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The ongoing mayhem in Pakistan continues, and though there is no one solution to tackle the problem — I believe any remedial intervention to bring forth change must happen at the grass root level in order to be truly effective. And education is just one agent for change.

Character and ethics education should be of major importance globally as people seek two objectives: “To promote human flourishing and to help resolve conflicts fairly,” says David B. Wangaard, director of the School of Ethical Education (SEE), a non-profit teaching organisation.

When asked why character development and teaching of ethical values is vital in today’s society, Jim Kestner, a US-based character development specialist, said the quest of instant gratification, wealth, and materialism appears to govern the consciousness in many youngsters today, making character development and teaching of ethical values all the more important.

“Ethical values represent a recognition of the importance of service to others, responsibility to self, and an understanding of the importance of respecting others and disciplining ourselves to do things, that may not always be pleasant, for the good of all,” says Kestner.

Teaching these skills to children may not only result in children making wiser and moral decisions in their personal lives, but the benefits of character and ethical education will likely manifest as they reach adulthood, and make their way into the workforce.

I recently re-watched Donald Trump’s, The Apprentice, a popular reality TV show which was aired on NBC. The show features a group of professionals, selected to perform a series of business tasks under the leadership of Donald Trump. The group is divided into two teams — the team which does a better job at executing the tasks, wins. A member of the losing team is eliminated every week based on performance. The excruciating recruitment process lasts several weeks — sifting through the mesh of personalities to ultimately reveal Trump’s knight in shining armour — ‘The Apprentice’. The winner is hired to work for one of Trump’s organisations.

What I found most striking about the show was that the more ethical candidates and the ones who had stronger characters made their way to the finale. These candidates were generally good people with a solid set of values and outstanding leadership skills. That’s not to say that the winners possessed these attributes alone — all those hired also had solid credentials and work experience, not to mention, undying passion. My point is: employers hire people who they can trust, as well as those whose skills match the job in question. A reputable character is definitely a valuable asset to have in today’s volatile economy.

So the question arises. Who should take responsibility for ensuring that children learn these traits? Certainly, parents are responsible for ensuring that children obtain the necessary grounding and a strong value system, but since children spend a signification portion of their lives in schools — schools are also ultimately responsible for ensuring that children know the difference between right and wrong, and moral and immoral behaviour. Kestner, in fact, argues that since children’s character starts developing as soon as they become mobile, character education must not only be incorporated into the formal education system, but also in pre-school programmes.

But to be truly effective, character and ethics education should be a collective effort, adopted by the “super-majority” of the school community, including students, parents, teachers, staff and administration, says Wangaard.

Kestner and Wangaard suggest some pointers which can help teachers and parents build student character. Kestner believes that students should be encouraged to understand other peoples’ thoughts and feelings. “Not just to hear or read that other people may feel differently than they do, but to see themselves in others’ situations and consider how it would feel,” he says.

Kestner’s programmes are designed to address and understand students’ perspectives first, and later identify ways to work in collaboration with them. “If students don’t see what we’re saying as valuable, our content doesn’t really matter,” he says. Kestner emphasises it’s vital to show students that “pursuit of character is in alignment with their hopes for good lives.”

Wangaard says that the modern character-education movement encourages educators to include three areas of instruction in activities to develop student character. The first, he says, is cognitive. In this domain, children’s thought process and reasoning abilities are tested with ethical and character questions, he says. The second area, affective, deals with student emotions and feelings, and how they can be developed to support ethical accountability. The third, behavioural, involves teaching children skills to sustain performance character.

And a teaching activity that engages students’ head, heart and hands is service learning, says Wangaard.

“Service learning specifically links a teaching objective with service need (local to global), encourages the students to have some role in planning and problem solving during the project and plans student reflection and evaluation to include consideration of ethical issues that might be revealed in the project.”

One example of service learning provided by Wangaard involves a project implemented at a high school in the US. Students in this school write and publish short, positive stories, which are sent to schools in Uganda. “The students thus serve an international need while meeting a great academic objective of clear writing and use of technology,” says Wangaard. The character lessons learned from such an exercise can be many — the most important ones that come to mind are: the need to give back to people less fortunate and the significance of establishing positive relationships with people from different nationalities — irrespective of class, creed or colour.

‘The Golden Compass’ is one of many programmes offered by SEE, which allows students and teachers to learn a strategy to improve moral awareness and a reasoning strategy to help them make an ethical decision, says Wangaard.

Wangaard explains that the methodology in this programme introduces students to scenarios which they might come across in their lives — witnessing bullying, for instance. “The steps of the Golden Compass have them focus on their choices for action and analyse them in light of the Golden rule and their personal character objectives,” says Wangaard. “In this case, it is hoped that students would recognise they have better options to demonstrate positive character if they participate in some type of intervention.”

Ethics and character-building programmes are prevalent in some parts of the world — and they seem to be working. Considering the state of our country, it seems rational that educators and school boards recognise the importance of incorporating ethics and character education within the educational system in Pakistan. And parents should not fail to play their part, too.

We as a nation are responsible for ensuring that we produce citizens who are not only academically able, but also hold strong character and moral values — which will serve as building blocks towards a strong, progressive Pakistan.

As Kestner says: “Young people today, like young people of every generation before them, are seeking their way in a large world, hoping to live fulfilling lives. If we show them how the path to positive character leads them to that fulfillment, we’ll have countless followers on the journey.”

The writer is a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada