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Some of the most important current research on “character” is being conducted at Cortland’s campus of the State University of New York. Drs. Thomas Lickona and Matthew Davidson are, respectively, Director and Research Director for the Center for the 4th and 5th R’s (i.e., Respect and Responsibility), and authors of Smart and Good High Schools, a source book for research and ideas about “integrating excellence and ethics for success in school, work and beyond.”

Character, the authors note, is the essential attribute required for success in school and life; it is character that helps individuals become both smart and good: performance character entails excellence in achievements, while moral character refers to being ethical in relationships and citizenship. We ought not to have one without the other, Lickona and Davidson say: it’s dangerous to be smart without also being good, and useless to be good without being smart.

School cultures that are conducive to character development require that both moral character and performance character be addressed. The visual image Lickona and Davidson use to convey this idea is a ball. Taoism’s yin-yang symbol is another compelling metaphor for the interdependence of moral and performance character.

Lickona and Davidson suggest the following six first steps in creating schools that exercise both intellectual and ethical muscles:

1. Develop a schoolwide TOUCHSTONE:In Good to Great, author Jim Collins notes that the most successful companies and organizations express the ethos of their culture through a touchstone phrase, a creed or “way” of being. Schools can and should do this, too. Begin with an examination of the school’s mission statement. Deconstruct the mission: look for the core values (stated and implied) embedded within it.Ask: Do those values emphasize development of BOTH performance character and moral character? What is the “WAY” that both characterizes and distinguishes our school as a school of character? Work with all school constituencies to ensure support and authenticity; take the time to develop a valid touchstone against which all community members can measure and evaluate their own and others’ behaviors.

2. Engage faculty, staff, students and parents in developing a COMPACT FOR EXCELLENCE:Any smart and good school’s sense of purpose must be shared by all within the community, especially teachers, students and parents. Students and teachers must be clear with one another about expectations within classrooms. Faculty members need to define how they will work with one another to do their best work and treat one another with respect and care. Of critical importance as well, parents should be invited to become active partners in helping students pursue ethical excellence. Schools most successful in fostering a culture of character create explicit compacts or contracts with parents to work together to support expectations regarding integrity and behavior.

3. Create a CULTURE OF EXCELLENCE:In An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger makes the case that all students, whatever their abilities or background, have the potential to do excellent work. “What most inspires students to care,” Berger notes, “is the experience of excellence.” Lickona and Davidson offer five pedagogical practices to move schools toward cultures of excellence. Teachers need to assign work that matters; students need opportunities to study examples of excellence. Formal feedback sessions build a culture of caring critique that is essential for improving students’ and teachers’ work. Teachers should encourage—and require—multiple revisions, and the school must provide frequent opportunities for public presentation of work in order to help students understand that real work is completed not for an audience of one but for the greater public eye.

4. Collect and use DATA: Conduct a survey, identify top issues and establish action steps for confronting and changing trouble spots or mixed messages within the school community.We have to be willing to identify “elephants in the living room”—those toughest issues in our schools—meaning the behaviors and attitudes that affect excellence and ethics. On-line survey engines like Survey Monkey or Zoomerang are relatively inexpensive, user-friendly and effective ways to gather information. Once the “elephants”—have been identified, schools can create study groups or committees to grapple with the highest priority items. A repeat survey at a later point in time will assess progress and pinpoint areas for further improvement.

5. Develop a participatory STUDENT GOVERNMENT and a strong HONOR CODE:Lickona and Davidson stress the importance of giving students meaningful opportunities to “have a voice and take a stand.” Ample research affirms that students in democratic schools feel greater responsibility for (or sense of participation in and ownership of) their school community, and thus develop greater concern for its collective welfare. Wrestling with ethical dilemmas and experiencing cognitive dissonance enhances moral reasoning skills. Students engaging in democratic debates thus get to practice this crucial competency of moral and performance character. Schools that implement Honor Codes (or strengthen ones already in place) also report cultures and climates more conducive to academic and ethical excellence.

6. Exercise the POWER OF ONE:
Lest such a comprehensive systemic approach seem too daunting, Lickona and Davidson champion “the Power of One.” Committed individuals—teachers, coaches, parents, or other school staff—can contribute in countless ways to the moral and ethical development of students. Whatever our respective spheres of influence as individuals may be, we can choose to model ethical excellence and lead our students to develop habits consistent with strong moral and performance character. Naturally, the more such values and principles permeate our educational institutions the better. In the meantime, each of us can increase our effectiveness as character developers in our classrooms, extracurricular arenas, school buildings, and families.

Lickona and Davidson show how Ethics of Excellence (or Cultures of Mastery) emerge in caring, ambitious school communities that both challenge and support all their constituents (i.e. students, faculty, staff, and parents). The best schools thus become Ethical Learning Communities where everyone is accountable for manifesting high standards of individual and collective achievement. Ethical learning is enhanced by studying moral exemplars as well as by rigorous self-scrutiny. In schools pervaded by cultures of constructive critique, students and teachers are also more likely to share freely, in public, their own best practices and personal or professional achievements.

Confronting these issues in our schools challenges us and inspires us. Good character education is not an either/or proposition. All our schools can aspire to be both smart and good.

Synthesized & compiled by Susan Bauska & Mike Pardee (January 2007)

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