Developing Performance Character and Moral Character in Youth

By Dr. Matt Davidson, Research Director, Center for the 4th and 5th Rs

This is an article that was printed in The Fourth and Fifth Rs: Respect and Responsibility, Volume 10, Issue 2, Winter 2004.  (Center for the 4th and 5th Rs, School of Education, Cortland, NY  13045  www.cortland.edu/c4n5rs

A person of character embodies both performance AND moral character.  Performance character refers to the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral dispositions needed to achieve human excellence in performance environments-in school, extracurricular activities, and work.  Performance character is built on "willing values" such as perseverance, diligence, and self-discipline.  Moral character refers to the dispositions needed for ethical functioning and includes qualities such as justice, caring, respect, and honesty.  Here are 12 strategies for developing performance character and moral character for success in school and beyond.

  1. Help students make character the core of their identity by challenging them to define who they are in a way that transcends their possessions and achievements.
  2. Have students regularly grapple with existential questions such as: "What is the meaning of life?"  "What is happiness?"  "What gives my life a positive sense of purpose?"
  3. Have students create a personal mission statement defining their life goals and the person they hope to become.  Have them consider performance character, such as goals they want to achieve, and moral character, including how they will make ethical decisions and how they will treat others.
  4. Help students create self-monitoring tools to gauge their progress toward their goals (e.g., keeping a record of their effort to improve in a particular skill or area).  Help them analyze their progress and revise their plans as needed.
  5. Take a stand for academic integrity.  Help students understand how all forms of cheating and plagiarism detract from their education and the education of their peers.  Give them a leadership role in creating a school culture where academic integrity is the norm.
  6. Give students a sense of their school's history and their place in it.  Investigate the school's origins and defining traditions. Help them consider "What does it mean to be a graduate of our school?"
  7. Help students develop critical viewing skills for discerning the moral messages in TV, music, and the internet.  Consider questions such as : "What is the underlying message?" and "What values are being promoted?"
  8. In discussions of controversial material, ensure that all sides of the issue are investigated and adequately represented.  Don't have students merely "clarify" their values; challenge them to develop more informed and principled ways of thinking.
  9. In history and literature classes, discuss moral and performance character as shown by historical or literary figures (e.g., "What made them great leaders?"  "Was there a disparity between their performance character and their moral character?")  In math and science classes, study and discuss inventors and entrepreneurs, considering aspects of their performance and moral character (e.g., "What character traits helped them become great?"  "What character flaws limited their contributions?").
  10. Invite people of exemplary work ethic from a variety of work settings (carpenters, factory technicians, lawyers, business people) to come in to discuss their work (for example, "What do you find satisfying?"), and their work ethic (for example, "How do you approach difficult tasks?").
  11. Cultivate in students a "conscience of craft" regarding the importance of high-quality work and what it looks like.  Develop performance character values such as initiative, effort, creativity, punctuality, neatness, and thoroughness.  Help students see the difference between performance (the outcome) and performance character (the persistent quest to do your personal best).
  12. Provide students with many and varied opportunities to engage in service.  Whenever possible, include academic investigation related to the service (for example, if students are working in a homeless shelter, study the political and economical dimensions of affordable housing).
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