This week’s blog post is by Scott Parsons, who is the Character Development Integrator for the Military Programme at the United States Military Academy at West Point and an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Ethics.
Scott will be a panel participant in a webinar on ‘Virtues in the Professions: A Panel Discussion’, hosted by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues on 6 May from 6-7pm BST. The webinar is free, and tickets are available here.
A Framework for Character Education
Character education has exploded into the curriculum of primary and secondary schools over the last ten years. Educators are increasingly appreciating the importance of a more holistic understanding of what it means for students to flourish or meet their full potential. In order to flourish, people must acquire and develop a range of virtues (human excellences) across four central domains of virtue: intellectual, moral, civic and performance. Virtues are generally understood to be interconnected and orchestrated by the meta-virtue of practical wisdom (also known as prudence or practical wisdom). Acquiring virtues leads to the development of practical wisdom. Reciprocally, practical wisdom promotes growth in all of the virtues by enabling them to operate effectively for the good of the individual and society.
Since the time of Aristotle, virtuous living has been understood as essential to living a good life (flourishing), just as virtuous citizens are essential to a flourishing society. Character education is the art of teaching young people how to do this.
A benchmark design, method and strategy for integrating character education in schools can be found in the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues’ 2017 ‘Framework for Character Education in Schools’. It has been adopted by hundreds of primary and secondary schools across the world, in the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and the United States. The Jubilee Centre’s framework discusses the importance of the seven ‘components of virtue’ as the foundation of a character education programme.
Components of Virtue
The components of virtue are defined as follows:
1. Virtue Perception: noticing situations involving or standing in need of the virtues.
2. Virtue Knowledge and Understanding: understanding the meaning of the virtue term and why the virtue is important, individually and as part of a well-rounded, flourishing life of overall virtue, and being able to apply the virtue to episodes of one’s own and others’ lives.
3. Virtue Emotion: feeling the right virtue-relevant emotion in the right situation in the right way.
4. Virtue Identity: understanding oneself as strongly committed to the virtues.
5. Virtue Motivation: having a strong desire to act on the virtues.
6. Virtue Reasoning: discernment and deliberative action about virtues, including in situations where virtues conflict or collide.
7. Virtue Action and Practice: doing the right thing in the right way.
The Jubilee Centre’s framework explains that the key notion of virtue literacy is the combination of three of the above components: virtue perception, virtue knowledge and understanding,and virtue reasoning. Virtue literacy is the notion that there is a shared virtue vocabulary that is rich and complex. You must have this shared vocabulary about virtue that provides the fundamentals needed to help people learn, understand, reflect upon, and discuss virtue. Understanding this vocabulary is necessary to have both the ability to understand the virtues and put them into practice.
Character Education Framework for Higher Education
The Jubilee Centre’s framework was initially formulated for character education programmes in primary and secondary schools; more recently, it has been extended into higher education. In 2020, the Jubilee Centre partnered with the Oxford Character Project and published ‘Character Education in Universities: A Framework for Flourishing. This collaboration yielded an adapted framework for higher education, and a shared vision that the purpose of a university education is not merely to acquire certification or increase earning potential, but to contribute to flourishing.
This adapted framework complements the Jubilee Centre’s initial 2017 framework because it contextualises character education and the importance of flourishing of university students and provides a philosophically rigorous yet practical framework for character education in higher education. In addition to the new higher education framework, in an article published this year, Michael Lamb, Jonathan Brent and Edward Brooks identified seven character development strategies that can be applied in university contexts. These strategies are:
1. habituation through practice;
2. reflection on personal experience;
3. engagement with virtuous exemplars;
4. dialogue that increases virtue literacy;
5. awareness of situational variables;
6. moral reminders;
7. friendships of mutual accountability.
The Importance of Virtue Literacy
It is noteworthy that virtue literacy is regarded an important component of character education across educational levels, as evidenced in both frameworks and Lamb, Brent & Brooks’ recent article. In my opinion, virtue literacy constitutes the first and most fundamental aspect to any character education programme. From primary schools to universities, character development programmes that lack a virtue vocabulary make it incredibly challenging for students to have knowledge or understanding of virtue terms, perceive virtuous or non-virtuous actions in specific situations or be able to reason about which virtue to employ in these situations.
A Practical Application for Developing Virtue Literacy: The Character Journal
One effective way to improve virtue literacy is to implement a character journal as part of an institution’s character education curriculum. Although there are a variety of options available, an exemplar was used by the Jubilee Centre for their teacher training workshop in 2018.
There are several key components to a good character journal, which can be summarised as follows.
- First, it is important to provide a list of virtues from each of the four domains of virtue (intellectual, moral, civic and performance), to improve students’ familiarity with the virtues.
- Second, provide a glossary that defines the virtues in each of the four domains.
- Third, provide the seven components of virtue and the definitions of each.
- Fourth, separate the journal into sections for daily and weekly reflections. For the daily reflection sections, provide a simple table of the virtues defined in your glossary so that your students can tick off three virtues that they found important that day. For the weekly reflection sections your students can write more in depth about the virtues that they found important that week.
- Fifth, make sure there is enough space for the students to write for the period of time you are requesting the student participate (i.e. one month, six-weeks, a term, a semester).
- Finally, provide clear instructions on how you want the student to use the character journal. Institutions might also consider improving virtue literacy among faculty and staff by encouraging them to spend time writing and reflecting on their own character and virtues in a character journal.
Character Education Strategies Implemented through the Character Journal
Of Lamb, Brent & Brooks’ seven character development strategies, the Character Journal utilises three: habituation through practice, reflection on personal experience and awareness of situational variables. If weekly discussions are also incorporated as part of the Character Journal curriculum, then two more strategies are engaged: dialogue that increases virtue literacy and the opportunity to introduce moral reminders. Moral reminders bring our attention to the ethical obligations we hold, which makes it more difficult for us to justify breaking our moral promises. Further, if students are paired into groups of two or three as part of the discussion, the strategy of friendships of mutual accountability can be employed. Finally, deliberately incorporating and discussing the virtues of people whom the students admire and respect, utilises the strategy of engagement with virtuous exemplars.
I believe that virtue literacy is the foundation of a character education programmes from primary schools through universities. One of the best ways to develop virtue literacy in the curriculum is by using a character journal. In my experience, it would also help the faculty and staff to develop their virtue literacy by spending time writing and reflecting on their own character and virtues in a character journal.