Defining character education

Written by: Maria O’Neill & Mike Buchanan | Published:
Image: iStock

Character education – how can you define it and what does it look like in the classroom and beyond? Maria O’Neill and Mike Buchanan gives their own definitions of what character is (and is not) and discuss how we can deliver it

Nowadays, pupils are faced with many challenges within their school environment as well as within their real and virtual lives outside the school walls.

In order to deal with these challenges successfully, and in a manner that enables them to remain mentally and physically healthy, pupils need to have a well-developed moral compass and personal skills.

It is our strong belief that the development of the person (pupils and staff) is essential to and complements everything else we do in schools.
Character education and development have been gaining increasing attention within the education sector in the UK.

Research conducted by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham – Character Education in UK Schools – showed that “a concern for the development of a child’s whole character is central to good education and practice” and that the majority of teachers felt their school already had a “whole-school approach to character building”.

However, it pointed to “weak links in the education system, which suggest that moral education needs to be prioritised within a greater number of schools”.

To raise the profile of character education, the Department for Education has launched character education grants – a scheme “to fund schools and organisations promoting traits such as resilience and respect”. The grants are available to schools “that use activities such as sports, debating or music to provide a rounded learning experience for children”.

In this article, we will look at our views of what character education is and explore practical ways in which we can promote character education within our learning communities. We intentionally use the verb “to promote” as we strongly believe that many of us already do work in this area without formally acknowledging it as character education.

What is character education?

Before answering this question, it is important to look first at what character education is not.

“Character education is not the same as behaviour control, discipline, training, or indoctrination, it is much broader. Character is an inclusive term for the individual as a whole.” (Nucci et al, 2014)

It reinforces the “whole child” agenda that shifts the emphasis from academic achievement to long-term learning and development.

  • Character education is not about “fixing” our young people.
  • It is not about giving them pre-determined strategies on how to get along with their peers, teachers or family members.
  • It is not about reinforcing accepted rules and teaching pupils right from wrong with the aim of improving their behaviour.

Establishing sanctions and rewards systems can lead to temporary changes in behaviour, but the outcomes will not be sustainable.

Character education requires us to dig deeper and look at moral principles, ethos and virtues that underpin human behaviours.

It is defined by Dr Thomas Lickona (1996) as: “The deliberate effort by schools, families and communities to help young people understand, care about, and act upon core ethical values.”

It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of character education as its outcomes are “a complex set of psychological characteristics that motivate one to function as a moral agent” (Berkowitz, 1997).

Another challenge is that we have different concepts and understandings of moral values. This will cause problems for some as we are used to operating in evidence, results and accountability-driven environments. We are often forced to use quick-fix solutions that will bring immediate results without dealing with the root of the problem/s.

Dr Marvin Berkowitz (1997) claims that: “Effective character education is not adding a program or set of programs to a school. Rather it is a transformation of the culture and life of the school.”

Promoting character

Research suggests that: “Effective character education tends to include: professional development; student interactive pedagogical strategies; an explicit focus on character/ethics; direct training of social and emotional competencies; modelling of character; aligned classroom/behaviour management strategies and community service and/or service learning.” (Berkowitz & Bier, 2007)

So, how can we promote character education within our school communities?


When we are dealing with a change in school culture, we are dealing with many different components that form educational communities: beliefs, values, climate, relationships, patterns of behaviour, written or unwritten rules, and, most importantly, ‘‘the way we do things’’.

It is vital to ensure that staff are given training to develop their own personal skills and time to gain a deeper understanding of the issues and processes relating to softer skills education and development. This can be achieved through various sustainable forms of CPD activities that enable teacher growth and teacher change through reflection and collaboration. Examples might include coaching, action research projects, staff book clubs, Lesson Study or staff working groups.

The curriculum

PSHE lessons are an obvious means of providing directed time for developing skills that form part of character education.

We can also approach more traditional topics like sex and relationships education, for example, from a different angle. We can talk about loving relationships and put an emphasis on what qualities people need to display in order to sustain this loving relationship. If the relationship does break down, how are we expecting the couple to behave? What qualities do they need to have in order to preserve each other’s dignity and respect after the relationship has ended?

This is particularly important today, in the era of social media, when private information can become public very quickly. But PSHE lessons are not the only platform from which to promote character education. We can do so through other subjects in a less formal way. Thus, we can promote resilience and grit in PE lessons, empathy in religious education, diversity and understanding in languages education.

Most subjects, well-taught, will enable the learner to think, to feel and to see differently. If they do not do this they are not worth teaching. But some experiences transform the very essence of the person.

These transformative experiences always involve a deep personal enlightenment on the part of the young person; a greater understanding of who they are and how they fit into the world. They can happen as an active participant or as a passive observer. Typically but not exclusively, they happen on or in front of a stage, in or in front of an orchestra or band, and in front of an easel or at a gallery. Participation in and appreciation of drama, music and art are among the most powerfully transformative experiences our young people can have because they require you to express yourself. To do so requires you to examine and understand yourself and others.

It is essential that as teachers, we consistently work together at promoting character education. For example, through ensuring academic rigour, we can all promote discipline, academic honesty and hard work. It is vital that every single member of the school community accepts the shared responsibility for character education so that it becomes ‘‘part of the fabric of the community’’ (Gelpi, 2008).

Holistic extra-curricular opportunities

It is our responsibility to provide opportunities for students to develop good character. These opportunities can include:

  • Extra-curricular activities that build collaborative skills, communication skills, creativity and critical thinking (the 4Cs) and respect, responsibility and relationships (the 3Rs).
  • Peer support groups with a particular focus: e-cadets or digital leaders, mental health ambassadors, body image groups, peer supporters, fundraising, etc.
  • Leadership training and creating responsibility posts for the pupils.
  • Community service volunteering opportunities and establishing partnerships with outside agencies that could provide training or work experience.


In order for character education to be absorbed by our pupils, it must become an integral, natural part of school life. It needs to be reflected in the school ethos and values and incorporated into all parts of day-to-day school life and routine, because “everything in a school’s moral life affects character, for good or for ill”. (Gelpi, 2008).

  • Maria O’Neill is the life choices and charity co-ordinator at Bablake School in Coventry and Mike Buchanan is the head of Ashford School in Kent.

Further information

Character Education in UK Schools, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, 2015:


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