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Virginia Journal of Education

Why We Need Character Education

A longtime educator makes the case for teaching our young people values and virtues in school.

By James E. Pirkle

“Almost all the literature in the first 150 years or so focused on what could be called the character ethic as the foundation of success—things such as integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule.”
—Stephen Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

We sure could use more of the qualities Covey wrote about today, perhaps more than ever. Our culture is awash in negativity, incivility, insults, bullying/harassment, self-centeredness, physical and mental abuse, the breakdown of families, violence, suicides and hate groups. Throw in violent movies and TV programs, technology addiction, substance abuse, materialism and dishonesty, and it seems clear that our schools cannot be ethical bystanders.
Most people see the problem, but there are few widespread commitments to do something about it.

Our classrooms are a kaleidoscope of students, all with ongoing needs for recognition, self-worth, empathy and belonging. Our curriculum, which always had an inherent character development component, seems too caught up in the constant pressure to raise test scores to spend any time on that component nowadays. However, what ends up being sidelined is the mission to ensure that our youngsters become the kind of quality, trustworthy human beings we all want them to be.

“Education worthy of its name is essentially education of character.”
—Martin Buber, philosopher

David Brooks, a prolific writer and accumulator of vast amounts of research about social behavior, has said, “We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say. Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills. Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions.” We cannot neglect this important part of students’ well-being, which is essential to any mentally and emotionally peaceful, responsible citizen.

 As educators, we know that the primary responsibility for character development lies at home. But, also as educators, we can see that many of our students lack it. Another thing many of today’s students seem to lack is an “other-oriented” perspective—too many are very narcissistically self-centered. (Sadly, there is no lack of this in the adult population, either.)

If we use some of the qualities we want to nurture in our students, like strength and courage, we can still set the boat aright.

"To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society."
--Theodore Roosevelt, American adventurer and president

We need a school environment in which students feel and know they are valued at heart by their classmates and educators. Students of all ages need to feel they are cared for and understood—absolute ingredients for wholesome development. An intuitive truth has emerged: without a warm, nurturing environment, students are less likely to learn. When students understand they are valued, respected, and appreciated for who they are, their levels of motivation and achievement grow, as do their abilities to have positive relationships and show respect, kindness and appreciation to one another. Not to teach these virtues is a grave moral failure on the part of schools, which should instead help our students learn core values, embrace them, and make them part of their own lives.

“All our lives, we search for ways to satisfy our needs for love, belonging, caring, sharing, and cooperation.  If a student feels no sense of belonging in school, no sense of being involved in caring and concern, that child will pay little attention to academic subjects.”   
--William Glasser, American psychiatrist and writer

When students understand one another and become positive and accepting of each other, they begin to develop a sense of community as well as a sense of responsibility for their fellow members of community. And, as they learn how to become others-oriented and to build positive relationships, they began to believe in themselves, to see themselves as good persons, worthy of value. As they look, they see. And as they see, they learn the virtues so critical to positive character. If we can help our students on this pathway, then we are taking the necessary steps to fulfill the two main goals of education—to help our youngsters become smart and good, leading to peace—personally, community-wide and worldwide.

Teachers know that some youngsters already have a certain moral indifference toward others, and some also have a built-in disregard for others, without any clear justification. We’ve probably all seen a “loner” in the classroom. Abraham Maslow once wrote, “No psychological health is possible unless the essential core of the person is fundamentally accepted, loved and respected by others and himself.”

We need to find approaches that help to bring about a stable moral intelligence and the virtues that help ensure sound, well-adjusted students. All educators, therefore, are “nurture-ologists” in helping students along this path. We are automatically caregivers, modeling for and mentoring students with compassion and respect, setting good examples of the ethos of moral leadership in the school community.

“All children need a sense of connectedness to a community, engagement in something beyond self, and an inner compass to help them resist negative cultural and street lures.”
 --Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president, Children’s Defense Fund

The Character Education Partnership (website), a national organization, has embraced the importance of character education in schools. Diane Berreth, a Deputy Executive Director at CEP, has pointed out that “character education is an essential element of successful school reform because it helps reduce negative student behavior, improve academic performance, and prepare young people to be responsible citizens.”

