Marvin Berkowitz’s new book primes school leaders for character education
Marvin Berkowitz was waiting for copies of his new book, “PRIMED for Character Education: Six Design Principles for School Improvement,” to arrive when he got an interesting surprise.
“Mike Park over at CharacterPlus sent me a text message with a photo of his hand holding the book a week and a half ago, and I didn’t even have a copy of the book,” said the Sanford N. McDonnell Endowed Professor in Character Education and co-director of the Center for Character and Citizenship at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
That’s now been remedied, and Berkowitz, who took the shipping glitch in stride, has copies of his third book in hand. “PRIMED” officially hit shelves last Thursday. The book draws upon years of research in the field of character education, a learning philosophy that prioritizes the development of core ethical values, virtues and critical thinking in students and educators.
Berkowitz, one of the world’s foremost character education scholars and researchers, has been developing “PRIMED” since 2016 after being approached by Routledge, a British academic publisher.
He and Mindy Bier, co-director with Berkowitz of the Center for Character and Citizenship, developed a long list of effective character education practices through their research together, starting in 1999. Berkowitz then clustered them together into six key principles represented by the acronym PRIMED: prioritization, relationships, intrinsic motivation, modeling, empowerment and developmental pedagogy.
The book explores each in detail and provides evidence-based practices to employ after beginning with a section about the concept of character education.
Berkowitz said prioritization and relationships are basic concepts aided by nuance and intention. He noted that character development of students must be an authentic priority, meaning school leaders truly believe and invest in it, or there will be a ceiling to its effectiveness.
Likewise, relationships are the “molecules” that build academic success, good kids and successful schools. However, they have to be built strategically and intentionally to bring the whole school together.
“You can’t just say, ‘We’re nice people so relationships will happen,’” Berkowitz said. “You have to be inclusive. You’ve got to build relationships across all stakeholder groups because so many are left out.”
The third principle, intrinsic motivation, is slightly more controversial. Berkowitz said most schools run on extrinsic motivators – rewards and recognition to encourage certain behaviors. He contends private affirmation actually produces more engaged students.
However, school leaders must also look inward. Modeling asks them to embody the character they want to see in students, while empowerment asks them to make space for students and adults to to be co-owners and co-authors of the school.
“My argument is that most schools are benevolent dictatorships, most classrooms are benevolent dictatorships,” Berkowitz said. “We live in a democracy, and we’re trying to socialize kids to be democratic citizens. Plus, every human being needs a sense of their own autonomy, their own control, their own power, their own competency. We have to give them opportunities to have a real, authentic voice.”
Finally, developmental pedagogy posits that teachers should educate their students with an eye toward the future, focusing on long-term growth rather than the next standardized test. Though Berkowitz believes utilizing the PRIMED model will also benefit the latter.
“We have evidence that doing character education actually increases academic outcomes in schools,” he said. “Part of that is because it changes the climate in the school. Kids want to come to school. They work harder. Classes have less wasted time from repetitions, kids not paying attention, disruptions or misbehavior. Behavior management is reduced, so there’s more quality academic time – kids trying harder, kids caring more. Kids work harder for teachers they like and work harder in places they feel safe.”
The development and writing of “PRIMED” was more involved than Berkowitz’s previous books, “Parenting for Good” and “You Can’t Teach Through A Rat,” but he’s grateful to all the educators who helped him during the process.
Ultimately, he hopes the book will help school leaders reevaluate how they’re shaping their classrooms and schools.
“This needs to be a priority,” Berkowitz said. “This is a critical piece of what education has been about since there’s been education. We lost our way in the second half of the 20th century in the U.S. We went back to basics and thought schooling was simply career prep. Prior to that, from the inception of this country, it was always understood the critical purpose of education is to prepare future citizens of our democracy and that their character was central to that.”
Those interested can purchase “PRIMED for Character Education: Six Design Principles for School Improvement” here: www.routledge.com/9781138492554.
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