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June 1, 2000
Vol. 42
No. 4

Talking About Ethics and Character Education

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      The next time you pick up the daily newspaper, read the front page and ask yourself, What is the dominant language in which these articles are written?
      "I think you'll find that it's twofold," said Rushworth Kidder of the Institute for Global Ethics, author of How Good People Make Tough Choices (New York: Morrow, 1995). "Newspaper stories are written either in the language of politics or in the language of economics." The language of politics, Kidder said, always asks, Who's winning? The language of economics always asks, Where's the bottom line?
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      Photo by Mark Regan
      "If we're going to move forward as a culture, there has got to be another language of public discourse, and it has got to ask the question, What's right?" Kidder maintained. "That may or may not be synonymous with who's winning or where the bottom line is. It is a distinct and unique language. And it's not a language that we're particularly comfortable talking about." Kidder emphasized the importance of character education, and he described seven qualities of successful character education programs — his seven E's:
      • Empowered. Teachers are empowered to teach character education, Kidder said, because our society is calling for it. Survey data show broad public support for character education in schools, he noted. "You really can do this."
      • Effective. It's possible to teach character education effectively, Kidder asserted. "We have all kinds of evidence that when you intervene with a character education process, students come to understand a lot of things that they didn't understand before," he said. "It really [improves] their moral reasoning capabilities."
      • Extended into the community. The community should help the school understand what values are important and then support the school's program, Kidder said. He added a word of caution: "Don't ever try to set up a character education program without getting the community involved first, because that's when you run into the buzz saw of people saying, Whose values will you teach?"
      • Embedded. "Don't do a character education program off by itself; don't create an ethics ghetto over in one corner of the curriculum," Kidder warned. "Integrate it throughout the curriculum." Teachers don't have time to teach an add-on course about ethics, "but you can get the ethical message into every single course," he said.
      • Engaged. "Get the community engaged by addressing those topics that they already feel are deeply important," Kidder said. The public today is concerned about sportsmanship, cheating, and technology, he noted. "As you teach computer skills to kids, first talk about the ethics of computers," he suggested.
      • Epistemological. "Develop a conceptual framework, a way to talk about ethics," Kidder advised. "Do more than bring kids together to chat about moral ideas." Some programs that offer students no guidance may yield lots of fun but no particular learning, he cautioned. "There is a coherent way to think about the meaning of ethics and to help students wrap themselves around it."
      • Evaluative. Build some structure, such as pre-tests and post-tests, that will enable you to chart students' progress, Kidder said. He offered "a pretty good five-point scale" that spans from (1) awareness, to (2) the confidence to think about and make ethical decisions, to (3) the capacity to use that confidence in a practical way in one's own life, to (4) the capacity to use that practical experience in the community, to (5) the capacity to be an agent for change — to take these ethical ideas and make a difference in the world. "You can move people through those stages, and you can evaluate where they are on those stages," he said.
      In closing, Kidder urged educators to have faith that they, as individuals, really can make a difference. Many people who have survived horrific childhood experiences to become successful, happy adults cite one person — often a teacher — whose moral example had a profound impact on their lives, he said. "The power of a single example is phenomenal."

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