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Education builds character

6 min read

Voice of the Educator

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”– Albert Schweitzer

My daughter has the ideal work location. It’s not because it is in a warm climate (it’s not) or that her office is so nice (it is). It is because she lives just a little over a mile from her apartment. She can walk back and forth to work every day, so 30 minutes per day of exercise is a part of her daily routine. No need for her to join a gym or buy home exercise equipment — she just has to walk to work everyday and then back home. When exercise is built into anyone’s day and is no longer an add-on or another thing to fit into a busy schedule, someone, like her, can stay healthy just by living her life and doing her job.

This built-in or integrated approach to meeting basic needs can be applied to our schools, which is why I think that character education and social emotional programs would not be necessary if we were truly educating students instead of training them.

Our traditional approach to schools was based on a factory model where workers had to be “trained” to perform actions and repeat them in the same way and at the same time. Anything that distracted them from performing the way the factory prescribed was just a distraction to be extinguished as quickly as possible. A person’s natural interests, including the desire to socially connect to others, needed to be put aside in favor of the required work. Workers needed to be “trained” in a way of acting that was foreign to how they were naturally wired to learn. Since the work they did was arbitrary, relatively meaningless and tedious, they needed to be rewarded for performing in a certain way and penalized for performing in a different way.

Training, however, is a not a bad thing; it is necessary for many tasks but it is not education. People need to be trained to perform technical skills for specific jobs. Their ability to learn is necessary, but it is a means to an end of acquiring the skill for a specific job, not something to be improved for its own sake. Once trained, the training can stop and those who were trained are monitored and evaluated to make sure that they keep their trained skills.

In this factory model of schools, character and social/emotional skills are not integrated into the interactions between teachers and students. There is one main social skill: Do what you are told. Policymakers recognizing that schools are missing this social/character element decided to have character education and social emotional skill training inserted into the traditional structure of schools.

The environment and structure of a school sends a message to students that very often contradicts the content of many social emotional and character education programs. In addition, when the basic structure of schools doesn’t change, neither do the attitudes of many teachers. It’s not surprising that many of them view these programs just as add-ons or distractions from teaching academic content.

Instead of training students, schools should be educating them. Education comes from the Latin words e and ducere–meaning to lead out of. Education therefore is not about creating skills and abilities in people who are blank slates waiting to be shaped and molded. Education assumes that people come ready to learn with special abilities, capacities, interests and affinities, and need guidance and support from human relationships for their unique human qualities to come out. Human beings are in a constant state of becoming: coming out of themselves. They require the right elements and conditions for their authentic selves to emerge and grow. In this sense, education is much more akin to gardening and organic models of growth and development. Educators should be like wise gardeners who know what the necessary conditions are for growing and have the skills to put those conditions into place. They work with nature — they are not creating something out of nothing nor are they just installing certain skills in people.

If our schools shifted from training inherited from the factory model, to one that reflected the roots of the word “education,” students would naturally develop the social emotional skills and the character traits necessary for success in life. If people were learning from each other (all learning is social — even the books we read we were written by people), listening to each other and solving the inevitable problems that arise from living and working together, they develop “character” and learn social emotional skills in the process of being educated. John Dewey summed it up neatly: “The very process of living together, educates.”

When teachers are interacting with students to educate them not just to train them, they are sending them a message of respect and confidence. This is a very different message from trying to control them based on the assumption that students are one step away from fooling around, slacking off or acting out unless they are tightly controlled. When teachers respect and believe that each student wants to learn and wants do well, they are teaching “character” by example. If teachers were educating instead of training, their example and modeling would provide the character and social skill training that comes from daily interactions not add-on curricula or programs.

The difference between education and training is one that we all have experienced. Schools, despite inheriting a factory/training framework, have always had some teachers that educated their students instead of training them. Just ask anyone to tell you about memorable and positive experiences in school and you won’t hear things like: “I had this really great program” or “The curriculum in 10th grade really influenced me.” What you will hear again and again are stories of people touching the minds and hearts of other people; teachers influencing the lives of students by letting students know how important and special they are to them.

When students encounter teachers who see things in them that they have not yet discovered in themselves, they remember those teachers. Those teachers helped them become who that they were meant to be. These teachers didn’t train them; they educated them.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at