“Education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in 1947. “The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”
In recent decades, research has lent support to his argument. With our new scientific understanding of the social, emotional, and ethical development of students, I think we can safely say that academic achievement alone no longer counts as a “successful” education. The work of educators shapes human beings—which means that education helps shape our world.
That is why every year at our Summer Institute for Educators we start by asking participants from all over the globe, “What kind of world do you want to live in?” And while their responses may differ, they do have one thing in common: creating all these varied worlds requires people who are kind and good.
So, how can formal education play a role in helping people to embrace kindness and goodness? The building blocks are already there to help educators do this work, namely in the fields of character education, social-emotional learning, and mindfulness. But the magic really happens when all three are integrated together—and are grounded by a sense of purpose and strong moral identity.
Purpose and moral identity provide the “why”
Scientists are starting to make great inroads into understanding the deeper psychological tenets of human morality. Two areas, in particular, are emerging as critical factors in cultivating virtue: purpose and moral identity.
Purpose is inherently moral, as can be seen in its scientific definition: “having a goal in life that you care deeply about and that contributes to the world beyond yourself in some productive sense.” For example, you might aim to transform the health care system into an equitable one and so go into medicine, or your purpose could be to support your family. You might want to live according to your religious or spiritual beliefs or work toward bridging differences.
Moral identity speaks to how important being a good person is to their sense of self. Researchers have found that a strong moral identity encourages students to make ethical decisions and motivates them to behave prosocially even when they don’t get any recognition for it.
Cultivating a sense of purpose and a strong identity, moral and otherwise, is the key developmental task of adolescents. (In truth, this task starts much younger, but it becomes more pronounced in the teen years.) But while teens may be still deciding or actually have an idea of who they want be (moral identity) and what they want to offer the world (purpose), they need guidance and skills to achieve these things. This is where character education, SEL, and mindfulness can help by providing the “how” to purpose and identity’s “why.”
This is especially critical for middle and high school teachers whose students may push back on stand-alone lessons in SEL, mindfulness, or character. Researchers have found that putting these skills into context that relates directly to students’ lives makes the skills meaningful and students more willing to learn them.
Character education provides the “what”
Character education offers students the opportunity to think about what virtues they would like to cultivate and what those virtues look like in action.
While educating young people for character is not a new concept—this idea was at the heart of early American education, as well as ancient Vedic, Buddhist, and Confucian systems of education—schools in the 20th century fell away from this purpose for understandable reasons. With the growing diversity of our communities, “whose values do we teach?” and “whose responsibility is it to teach these values?” became compelling and challenging questions to answer.
The field of character education, however, has not shied away from these questions. Many programs offer a list of virtues such as responsibility, fairness, and honesty to be taught on a monthly basis, mainly through stories, activities, and service projects, and integrated into the school culture and climate. And while some may argue that virtue development is the domain of the family, I would argue that school is a perfect place to practice and discuss—and hence deepen—students’ understanding of virtues and virtuous behavior.
So, in this way, character education provides the “what”—the content of what we are supposed to teach in order to cultivate kind and good people. And the beauty of doing this work in our diverse schools and communities means that educators and caregivers can work together to adapt and create this content to fit their values, and, as a result, grow in their understanding and acceptance of other human beings.
But character education when taught mainly as a list of virtues has its limitations. Students may be able to define and identify qualities such as honesty, gratitude, and integrity, but do they have the skills to put them into action? In other words, how do we help kids to not only know the good, but to actually do the good?
This is where social-emotional learning can help.
Social-emotional learning provides the “how”
Social-emotional learning (SEL) has grown by leaps and bounds in schools in the last 20 years. Very simply, SEL teaches the social and emotional skills that help us build better relationships with ourselves and each other, and to make ethical, caring decisions. Research has found that when implemented correctly, SEL can help increase academic success, improve student attitudes and relationships, and decrease risky behavior.
