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Character Education Redux: Lessons Kids Need to Learn

Last week, I talked about character education, and whether or not it's possible to teach kids self-control and patience in a school setting. I discussed a charter school in Washington, DC, wherein teaching "responsible behaviors" is part of the daily curriculum, and wondered aloud whether such instruction was a school's job, or the parents' job at home.

A lot of readers replied that I needed to engage my students better or provide more opportunities to connect meaningfully to everything from English instruction to the running of the school. While all of these are good ideas, they're not connected to the question I'm exploring here. What I'm trying to ask is whether character education--the umbrella term for self-control, responsible behaviors, tolerance of delayed gratification, patience, hard work, etc.--can be taught in schools, and secondly, is it the role of schools to do so?

As far as the first question: Judging from the charter school in DC, it certainly seems possible to teach character education. The students there appear to be thriving in such a heavily structured environment. However, it is important to note that the parents of charter school students tend, inherently, to be involved and savvy (as demonstrated by the fact that they've entered the charter school lottery to begin with, and bought into the requirements of the school's charter)--thus, perhaps part of the reason for this charter school's success is that these parents are giving "home training" (to use my students' parlance) to their children before they even enter school.

Moreover, the students at this charter school are younger than the ones I teach, suggesting that perhaps such character education--either at home, or at school--has to begin earlier than the high school years in order to "take." It is a dispiriting thought that, in high school, kids are already too old to have their thinking and work habits augmented, and I don't think it's a statement I'd make categorically; nevertheless, I do think that the earlier in life one learns patience and self-control, the better one's educational outcome should statistically be.

Lastly, to those who discount the importance of character education: You may believe that students in my class (or any class) are improperly engaged, or are not having their interests met, or do not feel connected enough to school as a whole. Be that as it may, it is impossible to deny the causal relationship between basic self-control (in the form of patience, ability to handle delayed gratification, willingness to work hard) and success in every area of life--education, work, relationships, and family. Kids need to learn to deal constructively with difficult tasks--even ones that are subjectively boring or frustrating--as these will appear in even the most charmed life. Thus, these "life skills" must be taught somewhere, and simply coddling our kids by ignoring the problem, or by placating their need for constant stimulus, provides them a disservice in the long run.

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