Recently my daughter came home from school carrying a flyer with the words CHARACTER COUNTS! emblazoned across the top. Two boxed lists contrasted the top discipline problems in public schools in the 1940s with those of the 1980s. Reading further, I found that the flyer was advertising an upcoming program at the high school, described as "an inspirational message from...the president of the nonprofit Josephson Institute of Ethics" which focused on "6 pillars of character development: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship." The school district's superintendent as well as a local senator were planning to attend the kick-off celebration of the CHARACTER COUNTS! program. We were invited to join them for the event as well as follow up programs to be held later in the year.
Without an insight into the decision-making process leading up to the purchase of the program from the Institute of Ethics, one can only speculate about the reasons for doing so. The lists detailing the top discipline problems are certainly alarming, but of little actual value without relevant data to support them. Because an act makes it into the "top 17" of some accounting doesn't automatically make it a "problem" in our district. What is the level of occurrence in our district? Would we consider this a problem?
The back side of the flyer again listed the "six pillars of character development" and subheaded each pillar with several statements, apparently the lessons to be learned in the program, many of which would be characterized as slogans. We have learned that slogans are "vague statements that conceal potential conflict while promoting broad but only shallow consensus" (Claybaugh and Rozycki, 1996). Most people find it hard to disagree with slogans because they appeal to accepted societal norms and to values that average people either have or wish to have. The folks at the Institute of Ethics successfully use the slogans to enlist customers for their program. Following are two slogans selected from the flyer and one invented slogan. Each slogan has been critiqued and rewritten in a form that would be more actionable.
Slogan #1: "Do your share to make your school and community better."
What exactly is "your share?" This certainly will mean different things to different people. Is my share the same as your share? Is my child's share the same as my share? Is my child's share the same as your child's share? Who's job is it to specify our "shares?" Some would argue that it is the teachers' or administrators' responsibility to improve schools, while other might blame it on the parents or children. No one wants to be accused of not pulling his weight, so most will likely rally around this slogan. What typically happens in volunteer organizations, however, is that most of the work is accomplished by an enthusiastic minority, with the remainder of the group offering token contributions.
The real stopper in this slogan is the presumption that your school (or community) needs somehow to be improved. What is the basis for this? Few would argue against the belief that everything can be improved, but should it? And if so, in what way? We all operate with limited resources. The decision of how to allocate these resources depends upon our current set of priorities. Of the many tasks to be accomplished and objectives to be met, which are the most urgent? Which will bring the biggest return in the longrun? Which simply must be done to maintain basic operations? Even if we had unlimited resources (which we don't), how should we use them? How will your school look when it is "better?" Will it be cleaner? Safer? Have higher academic standards? More clubs and activities? A winning football team? Correctly designed studies of the school operations and efficiencies compared against the interests and values of the district community will help identify areas where improvement might be warranted or desired.
To be actionable, the statement must be specific with respect to what aspects of the school are to be improved and in what way. Once this has been established, the question of how an individual might contribute can be addressed. This slogan in its present form is so vague that many interpretations are likely. A possible restatement of this slogan might be:
Join the "Committee to Improve Literacy in Elementary Grades" and help raise the reading level of our students by volunteering for one of the following activities:
Reading to K-2 classes
One-on-one tutoring of reading students in grades K-6
Effecting an expansion of the elementary school library.
Slogan #2: "Have the courage to do the right thing."
This statement is appealing because it challenges our desire to appear strong and brave in the face of adversity. Who wants to be thought to have behaved as a coward and taken the easy way out? Only a weakling would choose that course, right? The problem is in defining "the right thing." We all have our own set of values, similar to those in our communities, perhaps, but unique nonetheless to our own circumstances. Our values are shaped by our experiences and upbringing. What is considered the right or moral thing may differ from person to person. Any given person may perhaps change his belief about the right thing to do if circumstances merit that change.
One might presume that in this statement, "the right thing" is that which is considered in the mainstream to be good and moral and has an overall positive benefit to a community or society in the long run. It is easy for children to get involved in situations and activities that bring harm to themselves and others because they are unable to resist peer pressure to do so. Using or selling drugs, cheating, stealing, and lying are just a few of the many acts children find themselves doing for fear that they will be rejected or otherwise injured by their peers. What is the right thing for a student to do when faced with a situation in which his friends are involved in dangerous behaviors and he is perhaps being pressured to participate? Should he tell someone? Should he try on his own to stop it? Should he simply refuse to get involved?
A possible rephrasing of the slogan might be (presuming that there are written and understood rules):
Obey the rules established for the safe and efficient operation of our school.
This, however, offers the student no help in overcoming his fears. Why obey the rules? It might seem that he is trading off the consequences of violating the school rules (detention, expulsion, etc.) against the ramifications associated with "doing the right thing." Offering the students help in doing the right thing would be more productive. An anonymous hotline or some other safe mechanism whereby students can get help would make it easier to obey the rules.
Slogan #3: "Inappropriate behavior requires an appropriate response."
"Inappropriate" is perhaps one of the most overused words in the context of behavior and motivation. We use it whenever we want to describe an act that is somehow annoying or offensive. There's nothing wrong with the word, but in and of itself, it lacks specificity. When we describe something as inappropriate, we may need to explain the reason why it is inappropriate and identify an acceptable alternative. For example, consider a middle school dress code. Certain articles of clothing are considered inappropriate for school because they are offensive or distracting to others. Students are forbidden to wear t-shirts with offensive words or pictures. Offensive to whom? What words, if any, are acceptable?
Responding "appropriately" to inappropriate behavior requires that educators understand the needs and motivations of individual students and are able to tailor responses to each. Some students may violate standards of "appropriate behavior" out of ignorance, or cultural and societal differences. They simply may not know how to behave in an given situation. More often, though, students knowingly behave inappropriately. To deal effectively with the behavior, the teacher needs to know what the student values, and why he committed the inappropriate behavior. In reality, there are usually too many kids for this to be feasible. The teacher will likely assume that the student values and is motivated by actions and objects which typically appeal to that peer group.
To make this slogan actionable, it needs to be more specific. There may be dozens of statements required to completely satisfy the intent. One possibility:
Students wearing clothing which violates the published dress code policy will be sent home to change into clothing conforming to the dress code.
See Related article:
Slogans in Education