Character Development Toolkit

Context

There is always something like this in every school.

With names like Civics, Moral Education, Character Education and Pastoral Care, the idea is the same – to put aside time and develop the character of students, which should be more important than academics. After all, individuals with flawed moral values are not able to progress far in life.

Even as a student, Moral Education lessons were synonymous to goofing off. Although there was a textbook and guided curriculum for teachers to teach from, it was rarely used.

Yet, from a national curriculum perspective, it is the right thing to do.

Hey, you guys need to make sure the students turn out alright. We will provide you with a booklet of anecdotes, cultural tales and short stories to emphasise Confucius values like honesty, integrity, resilience etc.

And how do you make sure that they learn?

Why, of course they will be expected to fill in the workbook. We will even provide suggested answers so that all teachers are aware of the standard reply.

Yet, my most vivid memory of such lessons being conducted in primary school was of the teacher sitting down smack in the middle of the classroom, ordering everyone to read the book, and eventually dozing off. Everyone else either did their homework, read their storybooks or played games amongst themselves.

In tertiary school, a similar scened played out again. Only this time the teacher didn’t doze off, but mumbled through the notes on Career Guidance and Time Management. I do not recall any of the lessons as I most probably slipped out of the classroom by then.

As a relief teacher, I witnessed teachers copying out the suggested answers on the board, ordering the class to copy them into the correct pages of the Moral Education workbook, and then collecting the books at the end of the lesson. I am not sure how much they learnt, but the documentation was definitely there.

It must have worked though, because many people including myself turned out to be upright, law-abiding citizens.

It is evident where I’m heading with this.

Character Development is something important enough for schools to carve out time for within the curriculum, but yet have very little idea how to conduct. As a result, most teachers dread or spend very little time on this. Some even use the time to continue teaching their curriculum. As a non-examinable subject with non-tangible outcomes, it is obvious why teachers and students do not regard this as a constructive use of time.

One of my personal peeves is the inefficient use of time. I tend to blame myself when students drift off / fall asleep / get restless in class, as I start to question if there could be better methods to keep them engaged. Or, at the very least, leave the classroom thinking Welp, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

Problem

The problem with a standardised curriculum is that it subjects all students to the same treatment to ensure the same moral outcome.

Although handouts and notes are helpful resources for teachers who have no time to prepare for such lessons, such uniformity also makes it dull and difficult for students to voice their concerns. Also, as humans with unique backgrounds and moral compasses, students cannot be expected to comply with life skills or values the same way they recall Periodic Table elements.

There is a need for a middle ground, where students can voice their opinions and debate on moral issues. However, I can understand too that not all educators are equipped with the right tools to moderate such a broad spectrum of topics. It is also challenging to find the time to experiment with various web tools out there and assess the efficacies of each piece of software.

My vision

By using some creativity and tapping on an array of free ICT tools, I hope to mix and match various Tools, Frameworks and Themes to address the current situation.

With a large enough Character Development Toolkit, I hope to create a large enough archive to ensure that there will be adequate resources to rotate and keep things fresh, so that such lessons do not become too stale.

Ideally, if I pick and choose 1 Tool, 1 Framework and 1 Theme, I should have enough variations such that lessons can be customised for different classes, yet retain the crux of the theme which they can appreciate.

And at the end of the day, if ICT can’t feature in the picture for reasons (school policy etc), the lesson should still be able to roll on with the use of an engaging Framework and Theme. (It’s the equivalent of your ice cream cone without the sprinkles).

Ultimately, I hope to develop an archive of “party tricks” which any teacher can dig into, to make that stretch of contact time slightly more interesting and meaningful with their students, without the extra hassle and expectations of preparation.

Tools

And there are so many tools out there to tap on!

Backchannels like Slack for 2-way communication.

Video platforms like Flipgrid which allow students to upload short clips without the presence of online YouTube trolls.

Stop motion with Google Slides to animate their ideas. I have blogged about this tip in another Math blog post here.

Immersive storyboarding sites like Google Tour Builder that allow students to span the globe and drop pins on significant points of interest.

However, I soon realised that letting students fiddle for a whole session playing with Google Slides lacked focus. Creative students started to expand their ideas non-stop, while disinterested students continued to be so, providing curt replies. Likewise, TodaysMeet became challenging at times when moderating replies. Sidenote: TodaysMeet has shut down.

And that led me to frameworks.

Frameworks

Given my distaste for numerous rules and regulations, I try to keep things simple by sourcing for simple and fun rules of engagement for various activities.

One of my favourite frameworks is the PechaKucha 20×20 presentation format. By asking students to frame their presentations into a format of 20 slides lasting 20 seconds each, with minimal text and simple images, it helps to optimise audience engagement and content retention. I often adopt this framework when students introduce themselves or talk about their Genius Hour project.

Such a framework is mutually beneficial, as teachers do not have to sit through presentations that ramble on for 10 minutes.

Student presenters get to master effective presentation skills to engage their audience, while also sharing on their favourite interests.

Other students who serve as audience are often keen to test the optimal engagement intervals and usually pay attention.

And boom, we kill 3 birds with one stone.

The teacher saves time preparing the lesson (students tend to be engrossed when crafting a presentation about their passion), while students master essential life skills, and the class is generally well-engaged.

After trying it several times , I did notice a significant improvement in the way students conceptualise their ideas in class, delivering their ideas promptly and with lesser audible pauses.

Other fun frameworks include “Just a minute” and “Win, lose or draw“.

Theme

The theme here would be whatever the topic for the week is. It could be time management, cyberwellness, sexuality education or values like integrity, resilience and collaboration skills, depending whether or not your institution has a set of values to discuss every week.

If there are none, themes like Passion Project are helpful means for students to understand themselves and their interests a bit better, as they learn more about how to further develop their interests. From my observations, students tend to appreciate such platforms to share their achievements beyond school, while I get to find out more interesting nuggets about them too, such as their penchant for cooking, origami or playing the drums.

Other themes which can allow students to benefit their immediate community include “Make a Wish” or “Pay it forward” to generate acts of kindness which they can rally upon.

Even in the worst case scenario where students are not able to agree upon a common idea, at least they learn something about themselves during the process which is still important.

Putting it together – a sample recipe

My idea would then be a series of mix-and-match options to keep things fresh. and to give students an opportunity to build upon their opinions on an open platform.

Mathematically, there should be enough combinations to engage students with different tools (ICT and non-ICT alike) and frameworks.

For example, given the ThemeHabits of Effective Time Management” to be taught to a group of 30 restless students, I could do the following:

  1. Employ the use of a backchannel Tool like Slack and the FrameworkWhose line is it anyway?” to bring dreary topics to life, by getting students to draft a skit to improv upon.
  2. Not a fan of ICT? Students cannot be trusted with responsible cyber behavioural skills? Using just the Framework of Debate, where students group themselves into proposition and opposition speakers, to discuss the motion “Schools should be responsible for imparting time management skills” for students to uncover the pros and cons amongst themselves.

Yes, it may lack worksheets, workbooks and guiding questions for students to pen down 100-word reflections on how they can manage themselves better, or 3 things they can start doing right now, but I’m sure most will eventually turn out to be upright, law-abiding citizens.

They may also find such lessons slightly more meaningful too.

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