by David B. Wangaard, Ed.D., The School for Ethical Education

Character.org has many resources that provide a clear definition of character education and effective practices. It is not unusual, however, to find varying interpretations by educators. Specifically, the distinction between moral and performance character has created a division within the field of character education. Some educators have chosen to focus singularly on performance character such as perseverance, creativity and positive attitude with the goal to market to parents these attributes as uniquely supporting student success. While those values may be well received by parents and the public, it is important to consider why we should include moral values and sustain the connection between moral and performance character.

When Tom Lickona wrote the Character.org white paper on performance values, he didn’t anticipate that the positive and reciprocal connection between moral and performance character would be broken. Dr. Lickona wrote: “Effective teachers model performance and moral character in schools as the teacher teaches well (makes class interesting, stays on task, stops to explain something), and the teacher treats them [students] well (is respectful, kind, and fair).” For definitional purposes, performance character helps us complete our best work, while moral character is needed for our ethical behavior. Performance character values can include diligence, perseverance, initiative, self-discipline (delayed gratification), goal setting, determination and creativity; while moral character values can include integrity, justice, fairness, compassion, care, empathy, humility, respect for others, trustworthiness and generosity. Lickona lamented that some have chosen to emphasize performance character without including moral character in a recent address to the Jubilee Center in England.

Performance character is uniquely important, but minus the ethical influence of moral character it doesn’t pass the ISIS test. ISIS being the terrorist group currently operating out of Syria/Iraq. How does ISIS demonstrate the insufficiency of a singular focus on performance character? What character traits are missing in the activities of ISIS that make them such an abhorrent political and military movement? ISIS certainly does not lack performance character. No one can fault ISIS for its lack of initiative, self-discipline or perseverance. However, ISIS is clearly lacking any commitment to caring and justice as demonstrated to their Christian, Jewish and Shia Muslim neighbors. In addition, there is no evidence that ISIS shows compassion and generosity to people of other cultures. ISIS is clearly missing the guidance of what reasonable people would call moral character values. Thus, performance character alone fails the ISIS test as ISIS is an example where extraordinary performance character can create an immoral monster, unguided by universal moral values and focused only on its own strategic goals.

Let us consider how moral and performance character relates to selected principles from Character.org’s 11 Principles Framework. In Principle 1, the school community is encouraged to identify the core ethical values that unite and establish moral and performance behavioral goals for students and adults. Evaluators for Character.org’s National Schools of Character have recognized that some school communities identify prosocial strategies such as seeking a win/win solution instead of the core character values of respect, caring and fairness that may support this negotiation skill. Prosocial negotiation skills (win/win strategies) can help support a reduction of conflict but they are not character values. The values that support win/win negotiation skills could include the moral character values of respect, care and fairness, which can be strengthened by the performance character values of creativity to seek possible solutions and self-discipline to control one’s emotions during negotiation. Other school goals such as diversity, being unique and being engaged, while all are honorable prosocial objectives, are describing goals or skills that have a basis in moral and/or performance character. School leaders are encouraged to keep these definitions—strategies and skills versus character goals– clear as they establish their core character values (performance and moral) to unite their community around a shared vision for character.

Principle 2 in the 11 Principles Framework promotes the idea that students are taught to understand, appreciate and have regular opportunities to practice core values. For the sake of identifying moral and performance character goals in Principle 2, let us consider a typical school mission statement such as developing ethical students to be college or career ready by graduation. With this mission in mind, we recognize the value of performance character goals such as responsibility, diligence and perseverance. Similarly, our goal to graduate ethical students should include the moral character goals such as caring, respect and integrity. Understanding the moral character goals would help guide students to appreciate and practice these traits and demonstrate ethical behavior in and out of school.

To meet the expectations of Principle 2, we should provide age-appropriate learning opportunities for students to understand the definitions of these character traits through literature and discussion. In addition, we should create opportunities for the students to reflect on the positive worth of these values for success personally and in association with others (teams, clubs, classes, bands, choirs and families). Finally, we would want to plan activities where the students get to practice demonstrating and evaluating their moral and performance character.

The connection of moral and performance character creates an image of a complete and ethical citizen. Ignoring either category or creating an imbalanced focus on one or the other category only hinders the overall goal of graduating an ethical citizen ready for work or further education.

All of the 11 Principles are strengthened by the connection of moral and performance character traits. Principle 5, in particular, highlights the importance of this synergy, with the goal for students to demonstrate moral action. Moral actions include, but are not limited to practicing academic integrity, negotiating non-violent and fair solutions to conflicts and participating in service to others. Clearly there are multiple performance character traits that would help these moral actions be successfully demonstrated. It requires the performance character of moral courage and self-control to resist the peer pressure that exists in most of our high schools for students to avoid cheating. The moral character traits that motivate courage and self-control could be a personal commitment to integrity and fairness. It is impossible to disconnect moral and performance character for students to successfully demonstrate academic integrity. Similar links between moral and performance character would exist for students to solve conflicts peacefully (care and respect connected to self-control and creativity) and to complete meaningful service projects (empathy connected to responsibility, goal setting and perseverance).

School leaders are encouraged to use Character.org’s resources cited here in their own study of moral and performance character. Their well-developed professional resource base can support educators, parents and students to gain the knowledge and appreciate the value of maintaining a strong connection between these two classifications of character.