As we look at the importance of character education as a major component in the curriculum, it’s worthwhile considering that no matter what kind of person any of us are, we are all capable of change. In the longtime “nature vs. nurture” debate about who and what we are and become, it’s sometimes suggested these two philosophies are in perpetual conflict. While emphasizing the effects of one or the other may have some merit, nature and nurture also complement each other.

Our genes do determine connections in our brain and form innate templates there. However, the experiences we encounter in life also have an important impact on reshaping the mind and bringing about patterns of new behavior. Biologists, psychologists and neuroscientists have learned from a growing body of research that the brain is not a fixed entity. Neuroscience research has revealed that the brain has “neuroplasticity”—the ability to adjust to a variety of experiences, information and new perceptions—and can then reprogram itself. For example, many of our brains are becoming programmed to be Internet- or technology-dominant, which may result in shortchanging the literate side of the brain.

Educator and author John Bradshaw explains it succinctly: “Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of neurons to forge new connections, to blaze new paths through the cortex, even to assume new roles. In shorthand, neuroplasticity means rewiring of the brain.” He also jumps into the importance of human relationship-building, saying, “It is human connection that shapes the neural connections from which our mind emerges.”

Neuroplasticity illustrates that we can and do change, that we’re not just “locked” into previous or old patterns of thought or behavior. We can help young people probe more deeply and discover the suitable descriptors, principles and vocabulary defining the positive characteristics that lie within us.
Character education is a moral imperative if we care about the future of our children and our community. One way to illustrate this is to reflect on Joel Barker’s little story, “The Star Thrower,” which many of you will be familiar with.

The story is about a wise man walking down the beach one day. In the distance he saw a human figure moving like a dancer. As he got closer, he could see that it was a young man, but he wasn’t dancing. He was bending down, picking up something and throwing it into the ocean. As he got closer, he asked the young man what he was doing. The young man explained he was throwing starfish into the ocean. The wise man asked, “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” The young man explained that the sun was up and the tide was going out and that if he didn’t throw the starfish in the ocean they would die. Perplexed, the wise man in his logical wisdom said, “Young man, don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach with starfish all along it? You can’t possibly make a difference.” The young man listened politely, bent down and threw another starfish into the sea and said, “It made a difference for that one!”

The young man’s action replicates what educators believe: that there is something special in each of our students and we have the ability to make a difference. We can begin the pathway to shape the future for the good. Educators can bring this about. The results will reveal themselves over time and you will have reinforced the reason you decided on a career in education—because you care.

Pirkle, who holds a PhD in Educational Leadership and Support from the University of Florida, has served in an array of educational positions, including teaching overseas and at West Virginia and Longwood Universities. He also developed and used the Validation Plan ( throughout his career. Now retired, he lives in Richmond and is available to help schools implement the Validation Plan.


A Recipe for Sound Character


While many educators are in complete support of character education, some are left wondering how to make it a practical reality in the classroom. James Pirkle, author of the accompanying article, has a solution to offer. It’s called The Validation Plan, and it’s something he’s worked on and developed over the course of his more than 30 years in education.

Now in use in hundreds of K-12 classrooms, including several areas in Virginia, The Validation Plan is designed to promote responsible citizenship and sound character, while reinforcing the value of academic achievement by asking students to write, read, speak and listen.

The Validation process is simple: Each week students are paired and asked to write a validation about their partner for that week. The teacher (and other adults the teacher would like to participate) is paired with a student for that week as well. There are only two guidelines for writing a validation: what a student writes has to be 100 percent good and 100 percent true.

On a day chosen by the school or teachers, each student pair comes to the front of the class, facing each other, and reads aloud their validations to one another. Then the next partners come up and read their validations until the entire class is finished. At the end the teacher holds a “synthesis session” with the class, reiterating some of the notable, exemplary, touching comments the students have made.

“Validation is not just a program, but a long term investment in one's future” says a Louisa County educator. “It enhances character development by helping individuals become more outwardly focused, to look beyond immediate surface characteristics (e.g. tall/short, thin/heavy, white/black, etc.) and see the good and true things about people.”

“I like people I didn’t like before. Isn’t it great? Don’t tell me that’s magic,” adds a student.

To learn more about The Validation Plan, you can visit or pick up Pirkle’s book, The Validation Plan.

                                                                                    --Tom Allen


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