These two aspects of character are mutually supportive. The core ethical values enable us to treat each other with fairness, respect, and care, and ensure that we pursue our performance goals in ethical rather than unethical ways. The performance values, in turn, enable us to act on our ethical values and make a positive difference in the world. We take initiative to right a wrong or be of service to others; we persevere to overcome problems and mend relationships; we work selflessly on behalf of others or for a noble cause, often without recognition or reward. In all realms of life, good intentions aren’t enough; being our best requires work.
Because performance character has received less attention in the literature than moral character, CEP published in April 2008 a position paper on how to develop performance values. The paper includes 10 practices—some schoolwide, some classroom-focused—that are supported by research and used by exemplary educators. To learn more, read the full paper by clicking the link to the right, but below are a shortened version of the 10 suggested practices.
These school-based strategies do not replace the important contribution that parenting practices make to performance character development; nor do they reduce the need for schools to reach out to families as partners in encouraging their children’s effort and learning. But these 10 practices, especially taken together, can help to shape a school and peer-group culture that maximizes the motivation to learn and achieve, even in students who might not bring such dispositions to the classroom.
As character educators, how can we foster students’ capacity to work and commitment to doing their work well, in school and throughout life?See Ten Ways Schools Can Foster the Development of Performance Character
- Create a safe and supportive learning community. A caring school community that respects student differences and creates a sense of belonging among students and staff lays the groundwork for hard work and academic success. (See Charles Elbot’s and David Fulton’s Building an Intentional School Culture: Excellence in Academics and Character for ways to create a schoolwide learning community with a high level of connectedness around shared core values.)
- Create a culture of excellence. Schools should do everything possible to foster a culture where it’s “cool to care about excellence” and where all students, given enough time and support, are seen as capable of high-quality work. When students enter a culture that demands and supports excellence, they will do their best work in order to fit in.
- Foster, in both faculty and students, a “growth mindset” that emphasizes the importance of effort. Studies indicate that our confidence in the face of challenges, another important aspect of performance character, is affected by our underlying beliefs about intelligence and personality. See Carol Dweck’s research regarding “fixed” mindsets vs. “growth” mindsets. We can also foster a growth mindset and performance character development by helping students take on challenges that provide stretch but are within their current reach (not too easy and not too hard), by helping them build the skills needed for success, and by encouraging them to extend their reach over time.
- Develop thinking dispositions in all members of the school community. Besides developing adults’ and students’ belief in the power of effort, we can foster other types of thinking dispositions that are part of performance character and that play an important role in learning such as being open-minded, curious, and skeptical. These “habits of mind” are developed through discussion, modeling and observation, practice, and reflection. Coaching students in conflict resolution and teaching them to “think before acting” provide further opportunities for nurturing these intellectual dispositions. Such dispositions of mind should also be the guiding norm for the adults who make up the school’s professional learning community as they interact and help each other do their best work.
- Assign work that matters. An important pedagogical practice in motivating students to do thoughtful, high quality work is to assign work that matters—work that inspires students because it is challenging, meaningful, affects others, and is therefore intrinsically rewarding.
- Provide models of excellence. If we want students to aspire to excellence, they must see what excellence looks like.
- Develop a culture that encourages feedback and revision. Group feedback sessions can serve as a central strategy for developing performance character. Students bring their work to the circle, solicit comments and suggestions from their peers and the teacher, and use that feedback to revise and improve their work.
- Prepare students to make public presentations of their work. Students work harder to do their best when they know their work will be presented to an audience beyond the classroom.
- Use rubrics to help students take responsibility for their learning. Columbine Elementary School (Woodland Park, CO), a 2000 National School of Character, shows how to use rubrics to help students learn to self-assess, set goals, and in general take responsibility for their learning. Teachers confer with students individually to help them assess where they are on the rubrics and set goals for improvement.
- Encourage mastery learning. In 1968, Benjamin Bloom developed an approach to teaching called mastery learning that has much potential to develop performance character. Mastery learning requires all students to achieve a certain level of mastery of a given concept or skill. If they do not achieve it on the first try, they keep trying. Five of the six major research reviews of this approach substantiate its positive effects on student achievement. (Mastery learning, like any other pedagogy, can be abused; it can lead to demoralization if students are asked to perform at certain levels but are not helped to attain those standards.)
Throughout history, and in cultures around the world, education rightly conceived has had two great goals: to help students become smart and to help them become good. They need character for both. They need moral character in order to behave ethically, strive for social justice, and live and work in community. They need performance character in order to enact their moral principles and succeed in school and in life.