If there is one thing that amazed me during my recent trip to Tokyo, it would be how courteous and law-abiding the Japanese people were. Surely, as foreigners, we’re intrigued by their efficient transportation systems, high-tech facilities, and their reverence for nature. Yet, at the heart of all these admirable manifestations of timeliness, diligence, and workmanship, lies the building block for grooming such admirable civic duties: a laudable character education program embedded within the Japanese school system.
Each year, Japanese schoolchildren go through 35 lesson hours in character education. A quick flick through some school books issued by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) reveals an extensive use of dainty cartoon characters set in cleverly crafted scenarios related to family, friends, and the community; illustrating how children must behave within such contexts. Topics covered in these picture book formats are “a beautiful heart”, staying healthy, basic manners, respecting laws, obligations towards others, and appreciating nature. It also includes chapters on avoiding misdemeanors; such as dishonesty, vandalism, violence, and bullying.
This might sound a bit utopian had I not personally witnessed the benefits of character education in action whilst visiting an elementary public school in Tokyo. During lunch hour, the teachers and children suddenly enrobed themselves in white lab coats as they skidded off to the cafeteria to fetch the lunch food. Students, as young as 6 years old, were then assigned to serve their colleagues, explain the lunch menu, and tidy up afterwards without so much as a trace left behind (this included sorting the rubbish as well).
Many countries are at the heart of this remarkable shift in their education systems towards a focus on character development. Philosopher Martin Buber argues that, “education worthy of its name is essentially education of character.” In fact, the potential for this type of education can be significant to economies and even life-transforming to individuals. It is through character education that students can grasp the necessary tools needed to thrive in our complex world. Pasi Sahlberg, a visiting professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and a prominent Finnish educator, also argues that “becoming a member of any community means that an individual needs to have adequate interpersonal skills, understanding of different cultures, and good understanding of moral responsibilities in life. It is character and mind that matter in the competitive labor market today, not being among winners in knowledge tests.”
Character is essentially an interplay of favorable attitudes, behaviors, skills, and values that improve life outcomes. Examples include problem-solving, setting life goals, kindness, honesty, decision-making, diplomacy, cooperation, respect, self-discipline, and responsibility. Ultimately, such a curriculum aims at inspiring students to imagine the kind of life they wish to pursue, how to effectively manage their time, how to behave in difficult or conflicting situations, how to reason and solve problems, and what values they should abide by.
And so, it is easy to see the positive effects of character development on a range of aspects linked to civic life; from improved life outcomes overall, to increased educational attainment rates, crime reduction, reduced healthcare and welfare costs, and a kind consideration to the environment. It goes as far to say that character education can pose as a solution to preventing various problems; such as bullying, drug abuse, school dropouts, and juvenile delinquency. On the contrary, repercussions of neglecting this fundamental part of children’s education could be catastrophic.
This is indeed a powerful claim and allow me a moment to explain how this could play out. It comes as no surprise that throughout life, we will oftentimes be challenged with adverse circumstances. Children and young adults go through an intense period of self-discovery and need wise guidance to navigate and understand the world they live in. They are also at an age where they are the most impressionable. Thus, they must be equipped with the ability to discern and select the most appropriate behaviors instead of succumbing to negative behaviors. This is especially important in scenarios related to behaviors enforced by unhealthy and perhaps destructive peer groups; such as vandalism, intentional school absenteeism, or drug abuse.
Such a sophisticated outcome can be attained through an effective character education program that revolves around two key features: a well-rounded curriculum and an inclusive community that inculcates these learning goals.
Firstly, the curriculum should revolve around cultivating the set of attitudes, behaviors, skills, and values that will help students lead productive and happy lives. Suffusing character education within the students’ daily lives is vital. This can be reflected by giving students homework and assignments that are meaningful and help them be actively involved in their communities. Throughout the school life, teachers can also capitalize on relevant, daily scenarios to impart words of wisdom and suggest the most appropriate course of action.
Secondly, the most relevant stakeholders in a child’s life have to be involved in instilling these character traits – parents, family members, friends, teachers, and the community. Because of increased rates of family dissolution, schools have the added responsibility of embracing children from broken homes and channeling their frustrations into positive behaviors so that they can become responsible and productive adults. The school custodians must themselves model those same positive behaviors they wish students to emulate.
Governments can capitalize on this cost-effective approach to prevent many problems and ultimately, improve their citizens’ life outcomes. Surely, should not education help us be happier individuals in every aspect of our lives?
Sara Al Mulla is an Emirati civil servant focusing on human development policy and children’s literature.