The following three part series by John Heenan was published in NZ Principal

Part 1: Character

NZ Principal - November 2004

Character, and in particular character in leadership and character in education, is arguably the most important issue facing our nation. Until recent decades the development of character was a central component of education.

The majority of student behaviour that challenges the management of today's schools and is a barrier to teaching and learning arises from a deficit of character.

The fact is that character determines behaviour just as behaviour demonstrates character.

Ministry of Education (1) figures reveal that since 2000 in primary schools alone suspensions and stand downs have increased 31%, alcohol consumption 25%, physical assaults on staff 40%, assaults on other students 33%, sexual misconduct 21% and sexual harassment 83%.

These are not teenagers or even intermediate school students but eight, nine and ten year olds.

Of the 2,560 removals from primary schools in 2003, 658 (13.8%*) were for continual disobedience, 729 (33.3%*) for physical assaults on students, 147 (40%*) for assaults on staff, 91 (37.9%*) for verbal assaults on students and 310 (55.8%*) for verbal assaults on staff.

*The percentage increase in each category from 2000 to 2003.

In former generations most primary school teachers completed a lifetime career without experiencing either a suspension or an expulsion.

Three broad questions help to clarify the issue of character.

  1. What is character?
  2. Why is the issue of character so confusing today?
  3. Why does character matter?

Character is that inner form that makes anyone or anything what it is - whether a person, a wine, or an historic period. Character is distinct from such concepts as personality, image and reputation.

Applied to a person it is the essential "stuff" that one is made of, the inner reality in which thoughts, speech, decisions and relationships are rooted.

Character lies deeper than philosophies, convictions and accomplishments, even deeper than virtues. Character expresses most deeply what constituents a person as a unique individual. As such, character is inextricably linked to behaviour.

Until the late twentieth century, character always held a vital place in Western civilization. Since then changes in the cultural climate, worldviews, belief systems and educational philosophies have been profound.

These changes have swept away the Platonic understanding that States are as people are they grow out of human character and that the renewal of the society is dependent upon the development of individual character.

When asked what is the good of education Plato replied, " - education makes good people, and good people behave nobly." (2)

The changes also resulted in a lost of understanding of the place of character in society and in education. Consequently, what was once taken for granted in public discussion and popular understanding is now largely absence.

There are a number of reasons why there is a resurgence of interest in character and in the restoration of character education in schools.

In addition to the kind of statistics quoted earlier there is also the pressure of events in society and the enormous costs that deficits of character impose on every citizen.

Such problems as crime, violence, and the loss of social cohesion were once seen as essentially rational problems. As such they were seen as solvable by purely technical, economic, legislative or social strategies. The challenge was to uncover the circumstances that created the problem and then work to change them.

But now, as most parents have always known, there is a growing awareness that a variety of social problems including disruptive behaviour in schools can only be understood, and perhaps addressed – if they are seen as arising from a deficit in character formation.

There is also the realisation that while we New Zealanders can be proud of many of our achievements the reality is that over recent decades we have not been replenishing those traits of character that are the cornerstones of a just, caring and civil society.


Part 2: Character Education

NZ Principal - March 2005

Character education - the process which fosters character in individuals and helps young people become good people and good citizens - is at least as old as recorded history. Its advent probably coincides with the beginning of civilization, for it is difficult to sustain a civil society without educating for character.

Historically, civilizations passed on their cultural values to succeeding generations as a means of cultural preservation.

Until the later decades of the twentieth century character education, or character training, was seen as an essential component of schooling.

The fear of indoctrination loomed large in the demise of character training.

Curriculum developers, strongly influenced by psychology and sociology, felt that in a pluralist liberal democracy it was inappropriate to promote one set of values that may violate the beliefs, values and rights of those holding different views.

From the 1960’s character education gave way to values education.

Unlike character education, values education was less concerned with behavioural outcomes and more concerned with the quality of students’ thinking.

It became the overriding concern of values education that programmes should not favour any particular religious or philosophical point of view. Programmes and approaches were developed which presented as being neutral and without religious or moralistic bias.

It was seen as important that any values teaching be non-sectarian and non-doctrinaire.

The outcome has been that young people, regardless of their social, racial and economic background, have absorbed the unmistakable message that right and wrong are relative, that they must not be judgmental, that what is right for one person may be wrong for another. Right and wrong are personal values, never objective, and always dependent upon time, place and circumstance.

This is not a neutral position but the doctrine of situation ethics, moral and cultural relativism.

Curriculum developers in an attempt to eliminate doctrinal bias simply traded perceived indoctrination with the traditional upstanding that there are core universal values for indoctrination in the ideology of ethical relativism

Neutrality in values education is an unachievable aim.

Schools must promote some moral values if they are to work at all.

Everything a school does teaches values. Whether it is the way the principal treats her staff, the way the class teacher relates to her students, the way the school allows students to treat each other or whether or not the school choices to discuss moral issues.

In developing an approach to values education New Zealand curriculum developers imported, particularly from the United States, programmes and resources.

James S. Leming (1) suggests that if we are to develop effective character education we need to learn from the mistakes of the past and create new models that are guided by the past but incorporate the most effective practice of the present.

To achieve this schools must understand two things.

  1. How schools influence the development of character
  2. How character is learned

Whatever the approach it must integrate knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour.

