Tuesday, March 31, 2009

35 minutes each Tuesday

Character building program.
"Classes are scheduled for 35 minutes each Tuesday in order to teach positive character traits throughout the year."

This description is lifted from the curriculum document of a well regarded traditional school. It is typical of The Old School and its fundamental belief:

If you don't teach it, it doesn't get learned.

And the corollary, if you taught it, the students must know it.

And the corollary to that: if a student doesn't know it, it is his fault because, after all, it was taught.

Since The Old School wants students to develop positive character traits, it teaches them for 35 minutes each Tuesday.

At a recent Alumni Night, one of our graduates who was then a college junior said, "Montessori school is not preparation for life--it is life." In other words, character building happens all day long every day as children make choices that shape their work, their role in the community, and their interactions with adults and other children.

They aren't simply told to be responsible; they are given opportunities to be responsible, to manage their studies and their social relationships. Montessori called the teacher "a guide" or "a director" because that describes how the adult works with each child. The teacher does not narrowly control the children; nor does he leave them free to do whatever they like. The teacher guides and coaches the individual child and the group toward personal independence and responsible interdependence.

Yesterday I stopped in to an upper elementary classroom. The teacher was finishing lunch at his lesson table, and two fourth grade boys were engaged in a focused and quiet conversation at another table. They were the only students in the classroom. All the others had just gone out to recess. After a couple of minutes, they came over to their teacher to explain that they had worked out their differences, that it had all been a misunderstanding to which they had each contributed. They were sent on their way to join their classmates on the playground. It seems that they had been bumping and pushing one another when the class lined up.

This was 5 minutes on Monday, not 35 minutes on Tuesday, but it was definitely "character building." What did they learn? First of all, they learned that their teacher has confidence in them to solve problems -- not by "letting them fix it themselves," but under the watchful supervision of a caring adult. They learned that it is important to deal with conflict, not to sweep it aside. They learned that confronting issues directly can untangle them. They learned that speaking and listening can resolve issues in a way that physical responses cannot.

What didn't their teacher do? He didn't solve the problem for them. He didn't decide who was at fault and impose a punishment. He didn't lecture. He didn't tell them what they should have done or not done. He didn't "teach."

Well, he did teach by way of what he chose to do and chose not to do, but if you asked the boys, they would say they solved the problem themselves. And that is a powerful, charcter-building lesson.


  1. Dear John, I enjoyed your article, especially your conclusion about how the boys "solved the problem themselves."

    I've worked with life skills and character education for more than 20 years. Like the Montessori concept of "guiding" students, my programs use the "Socratic method" of drawing out knowledge that students inherently have inside. Generally this is done through simple guided conversations.

    It's great to read that you devote class time each week to building these skills. Life skills nurture the whole child and enrich every area of life. They're simple to teach but, as you observe, you have to take the time to practice them.

    There are free samples of my curriculum at www.LifeSkills4Kids.com and I hope you'll take a look. Thanks again for a great article.

  2. Kent,
    Thanks for your note. We also use Great Books style seminars with elementary and middle school students and find them powerful conversations that are full of reflection and consideration of personal values.

    On the other hand, it is the daily life of the classroom, the way we work with students, and our ongoing "constructive engagement" with them as individuals and as a group that is actually the core of our "character education" program.

    I will look at the curriculum samples you reference to see how this might fit for us. In general, we do not see "character education" as being a lesson-based curriculum. That is, in fact, the point of "35 minutes each Tuesday."