The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes


Character Education: Capturing Captive Audiences

“As to starting points of success in character and citizenship education, the value of the values at stake is central to the conduct of the program.”

Terrance D. Olson | October 21, 2016
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A group of students participate in cultural and civic education as a group



Attempts to change attitudes and behaviors through educational programs have traditionally produced mixed results.  This may be due as much to the nature of the audiences targeted as it is due to the supposed change mechanisms and procedures of an intervention program.  Be that as it may, if we do not target the beliefs and values that are associated with destructive lifestyles, our hoped for success will be even less likely.  If we seek to pull the rug out from under values and beliefs that foster and promote anti-social, destructive behaviors, we will reach the right people and get better results.

Those behavioral decisions indicated a change in his beliefs.

A presenter at a moral education seminar shared how he had once been an inner-city gang member in California.  He was able to leave the gang lifestyle behind and was now a contributor to a culture of integrity in the high school where he taught.  He did not articulate much of the “how” behind his leaving the gang life behind, but he did indicate three behaviors that (he had later realized) disqualified him from gang membership.  Those behavioral decisions indicated a transformation in his beliefs, and an awareness of self-destructive aspects of gang life.  These facts were highlighted when he re-visited some gang members after establishing a “new world of experience.”  They flatly rejected him, no longer considering him a person with whom they wished to associate.

His rejection by his former gang-member friends was largely due to who he had become.  He had violated three taboos in the gang’s unwritten code of membership:

  1. He had gotten a job.
  2. He had obtained an education
  3. He had gotten married.

These three acts were signs to the gang members that he was no longer someone who could be trusted.  He had “sold out” to an alien culture and clearly no longer believed in the gang’s unwritten philosophical manifesto.  The teacher’s behaviors were symptoms of something more fundamental—his moral beliefs.  He was now a person who sought to edify others, someone who understood how the cancer of corruption and preying on others is destructive to self and community.

Beliefs about what is moral and ethical may not be examined explicitly—either by those whose lives express decency, integrity and lack of corruption, or by those who live in patterns of self-destruction—but they do show up in behavior.

In a social context parallel to the gang-world, consider attempts by correctional officials to reduce the recidivism rates in prisons. According to Hooley (2010), Studies have shown that the likelihood of a convicted felon returning to prison after release is increased by four factors:

  1. Having an antisocial peer group.
  2. Having a drug and alcohol dependency.
  3. A lack of self-control.
  4. An antisocial belief system.

Beliefs about what is moral and ethical may not be examined explicitly, but they do show up in behavior.

A governor in one of the United States was once being criticized for the high recidivism rate in his state’s prisons. In so many words, his response was: “We are doing a pretty good job with the quality of the clientele we are working with.” What is obvious is that we must confront—with our heads and our hearts—anti-social belief systems and anti-social components of destructive peer groups. If we do not, individuals who have the power to change themselves will be less likely to succeed—or even to believe that change is possible.

To not acknowledge the “quality of clientele” of our target audience is to be naïve regarding the many factors that can erode the possible effectiveness of a program. Just because everyone may not benefit from attempts to help them shed their addictions and physical dependencies, or understand how changed belief systems can promote more beneficial lifestyles, that is no reason to give up on fostering cultures of personal ethical integrity and responsible citizenship. Regarding this empirical and practical reality, Hooley further notes:

So, what do we know so far? Well, as a base, we know that nothing works every time or on every offender. Secondly, some things that we think should work, actually do more harm than good and increase the rates at which offenders return to jail. We also know that if we do everything right, we will, at best, still only lower the recidivism rate by 30 to 40%.[i]

To deliver character/citizenship/moral education to captive audiences—be they public school classrooms, gang members on probation or prisoners hoping for a return to society—requires examining and reconsidering the values and beliefs that spawn the destructive acts that disintegrate the fabric of successful communities. Failing to do so is a waste of time.

Living responsibly means acting in line with conscience.

Training teachers to deliver a citizenship program in the public schools of several states, my colleague Chris Wallace and I showed students how to transform thinking from thinking and acting destructively, to an alternative that meant living responsibly. Living responsibly meant acting in line with conscience—especially regarding their ethical sense of how to treat others. Only the teachers in the training program who saw these principles in their own lived experience eagerly bought into the curriculum.

As suspected, students responded differently to the material. In some classes, the majority of students got “on board” with what it meant to be a citizen and to live a life of integrity. In other classes, only a few sensed the benefit of such a culture of belief and behavior.

Besides the curriculum itself, what were the factors in our successes and failures with students? We decided that who we and the teachers were—whether we in fact were living lives of integrity, compassion, humility, earnestness and an interest in others’ well-being—was a major feature of inviting and achieving change. Other things being equal, the other significant factor (besides the content of the curriculum itself) was the willingness of students to consider how they approached life.  Where that willingness “came from” may say something about the quality of the “clientele.”  But it may also be that more intense, focused, engaged or invitational interaction could have enhanced the impact on those who got on board, and reached even more students.

As to starting points of success in character and citizenship education, the value of the values at stake is central to the conduct of the program. I was once entering a display of various sex education curricula funded by a federal government grant and overheard a professional behind me—anticipating what the various curricula would consist of—declare: “Well, any curriculum in here that is value-based can’t be any good.” I smiled painfully, sensing that she did not realize that her statement was, in itself, an affirmation of a certain value base.  If we cannot put forth a defensible value base, and assess the value of values revealed in curricula, perhaps we are part of the problems we are trying to solve.


[i] Hooley, Doug (2010). Forward-thinking Leadership: 6 evidence-based practices proven to lower recidivism--Learning to trust the research. CorrectionsOne.com (May 29) accessed on the internet October 6, 2016.