So, how can SEL support character education? By providing the skills necessary to put virtue into action. In other words, SEL is the “how” to character education’s “what.”
For example, compassion is a virtue found in almost every spiritual and wisdom tradition, and is one that is badly needed in today’s world. While many of us aspire to be compassionate people, the reality is that it can actually be a difficult virtue to express. Indeed, research has discovered that if we feel like someone deserved their suffering, if the other person doesn’t look like us, if we feel like we’re in a rush, or if another person’s suffering is too much to handle—all these things can prevent us from expressing compassion.
Social and emotional skills can help us overcome these inner limitations. Educators all over the world have students in their classes who experience unbelievable challenges in their lives—and a normal response is to act compassionately toward them. But sometimes the emotional toll of seeing so much suffering on a daily basis can lead to burnout, which makes feeling and expressing compassion difficult, if not impossible. However, having the skills to identify, navigate, and release challenging emotions can help educators avoid burnout and continue to act with compassion in a safe, life-giving way.
But SEL, too, has its limitations. We can be equipped with the knowledge and skills for resolving conflict, for lessening our stress, for identifying our biases, for working cooperatively, etc. But can we use these skills in the heat of the moment? If someone says or does something that sets off an emotional trigger in us, can we remain composed enough to actually respond in a way that upholds the virtues we hold dear?
This is where mindfulness can help.
Mindfulness makes it “stick”
Similar to SEL, mindfulness in schools has taken off like gangbusters in the last decade. At the GGSC, we define mindfulness as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” Research on mindfulness in schools, while limited, suggests that students who practice mindfulness show greater well-being, increased academic success, and stronger relationship skills.
For students, mindfulness helps them deepen their awareness of the connection between their emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations, making them better able to regulate their emotions, which then impacts things such as their behavior, stress levels, relationships, and ability to focus.
In other words, mindfulness helps SEL skills to stick by making students capable of using them when needed.
Take, for example, a student who is terrified of tests. When a pop quiz is announced by his teacher, rather than making an excuse to leave the classroom, the student “mindfully” notices that he’s starting to sweat and feel nauseous. This cues him to use his SEL skills for calming himself, including deep breathing and positive self-talk.
How to put it all together
So, to recap, character education provides us with the virtues that we wish to uphold in our lives, SEL gives us the skills to put those virtues into action, and mindfulness helps us to grow our inner awareness and ability to use those skills when needed. And a sense of purpose and moral identity will help students apply these insights into themselves to changing the world for the better.
What does this look like in schools?
Let’s say a middle school student named Mia is working on a group project and notices that a friend is cheating by copying the work of another group, which could ultimately affect the outcome for the whole group. Mindfulness helps her to notice that her fists are clenching and her heart is pounding. She uses her SEL conflict resolution skills to talk to her friend, which helps her to practice honesty and care, both character virtues that are important to her.
The fusion of these ideas also applies to teachers. Imagine a new white, first-grade teacher named John who is struggling with the demands of teaching, along with understanding his culturally and economically diverse students. His practice of mindfulness helps him to take a deep breath to center himself before responding to a student who, according to John, has not followed directions. His self-awareness training in SEL cues him to recognize that he may be making assumptions about his students and that he needs to question those assumptions. Finally, being a warm but demanding educator dedicated to social justice is an important part of his character.
Fortunately, many character, SEL, and mindfulness programs already integrate aspects of these three areas. For example, the MOSAIC program out of Rutgers brings together SEL and character. The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues focuses on character, but has elements of SEL and mindfulness, while CASEL’s new definition of SEL has elements of character. And both researchers and practitioners are beginning to integrate SEL with mindfulness.
So, is this a complete picture of holistic child development that can help create a world filled with kind and good people? Not at all—in fact, it’s a fairly simplistic one. This journey is actually very complex. As child development expert Marvin Berkowitz said: “It’s rocket science.” But it’s a place to start, and it uses the tools that educators already have in their hands.