Teaching Tuesday: What Is Character Education?

Young students helping each other learn in class

With an everchanging society and drastic transformations in our youth due to many circumstances, it is an obligation of educators to consider how we develop young people. When entering the field of education, many of us choose this path to make an impact. That impact does not usually mean accurately teaching students how to solve linear functions — it typically means shaping young students into better humans.

But how do we do that in this bureaucratic system? We embed character education into all that we do! We intentionally focus on teaching our students to demonstrate character through the content we are already providing and the environment we support them in. That is character education.

In This Article:

What Is Character?

Before we dive further into what character education is, we must consider what character is. Character can be defined in various forms, depending on personal contexts. Some examples include:

  • Understanding, caring about and acting upon core ethical values.1
  • The set of characteristics that motivate and enable one to function as a moral agent, do one’s best work, effectively collaborate in the common space to promote the common good, and effectively inquire about and pursue knowledge and truth.2
  • A set of personal virtues that produce specific moral emotions, inform motivation and guide conduct.3
  • The traits and moral or ethical qualities distinctive to an individual.4

In all definitions and ideas, we know character is made up of virtues. Some may call virtues values, characteristics, assets or other — essentially, they can be considered synonymous. According to the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, virtues are categorized into four domains:3

  • Intellectual
  • Moral
  • Civic
  • Performance

All domains work together to build one’s character and are guided by the meta-virtue, practical wisdom. This helps individuals balance virtues and discern ethically right choices in situations that lead to flourishing or living to one’s potential. Each of these virtues and domains are significant when considering character and character education.

As outlined by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, character is caught, taught and sought and includes the traits or virtues that allow us to respond appropriately in different situations.3 Character is caught by others every day. We naturally model for others what our virtues are and what they mean. Family members, students, friends and coworkers all catch character from those around them. They see it in the actions, choices and words of others at home, at work and in the community.

What is character education in schools? It is in the moments when we teach character unintentionally. So, educators and leaders should be conscious of how they model character, virtues and decision making in their interactions with students. Educators and leaders also teach character intentionally. For example, one might talk with a student about how to do the right thing. This can be taught through literature, experiences, dilemmas, debates and explicit teaching of character and virtues.

Educators and leaders all strive for themselves, their students and peers to seek, desire and pursue character. That is a goal of character education, which leads to the ultimate goal — human and societal flourishing.

Character Education Definition

So, how do we define character education?

Character education is a comprehensive school-based approach that includes an intentional focus on promoting character, virtue formation and ethical decision making through school curriculum, ethos, activities and engagement with family and community. Educators lead, teach, serve and learn with character to promote individual and collective flourishing. Character education aims to develop and strengthen virtues and moral decision making because practical wisdom in self and others cultivates a society where all can live well in a world worth living in.

Character education is not meant to be a means to an end. The purpose is not to help others develop virtues only to fix their mindsets or behaviors, to increase their academic potential, or push an agenda. Surely, being a person of character may impact these, but this is not the sole purpose. The goal of character education is to help individuals and society flourish.

Character education is not just about skills and behaviors, but about a moral grounding in decision making and using practical wisdom. Too much or too little of any virtue can be harmful. For example, a character education program without a moral compass might focus on teaching resilience, but resiliency can be used in excess such as in criminals who continue to commit crimes. Instead, individuals must find the golden mean of our virtues and use that to guide us in making the right choice in an ethical situation.

Character education has a place in the culture and functions of families, classrooms, schools and other institutions. Every organization must determine their mission and vision pertaining to character education, including which virtues they value and how they’ll define them with stakeholder input. Then, they work together to model and teach the core virtues. Modeling and teaching the core virtues should be part of the school culture, the assemblies, hallways, behavior approach, curriculum, after school activities, parent communications, staff professional learning and all other aspects of the school.

Students should be provided with opportunities to learn about the virtues and virtuous action, be provided opportunities to practice the virtues, and seek opportunities for developing their character. It’s about helping students grasp what’s ethically important and teaching them how to act for the right reasons, so they become more autonomous and reflective in the practice of virtue.

What Are the Components of Character Education?

The Jubilee Centre has researched character and virtues from an Aristotelian view and has designed the building blocks framework. We can teach these virtues to our students and facilitate the integration and application of the virtues with students, families, staff and administrators. The following are key components of character education.3

Ethical Decisions and Moral Virtues

Understanding moral virtues helps your students make decisions that align with positive ethics and act honestly. These virtues include honesty, humility, compassion, integrity, kindness and empathy. Now more than ever, classrooms and communities rely on these virtues to help run smoothly and efficiently.

Growth Mindset and Performance Virtues

The growth mindset helps students to cope with challenging situations. While stressful circumstances can often arise for students in school, teaching the performance virtues can equip students with strategies to apply resilience. Performance virtues include resilience, determination, perseverance, leadership, self-discipline and motivation.

Community Support and Civic Virtues

Civic virtues help individuals recognize responsible citizenship and develop character. Show your students how to practice community support by reading children’s literature about volunteering, telling stories of local support practices, and showing pictures of others helping their community.

Curiosity and Intellectual Virtues

Fostering a classroom environment of curiosity will help students apply this curiosity in their everyday life. Intellectual virtues are reflection, resourcefulness, communication, critical thinking, curiosity and reasoning. We can help students develop their intellectual virtues as we motivate them to enjoy learning as well as to seek out their own additional learning opportunities.

Why Is Character Education Important?

The simple truth is students will learn far more from teachers by their actions than their words. Students will observe and learn about character from their teacher’s character. No initiative or program will surpass the skills teachers already possess.

Character education is a wonderful and noble goal, and the pillars of character become relevant when teachers can successfully connect the concepts to individual lives. Yes, this approach takes time, a lot of energy and a tremendous amount of care, but after all, changing lives is the foundation of the teaching profession.

In all, character education is nurturing the flourishing of human goodness! Developing good character is not just for habits in school, but for life development. Students should learn how to exhibit good character in their life and future professions. To leave that lasting impact so many educators join the field for, character education is the way. Teaching good character is good education.

You may feel like this is just another thing to add to your already full plate, but character is not an extra — character is the plate. Character education is not a project to work on or something we do in isolation. It guides us in our everyday lives and is what we demonstrate in our beliefs, behaviors and being. It's about knowing, feeling and doing what’s ethically important.

You already have character! So be intentional about how you model and teach it, so that others can catch it, learn it, and then impart their character on others, too. Check out all of the articles from Teaching Tuesday and return each month for a new post. Learn more about Grand Canyon University’s College of Education and our degree programs and join in our efforts to elevate character education. 

1 Character.org. (n.d.). Schools & Education. Retrieved on July 12, 2023.

2 Berkowitz, M. (2021). PRIMED for Character Education Six Design Principles for School Improvement. Eye on Education

3 The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues. (n.d.). Why Does Character Matter? Retrieved on July 12, 2023.

4 Kilen, M. (2022, August 1). ‘Trusty’ Trio to Lead New Character Center. GCU News.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.