This blog is the second in a series.Click here to read the first blog "Defining Character".

The founding purposes of modern schooling: training true life, holistic experiences

Huffman (1993) notes that “early schools treated the transmission of knowledge as secondary to character development” (p.24). Edward Thring, the famous Headmaster of Uppingham School in the 1800s and a prominent influence on education in England, argued the purpose of education as formation of student character, involving both the training of their intellect and the development of a well-rounded person equipped to respond to the challenges of life. Similar sentiments are echoed by renowned 20th Century Australian headmaster, Rod West.

Kurt Hahn, a German educator, believed that it was through the involvement in a breadth of different experiences at school that student character for formed and shaped (Hilby, 2000). Hahn’s philosophy saw the founding of the Duke of Edinburgh Award, Outward Bound movement, Salem School in Germany, the famous Gordonstoun School in Scotland and, more recently, the Round Square network of schools across the world who share a common purpose of character development, student leadership and global awareness.

Philosophical forces influencing character education through the 20th Century

Post World War II schooling emphasized right and wrong for society and the value of hard work in building it. During the 1960’s, especially in the USA, character education was influenced by individual rights with the rise of personalism, pluralism and secularization. Belief in objective moral norms were eroded resulting in a move from direct teacher instruction to the development of moral reasoning skills and students being supported to clarify their own values.

The 1970s saw the rise in moral relativism. Teachers were expected to take a neutral and passive approach to teaching what was morally right and wrong. However, the 1980s saw the return to direct instruction. This was supported by coherent school policies and an emphasis on citizenship.

In the 1990s specific teaching of core ethical values featured prominently as it was considered necessary to reduce antisocial behaviour and societal violence that was on the rise. By the close of the 20th century teachers and schools were considered as being heavily responsible for the delivery of moral and character education (Edmonson et al., 2009).

Key features of contemporary character education often include:

1. An emphasis on the needs of the individual and the specific context and identity of a school. This relates to the expectations of parents, the personalization of learning, and the explicit or implicit purposes of a school community.

2. Developing well-rounded citizens. There is emphasis on supporting social and emotional development so they can understand themselves, improve weakness and develop their purpose in life in order contribute to the world. This includes improving citizenship and employment prospects (UK Department of Education, 2017).

3. Participation in service learning. This prominent strategy connects real life situations with academic learning and civic responsibility to develop moral and ethical values through observation and practice.

4. Co-development of “character” and “wellbeing”. Both character education and wellbeing programs work on positive character traits (even virtues) playing crucial roles in growing well-rounded, resilient individuals with the capacity to success and flourish (The Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues, 2022). While character education emphasises the development of positive personal strengths in a deep way, wellbeing programs primarily are directed towards student health (mental, physical, social and emotional, spiritual) in the day-to-day rigors of life.

5. Delivery and modelling from both schools and parents. Research shows that students achieve their best outcomes when parents are engaged in their schooling, and the development of character is no different (Berkowitz & Bear, 2005). Parent involvement in the school character education program should be encouraged and fostered.

6. Preparation for an increasingly volatile and unknown world. Today, students need to be equipped for the future in a world that is experiencing an evolving global economy, worsening global problems (not least COVID-19), climate impact, galloping inequality, deepening mistrust and increasing stress for adults and young people. Character education must meet this situation by empowering and developing the personal virtues for students to flourish individually and be wise and compassionate contributors to society (Fullan, 2021; Fullan & Quinn, 2020).

Conclusion: Defining Character Education

Character education refers to a planned, comprehensive, and systematic approach to teach values such as self-respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, and citizenship.
Edmonson et al, 2009, p. 3
Character Education includes all explicit and implicit educational activities that help young people to develop positive personal strengths called virtues.
The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue, 2020, p.7

From these definitions from literature, and the themes argued for in this article, the following definition is proposed.

Character education is the planned, comprehensive and systematic approach of all educational activities that develops positive personal virtues (moral, civic, performance, intellectual). It aims to intentionally, explicitly and implicitly develop students with the capacity and capability to flourish in their life and make a worthwhile contribution to a changing world.

An extended essay on this topic can be downloaded here.

Reference List

Berkowitz, M., & Bier, M. (2005). Character education: A study of effective character education programs shows that full parent involvement is a must. Educational Leadership, 63(1), 64-69.

Edmonson, S. Tatman, S. R., Slate, J. R. (2009) Character Education: A Critical Analysis. Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, Volume 4, Number 1.

Fullan, M. (2021). The right driver for whole system success.

Fullan, M. & Quinn, J. (2020). Education Re-imagined: The Future of Learning.

Hilby, S. (2000). Kurt Hahn and the Aims of Education. Thomas James Illustration, UK.

Huffman, H. (1993). Character education without turmoil. Educational Leadership, 51(3),24-26.

The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, (2022). The Jubilee Centre Framework for Character Education in Schools. The University of Birmingham, Birmingham.

UK Department of Education (2017). Developing Character Skills in Schools, Department for Education,


Peter Gibson

Peter Gibson is the Dean of Character Education at Barker College. Previously, Head of Senior School (Deputy Principal) at Shellharbour Anglican College and Head of Boarding at Trinity Grammar School, he is a highly experienced educational leader. Peter has led school communities in the development of academic performance built on a Growth Mindset approach to learning. He has been successful in leading the development of the pastoral care programs and has extensive breadth of experience and expertise in co-curricular activities. In his current role, he is leading an exciting innovation in developing the concept of Character and Enterprise Education as well as the implementation of Round Square K-12.