The foundation of character is a comparatively small set of precepts, objective or cornerstone values.

These cornerstone values, work in three interrelated parts.

For me to be compassionate, for example, I must first have moral knowledge. I must know what compassion is.

But knowledge, by itself, does not make me compassionate. I must also care about compassion and be emotionally committed to it. That is, I must have the capacity for appropriate guilt when I behave without compassion and be capable of moral indignation when I see others as the victims of injustice.

Yet even an emotional commitment to compassion will not make me compassionate. A further step is needed.

I must practise compassion in my personal relationships and carry out my obligations as a citizen to help build a just and caring society.

These three parts of a cornerstone value - moral knowledge, moral attitudes and moral behaviour can be expressed as the involvement of the head, the heart and the hand.

These cornerstone values, precepts, are inextricably linked to character, defined by Thomas Lickona (2) as knowing the good, desiring the good and doing the good.

Just as a cornerstone value has three interrelated parts which involve the head, the heart and the hand, so too, has character.

The starting point for effective character education is not programmes and resources but understanding what character is why character is important and how character is learned.


Part 3: Character Education - Implementation

NZ Principal - June 2005

Effective character education is not an addition to an already crowded curriculum. Rather, it uses the existing curriculum, the school culture and the relationships within the school to define and model good character.

In the past, when character education was prescribed in school curricula, it was advised that character was best taught by precept and example.

That guiding principle remains valid today.


Teaching of the precepts or the definitions of the character traits (cornerstone values) is essential to character formation. Without the precepts there is no shared understanding of what, for example, compassion, is. Neither is there the development of the vocabulary and moral literacy essential for discussion or school wide focus on character.

The definitions are also important because character formation involves three relational elements, moral knowledge (head), moral attitude (heart), and moral behaviour (hand).

The precept provides the essential knowledge of character traits while the school culture and relationships foster attitudes to good character and influence behaviour.


Character is learned over time by being observed, by being experienced and by being modelled

The character traits or cornerstone values that a school seeks to develop must inform and direct everything that happens in a school. Regardless of whether it is in the principal's office, at the board table, in the classroom or out in the playing field.

Without consistency between what is taught in the classroom and what is observed in the wider school environment character education is reduced to a pretence.

In addition to the teaching of the precepts the law of consequences and rational decision-making are also intentionally taught.

The law of consequences

The law of consequences, or cause and effect, and rational decision-making are inextricably linked to the precept of responsibility. To be responsible involves taking the possible consequences of one's decisions and choices into account.

Teaching the law of consequences, what happens in the beginning determines what happens in the end, is an essential component in character formation.

To be responsible one needs to be keenly aware that the consequences of one's attitudes, decisions and behaviour may be varied, unexpected, complex and far-reaching.

Rational decision-making

A three-step rational decision-making that applies the law of consequences is also intentionally taught.

Awareness of the implications of the law of consequences and the practice of rational decision-making are essential to building good character.

The rational decision-making process can also be used as an effective strategy in disciplinary situations.

Using the existing curriculum

While some curriculum areas, like, for example, literature, social studies, history and sport, appear to lend themselves more readily to character education the fact is that all areas of the curriculum can be used to teach character. If the content of a curriculum area can not be used to teach character the way the class is managed and class activities organised can always be used to teach character.

All teachers and the school support staff are character educators.

Literature, the study of heroes, and community service, provide powerful opportunities for teaching character.


All cultures, regardless of oral or written tradition have passed core values from generation to generation through stories. Story telling has always been the favoured strategy by the world's great moral teachers.

Paul C. Vitz (1) suggests that there are three reasons why stories are so effective in educating for character.

Thousands of finely crafted stories, from all cultures, can make such character traits as honesty, compassion, respect and responsibility, come alive to children. Through the power of imagination children become vicarious participants in the story. They share the character's choices and challenges and interact with stories in a way that is not possible with film or television.

Imagination is important in building character, for it is not good enough to merely know what is right. One needs the desire to do what is right.

Bibliographies of books that build character and school journal stories categorised in character precepts have been compiled to assist the busy teacher. (2)


The study of true heroes gives students models of character traits as they are displayed in real life situations of personal danger or challenge. For it is in the crises, the crucibles of life, that character is tested and revealed.

Heroes differ from celebrities whose status is fleeting. Celebrities are known simply because they are well known.

The study of true heroes who exist in all communities teaches that:

The stories of true heroes are timeless and provide models of character traits that transcend time, space and distant.

Community Service

To create an ethos of service, as with other traits of character, requires learning by doing. To develop empathy and caring for others and compassion for those who suffer, young people need ongoing, firsthand experience in face-to-face helping situations. The school can provide these by developing community service projects and encouraging students to become involved in the community.

Teaching a character trait a term

Effective character education requires an approach that is comprehensive, continuous, competent and critiqued.

This can be efficiently achieved by covering one character trait per term.

Such an approach should include:

There is no need for the busy teacher to flesh out this skeletal outline. Teacher friendly resources (3) including an A2 sized desktop planner and a set of eight teacher friendly resource folders have been developed to remove the drudgery from planning. These resources provide the preparation for eight school terms.

Surveys to evaluate (4) the effectiveness of a school's approach to character education have also been developed.


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