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By Dr. Arthur Schwartz – President
Wendy Horbinski – Coordinator, Laws of Life 

We do not learn from experience.
We learn from reflecting on experience.
John Dewey

Most educators strive to apply Dewey’s famous maxim, especially when their students act out or make a poor decision. School counselors especially will use behavior reflection activities to help students process their choices in a culturally responsive, non-threatening, child-friendly way.

But have we developed and implemented school-wide practices and resources that encourage students to reflect on the positive experiences that are shaping their character?

These questions are especially salient in the context of the Jubilee Centre’s model of moral development. The model posits that character is not only taught and caught, but that character is also sought. The Centre suggests that character formation, especially during the middle school years and beyond, involves students pursuing their own ethical growth and development, rather than simply following rules to avoid getting in trouble or being punished. 

More recently, the Jubilee Centre published a white paper on “character sought.” The authors argue that to encourage the “sought” dimension of character, parents and educators need to find opportunities that encourage students to:

  • Self-reflect on their behavior, thoughts, emotions, and desires.
  • Discuss their future life goals (i.e., what gives them meaning and purpose).
  • Make a commitment to be motivated by a set of beliefs and values that they freely choose.

Reflective writing is a powerful tool to inspire students to identify the character strengths they want to practice wherever they go or whatever they do in life. All students have had “aha!” moments and experiences that offer them glimpses into the kind of person they want to be (or not to be). 

Putting pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard) offers students the opportunity to explore and discover new insights and glimmers of wisdom that connect their personal experience to universal principles, ranging from the Golden Rule to the virtues we practice when being a friend (such as sacrifice or honesty).

Researchers suggest that there is a three-part process at the heart of reflective writing. First, students need to write about “what happened” (explaining in narrative form their observation or experience). Part two is where students explore the “so what” question: in what ways is their observation or experience relevant to the core values they want to develop or strengthen? Finally, students need to address in their reflection “now what.” How can they relate their observation or experience to their own character, identity, and future choices? 

Reflective writing is most powerful when students have an opportunity to share what they’ve written with others. Some schools encourage students to share their writing with family members. Other schools find ways for students to share their writing with classmates, either through small group or partner sharing. Schools also have established opportunities for younger students to share their writing with older students. 

Ultimately, we encourage schools to find ways for students to place their reflective writing in an E-Portfolio. We imagine a future where eighth graders are encouraged to read and reflect on what they wrote as fifth graders, and the ways in which their observation and experience “back then” continues to shape and foster their character, identity, and choices. 

The research on social-emotional learning tells us that self-reflection strengthens self-awareness. We also know that reflection is an essential disposition of the Habits of Mind framework. Yet reflective writing remains an undervalued tool for schools looking for ways to embrace the proposition that character is not only taught and caught, but also sought. 

Together, let’s change the tide and encourage all our students to grow by reflecting on the core values that mean the most to them – and why.



  1. Lili Borrero

    I fully agree with the importance of encouraging students to reflect on the positive experiences that shape their character. Reflective writing is a powerful tool to help students connect their personal experiences to their values and ethical growth. This approach fosters self-awareness and empowers students to seek their own character development actively. It’s a valuable practice in education. Reflection also helps to align the head, heart, and hand dimensions of character.


    This essay lends support to encourage teachers engage their students in Laws of Life essay writing, which Character.org is administering again. Those of us who have read Laws of Life essays recognize the power this assignment has in inviting students to reflect and write about core values (their Laws of Life) that help them flourish at home, in school, and beyond. Thanks for encouraging this process.

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