The development of character is a valued objective for many kinds of educational programs that take place both in and outside of school. Educators, parents, and others create and support structured programs and lessons that engage students in academics, sports, service, and other activities with the aim of developing or strengthening positive behaviors, attitudes, values, and attributes. Programs that pursue this kind of learning may describe what they do as character education; positive youth development; or the development of social and emotional learning, interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies, or noncognitive skills. These terms are not interchangeable, but there is overlap among them: They encompass a range of skills and attributes that students need to flourish in school, the workplace, and their personal lives, such as the capacity to manage their emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy, maintain positive relationships, and make sound decisions. This loosely defined set of skills and attributes is referred to in this document as “character.”
Educators and administrators who develop and run programs that seek to develop character recognize that the established approaches for doing so have much in common, and they are eager to learn about promising practices used in other settings, evidence of effectiveness, and ways to measure the effectiveness of their own approaches. The available research has been sparse and often focused only on one kind of character or development, but recent work has helped to identify commonalities in the literature that can advance understanding of how character might be defined and developed and how outcomes might be measured.
With the support of the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the National
Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine held a workshop in July 2016 to review research and practice relevant to the development of character, with a particular focus on ideas that can support the adults who develop and run out-of-school programs. The Committee on Defining and Measuring Character and Character Education was appointed to plan the workshop. The charge to the committee—whose members have expertise in research and practice in character education, including research and program development directly related to character education, program evaluation and measurement, and cognitive and developmental psychology—is shown in Box 1-1.
The committee recognized that there are many definitions of character and many ways of describing the objectives for programs that aim to help young people develop positive attributes. The committee members noted that while good character is in one sense easy to recognize—in people who are responsible, honorable, and emotionally healthy, for example—the words used to describe it may seem to imply stances on complex questions. For example, some people who study these issues use the tools of biology and psychology to understand individual differences, whereas others focus on questions of culture, gender, and power relationships to explore the roles young people are asked to emulate.
A thorough exploration of these complex issues was beyond the scope of the workshop. The committee focused on obtaining an overview of the available academic research and structuring discussions with presenters who reflected a variety of expertise and perspectives. The committee members had the goal of meeting the needs of practitioners, particularly those involved in out-of-school programs, and of encouraging researchers and practitioners to learn from one another.1 The committee designed the workshop to explore four themes:
1 Because the workshop focused on out-of-school programs, the emphasis fell more on older children and adolescents than very young children.
- defining and understanding character,
- identifying what works in developing character,
- implementing development strategies and evaluating outcomes, and
- measuring character.
The committee commissioned eight papers (see Box 1-2) and planned sessions that allowed participants ample time to engage with the authors and one another, and to consider ways the material presented could apply in their own work.2 Structured breakout sessions allowed participants to
2 The workshop agenda, a list of participants, and brief biographical sketches for the committee members and presenters can be found in Appendixes A, B, and C. The commissioned papers and an archived video of all sessions can be found at the project website, http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DBASSE/BOTA/DBASSE_171735 [September 2016].
reflect in detail on the ideas presented. (Appendix D is a worksheet used in these sessions.)
This proceedings document, prepared by the workshop rapporteur, summarizes the presentations and discussions that took place. The planning committee’s role was limited to planning and convening the workshop. The views contained in this document are those of individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all workshop participants, the planning committee, or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
This document follows the structure of the workshop. Chapter 2 is an overview of research on the nature of character and a discussion of themes that transcend its varied definitions. Chapter 3 summarizes a range of ideas on what practices and approaches are most effective in developing character, and Chapter 4 focuses on the importance of implementing program goals effectively and evaluating the results. Chapter 5 delves deeper into one key aspect of effective program implementation, a high-quality staff. Chapter 6 is an exploration of the technical challenges of measuring character. Chapter 7 summarizes individual participants’ perspectives on the primary workshop themes.