' intrinsic motivation.

8. The school staff must become a learning and moral community in which all share responsibility for character education and attempt to adhere to the same core values that guide the education of students.

9. …

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