Three Aspects of Character

The Character Education Partnership defines character as a three-part concept: understanding, caring about, and acting upon core ethical values. A useful mnemonic for the three parts is head, heart, and hand. In other words, in the CEP definition character includes a cognitive component, an affective component, and a behavioral component. Thus, to become a person of character, a student needs to develop all three aspects.

The cognitive aspect of character is best understood as having two sides: knowledge and reasoning. Students need to know what is right and wrong and be able to figure it out themselves. The latter is especially true when facing novel, ambiguous, or contradictory circumstances, because students cannot be taught the correct response to all possible moral situations. Instead, they often need to figure out responses to moral circumstances on their own.

Schools therefore need to teach knowledge relevant to ethical issues and to implement pedagogical practices that promote the development of relevant reasoning structures, such as moral reasoning, perspective taking, and interpersonal understanding. In other words, schools need to promote critical thinking about socio-moral phenomena.

The second aspect, the affective component of character, requires a different approach than the cognitive aspect of character development does. It entails emotions and motivation. It has to do with valuing goodness; with caring about right and wrong; and with committing to core values such as respect, responsibility, fairness, and caring. As suggested above, one cannot really separate the heart from the head. It is the fostering of empathy and related moral emotions that ignites the heart and, in order to foster such emotions, one needs the cognitive skills to recognize another's feelings and perspectives as well as to understand the related moral issues.

The third aspect, the behavioral element of character, has recently become a broader and richer concept. One way to conceptualize the hand of character is by thinking about a helping hand. This aspect of character is the doing aspect, and in character education, there are two forms of doing that become part of the curriculum - moral action and skills of social-emotional behavior.

By reflecting on experiences that involve moral action, students strengthen the cognitive and emotional aspects of character.  Studies have shown that students involved in a variety of opportunities for civic engagement while in high school are more likely to continue being civically engaged up to three decades later. As students develop, they can become increasingly involved in the creation of such opportunities, increasingly reflective about the experiences, and increasingly abstract in understanding the social and moral meaning of them.

The second form of hand, or doing, comes from learning and practicing behavioral skills that help the student act with good character. Teaching behavior skills not only helps students develop individual character, it also lays the foundation of primary prevention. Therefore, many schools have begun to focus on building students' social and emotional skills. These skills are driven by the theory and research that support what many developmental guidance curricula have been trying to do for a while, typically as mental health "carve-out" or stand-alone add-on curricula.

Regardless of which definition of character one adopts, character should clearly be understood to be (a) psychological, (b) multifaceted, and (c) developmental, Thus, the obvious conclusion would be that character education needs to focus on the multifaceted psychological development of students and therefore needs to rely on a range of diverse educational strategies.

By: Francis David