Character education rests on a simple principle: actions matter. In our day-to-day lives, acts of good character can ben
efit the self and others. Agreeing on that should be easy. What’s next is more difficult. How can we, as education professionals, help schools improve as environments that nurture character development?
If you haven’t recently read How Children Succeed, perused any stellar Promising Practices or reflected on your own experiences as a student, here’s a succinct summary: there are many ways to teach good character. And there’s no specific formula to doing it – at least not yet (fingers crossed and wishing on a star here, folks).
Lucky for those of you starting on that old agrarian calendar system, the staff at Character.org and I figured we could give you some useful tips. If you’re familiar with research in classroom management, that’s where the bulk of this originates. Classroom management (i.e., class structure, time allocation, and instructional practices) is an area where teachers often report wanting additional training. Improvements in classroom management practices are associated with positive impacts for student prosocial behavior (character in action) and academic outcomes. So, let’s get started!
What follows are 6 Useful Tips and Tricks, broken into two blogs, for setting up your classroom to support good character.
Tip 1: Only start with one or two of these
Ambition is a terrific character trait. It is our impetus to do more. One of my favorite lessons learned during a character strengths workshop in London was that weaknesses are often overplayed strengths. So before telling yourself to pick up 5, 6 or a million and one new practices to start the new school year, take a deep breath and remind yourself that change takes time. It’s best to go slow and steady (tortoise and the hare, anyone?). The courage to try to new things, paired with a healthy dose of ambition and perseverance is key.
Tip 2: Alter the classroom
When I say classroom, I’m referring to the entire atmosphere and how you use it. Research suggests four ways you can alter the classroom.
Yourself: As the teacher, you have a certain power of proximity. Taking time to move around the classroom and keep an active presence can make a world of difference. This doesn’t mean you have to become the new ROTC drill sergeant. In fact, sometimes all it takes is knowing that someone is watching to keep students on their best behavior.
Your Desk: Where you place yourself matters. Are you visible? If not, you should be. Is your room set up so that students in need of more guidance and redirection are in your proximity?
Your Bubble: Think about the space in your classroom. There’s some evidence that when people have room to spread out in the classroom, conflicts reduce and on-task behavior and positive interactions increase. Essentially, if you can free up space and remove clutter in your room, it might be a worthwhile investment.
Your Structure: This is all about everything having an obvious place. Research supports the use of dividers to separate learning spaces. They reduce students mobbing and improves on-task behavior since there are less distractions. Granted, this probably works the best for elementary school teachers. In a 2012 study, elementary school teachers rated troubles with distracted students more highly than secondary teachers. For middle school and high school teachers looking to put this into developmentally appropriate practice, utilizing signs and color coordination can do the same trick.
Tip 3: Ask questions … and wait for answers
Types of Questions: I think we know how to ask questions to assess learning. Sometimes during lessons, however, we just need to know that students are following. How do you check if the class is still with you? You ask, of course! The trick is to ask an easy question. Just make sure the information is already there for the students (e.g., the answer was in the question, on the board, or in their notes). This is called “errorless learning” because the chances that a student will succeed are much higher than normal.
Wait Time: When it comes to asking students questions, the amount of time teachers tend to wait is about 1.5 seconds. When you’re up in front of anyone talking, seconds of silence can feel like an eternity. Interestingly enough, there’s less of those beloved shoulder shrugs and “I don’t knows” when teachers wait longer.
Who to Ask: Here, the research allows some flexibility. You can ask either a single student or the class as a whole. Essentially, you’re either calling on a student or you’re asking for a choral response from the class. If you’re calling on students, be sure that everyone eventually gets a chance to respond. If you’re doing choral responses, make sure everyone has time to think and that answers are 5 words or less.
Soliciting Responses: There are a variety of tools that you can use for students to answer your questions. Response cards, mini-white boards and thumbs-up/thumbs-down are easy ways for every pupil to respond. If your class is particularly tech-savvy, you could also try something like polleverywhere. It allows students to anonymously submit responses to questions you pose. It is mobile friendly, and mature high school students might love the opportunity to practice honesty and earning trust.
Wrong Answers: The gist of the research in handling wrong answers is relatively simple. First, let the student know that their answer was incorrect, identify the correct answer and give them another chance to answer. This strategy is great for students who need help developing a bit of courage and grit when it comes to answering questions.
Check back with the Character.org blog on August 18 for tips 4-6.
Calvary Diggs is a past Character.org intern. He is passionate about research, writing, and all things related to character education. You can reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org