William Damon has been writing about character education for a long time. The current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education features an interview with him, which is worth reading (he talks about big questions, integrative educational experiences, and other stuff near and dear to me).  An excerpt:

20090313-b14Q: How do you see your work in the context of the school-reform movement?

The message of my work is that schools need to give students a better understanding of why they are in school in the first place — that is, how the skills students are learning can help them accomplish their life goals. That is the only way to really motivate students in a lasting way. And if you ask any teacher what the major problems in schooling these days are, I’m sure that student motivation will be at the top of the list.

Now in order to help students understand what schooling can help them accomplish, they must be given opportunities to reflect on what they want to do with their lives. What are their ultimate concerns, their highest purposes? What kinds of people do they want to be? Those questions should not be asked or answered in a vacuum. Good schools can provide students with rich historical and literary knowledge about how such questions have been addressed by thoughtful people throughout the ages.

Present-day school-reform movements tend to focus on basic skills, especially ones that can be measured by standardized tests. The skills are important, and the test scores can be useful as indicators of learning. But the skills and the scores are means to an end and not ends in themselves, and they should be presented to students in that way.

Students learn bits of knowledge that they may see little use for; and from time to time someone at a school assembly urges them to go and do great things in the world. When it comes to drawing connections between the two — that is, showing students how a math formula or a history lesson could be important for some purpose that a student may wish to pursue — schools too often leave their students flat.

If you visit a typical classroom and listen for the teacher’s reasons for why the students should do their schoolwork, you will hear a host of narrow, instrumental goals, such as doing well in the course, getting good grades, and avoiding failure, or perhaps — if the students are lucky — the value of learning a specific skill for its own sake. But rarely (if ever) will you hear the teacher discuss with students broader purposes that any of these goals might lead to. Why do people read or write poetry? Why do scientists split genes? Why did I work hard to become a teacher? How can schools expect that young people will find meaning in what they are doing if they so rarely draw their attention to considerations of the personal meaning and purpose of the work others do?

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