Character Education: Molding Clay or Planting Seeds?

One of the critiques by scientists inside and outside of the character education field has been the lack of quality research on these programs. Thanks to the new science of character strengths that emerged in the mid-2000s, this is changing.

What is the next step for character education in schools? The dominant approach in character education is an approach and philosophy of prescription (e.g., build up these 3-5 character qualities in all students). This is in direct contrast with an approach of description (e.g., explore, discover, and describe the best qualities in each student and THEN help the student express these strengths).

Prescriptive character education can be compared to the process of molding clay. The “potter” (school, educator, or other authority) works to transform the “clay” (student’s character) into a predetermined form. Such approaches are widespread in character education programs, as well as other institutions that promote positive character (athletics, religion, government, etc.)

Descriptive character education, on the other hand, can be compared to the process of planting and nurturing seeds. No two seeds are identical. The gardener’s task is to create optimal conditions for growth and development to occur. Like an individual seed, each child possesses possibilities.

For those that are interested in exploring and advancing descriptive character education -- the “seed” approach – you can review the following resources and references: