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Character Education and Student Well-being: A Case for Education Policy

By Raphaela Schlicht, PhD

IPEN Global Representative 

The quality of a country’s education system is core to a prospering society. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) periodically compares the academic skills of 15 years old students cross-nationally through standardized tests of their abilities in readings, maths, and sciences. More recently, PISA broadened its outcome measures in order to characterize the functioning of education more comprehensively.

In 2012 PISA for the first time asks students for their well-being at school.¹ Comparing the 34 OECD member states (fig. 1), Mexico, Iceland, Israel, Spain, and Switzerland provide the highest share happy students.² More than 87% of the 15 years old students “feel happy at school”. By contrast in Korea, parts of Eastern Europe, and Finland – the former model country for education – we find the lowest shares of happy students. It seems that countries pay higher academic achievement rates with lower shares of happy students. For example Korea has the highest maths core of all OECD members and the lowest share of students that feel happy at school. But, there are also countries like Switzerland with both, high academic achievement scores and high shares of happy students. What can politics do, to deliver a school system that performs high on well-being as well as academic knowledge assessment? And, why should future politics focus on well-being and character in education policy?

From a humanist perspective a focus on well-being and character education is certainly overripe. Some mismatches accompanied the rising knowledge society. First, the focus on academic achievement and degrees puts children and parents under pressure very early in life. Second, standardized testing provokes unquestioned and conformist learning with the only goal of harvesting test results and certificates. This paradoxically, hinders the development of character strengths important for a truly flourishing life. Youth in all highly developed countries as never before benefits from enormous education input and opportunities. At the same time, it suffers from high juvenile depression and suicide rates, fear of school and failure, and the vulnerability to bullying and hate crimes.

There are also major macro-societal reasons for a focus on character and well-being in education: First, economists predict a shift towards a labor market that requires not only high academic knowledge but a high level of non-cognitive skills.³ Traditional work force will lose its status in favor for independent freelancers and highly flexible innovators. Second, global conflicts make youth vulnerable to risks which are eventually dangers for societal cohesion. Fostering character strengths and well-being is a potential way to limit xenophobia, political and religious extremism, and hate crime.

Most approaches of character strengths and well-being in education are bottom-up approaches coming from societal grass roots. The KIPP Foundation focuses on seven character strengths that are highly predictive for a happy and successful life.4 Similarly, Floreat Education runs schools in the UK that aim at developing kids’ character strengths to support their academic growths and personal well-being.5 The Geelong Grammar School in Australia is a school that aims at reducing high depression rates and suicide rates among youth with a strong well-being program for students and teachers.6 All these grass roots share the humanist goal of flourishing individuals. In Germany, two foundations have clear political goals with character education in school curricula: With its program “Hands for Kids” the American Jewish Council in Berlin established a character program for school aged kids to foster democratic competence.7 Kids develop self-confidence and personal identity with the goal to respect ethical and moral difference, to treat other people respectfully, and to participate actively in the democratic process. The Buddy foundation coaches teachers and students in social emotional skills and democratic values to strengthen the civil society.8

Recently, character and well-being in education increasingly arises on the political agenda across the globe: The US Department of Education just announced four grant awards with a total of 2$ million to support learning mindsets: character education and social emotional learning.9 In 2015, the UK Department for Education awards schools for implementing character education in their curricula.10 Germany constituted a commission with the order to re-define societal wealth and personal well-being. In the 2013 terminal report11, the commission proclaimed regarding education (p. 259): “Education is more than the accumulation of wisdom or the achievement of degrees and certificates and more than the raw empowerment to work on a job.” However, the commission missed a consistent definition of what else education then is.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, one of the founding fathers of modern education systems declared: education is the combination of knowledge and character.12 Two hundred years later Positive Psychology provides us with knowledge about character strengths that enable a flourishing life. Politics is now in charge to implement this knowledge into curricula. This will not only empower individual students but is also a potential for a healthy society.


2. PISA 2012 Results: Ready to Learn (Volume III) Students’ Engagement, Drive and Self-Beliefs – OECD 2013

3. Cowen, T. (2013) Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. Dutton Press

12. W. v. Humboldt: Werke in fünf Bänden, hrsg. von A. Flitner und K. Giel. Band IV Schriften zur Politik und zum Bildungswesen. 2. durchges. Aufl. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1969.


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