Experiential Learning

Outdoor Education R&E Center

A Character Education Primer

James Neill
Last updated:
10 Mar 2007


What is Character?

The word 'character' has many different connotations and uses.  For example:

  • A 'character' in a story or cartoon is often an exaggerated prototype. 
  • A person who seems a bit larger than life might be also be called 'a real character'.
  • In educational contexts, 'character' is often considered to refer to how 'good' a person is - in other words, a person who exhibits personal qualities which fit with those considered desirable by a society might be considered to have a good character and developing such personal qualities is often then seem as a purpose of education.  Commonly emphasised qualities include honesty, respect, and responsibility.
  • Here's a few more definitions from Googlism:
    • character is what you do when no one's watching
    • character is what you are in the dark
    • character is needed to lead a good life
    • character is higher than intellect
    • character is the jewel of human life
    • character is the only secure foundation of the state
    • character is in the eye of the beholder
    • character is defined by what you do
    • character is shaped in the womb
  • Quotes about character by presidents of the United States

According to Cornwall (2005):

"Character" is an archaic, quasi-metaphysical term, more related to horoscopes than any scientific concept. It is a term with no agreed upon definition, even among proponents of character education, which, moreover, that confusingly blends personality and behavioral components. This reveals the fundamental problem with character education: how can there be accountability for a program that seeks to address something (a quality, ability, aptitude?) with no clearly defined or quantifiable attributes and which, therefore, can demonstrate neither need nor success.

What is Character Education?

To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace society.
- Theodore Roosevelt

Lickona has defined character education as:

the deliberate, proactive effort to develop good character in kids—or, more simply, to teach children right from wrong. It assumes that right and wrong do exist, that there are objective moral standards that transcend individual choice—standards like respect, responsibility, honesty, and fairness—and that we should teach these directly to young people.

What is a Character Education Program?

Lickona (1991) identified the following facets of character education programs:

  • direct teaching of character values within the school curricula
  • high expectation for responsible behavior
  • a process for implementing positive values when making decisions
  • visual reinforcement of character values to keep students focused on the words, concepts and behaviors
  • a school culture that fosters positive peer recognition and empowers all members of the school community to exemplify behaviors consistent with respect and responsibility
  • parent, student and community involved in decision making of the character education programs.

Other descriptions of the elements of a successful character education program include:

  • Kidder identifies seven elements (Education Update, 2000)
  • Brooks and Kann (1993) identify eleven elements which they believe are essential if character education programs are to improve student conduct and enrich the educational environment.

Character Education is Controversial

Character education is controversial and there have been an increasing number of critiques of the assumptions, methods and values typically promoted in character education (e.g., Brookes, 2003; Cornwall, 2005; Giampietro, 2003).

Links - Character Education


Allman, B. (1999). Developing character when it counts. Torrance, CA: Frank Schaffer.

American School Counseling Association (1998). American School Counseling Association's position statement on Character Education.

Brookes, A. (In press). "A critique of neo-Hahnian outdoor education theory. Part one: Challenges to the concept of 'character building'." Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning.

Brookes, A. (2003). Character building. Why it doesn't happen, why it can't be made to happen, and why the myth of character building is hurting the field of outdoor education. Paper presented at the 13th National Outdoor Education Conference, Marion, South Australia. [.pdf - 3.5MB]

Brooks, B. D., & Kann, M. E. (1993).  What Makes Character Education Programs Work? Educational Leadership, 51(3), 19-21.

Brynildssen, S. (2002). Character education through children's literature. ERIC Digest ED469929.

Cornwall, K. (2005). The problem with character education. Patriotism for All.

Department of Education, University of Boston (n. d.) Character education reading list.

Ethics Resource Center (n.d.) Character education: How to get started.

Giampietro, P. J. (2003). Character education: Another look. Character Education Grant, University of New Hampshire.

Graham, J. (2002). "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?". Keynote address to the West Virginia Safe Schools Conference, 2001.

Huitt, W. (2000). Moral and character development.

Huitt, W. G. (2002). Moral and character development. Valdosta State University. Powerpoint presentation.

International Center for Leadership in Education (n.d.). Character education programs: Developing guiding principles in students.

Education Update (2000).  Talking About Ethics and Character EducationEducation Update, 42(4).

Lickona, T. (1991). Educating for character: How our schools can teach respect and responsibility. New York: Bantam.

Lickona, T. (1993). The return of character education. ERIC Digest.

Lickona, T., Schaps, E., & Lewis, C. (n.d.) Eleven principles of character education.  Character Education Partnership.

Neill, J. T. (2002). Outdoor education and the development of self constructs (self-esteem, self-confidence, self-concept, self-efficacy).

Neill, J. T. (2002). Outdoor education, ethics and moral development.

Otten, E. H. (2000). Character education. ERIC Digest ED444932.

Rusnak, T. (Ed.). (1998). An integrated approach to character education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Singh, G. R., (2001). How Character Education Helps Students Grow.  Educational Leadership, 59(2), 46-49.

University of Illinois Extension (n.d.).Character education: Teaching kids to care.

Vess, K. A., & Halbur, D. A. (2003). Character education: What counselors need to know. ERIC Digest.

Williams, C. E. (n.d.) Character education writings.