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Character Education Framework

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Character Education: Building Positive Ethical Strength

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics has developed the Framework for Character Education to guide the development of the Center’s educational programs for children and youth ages five to 18 years. Character education is defined as the direct attempt to foster the skills, attitudes, motives, and beliefs that lead to ethical reasoning and behavior.

The Framework seeks to define some of the key categories of virtues that can be promoted through school-based programs, out-of-school programs, and family activities. The Framework recognizes that how these virtues are best taught is likely to vary by age, the unique needs of individuals from diverse backgrounds, implementation context, and program goals.

The Eight themes identified by the Framework motivate individuals to use their abilities for benefitting the physical and mental health of self and others, the community and the larger society, and the natural environment. These virtues are the bridge between ability (e.g., linguistic, mathematical, artistic, social, and emotional) and conduct. Virtues, such as kindness and perseverance, motivate individuals to use their talents for positive development rather than destruction. 

Our Character Education Programs

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics’ character education programs uses a literacy-based instructional approach. Narratives (both fiction and real-world) expose young people to character virtues in different contexts and the outcomes of ethical behavior. Through listening, speaking, reading, and writing activities, children learn about and through character virtues. They learn about character virtues when they name and define virtues, and analyze case studies. They learn through character virtues when they behave in a kind and responsible manner and when adults establish caring environments that exemplify moral attitudes. 

Literacy materials may include picture storybooks, novels, short stories, poems, and academic articles. The narratives may cover a continuum of content from real-life events and ethical dilemmas to folktales. These materials serve as a springboard for discussion, projects, and self-reflection. By combining character education and literacy education, providers foster expressive skills in addition to ethical reasoning and behavior. By that, they enable young people to continue the discussion about morality, explore worldviews and advocate for the issues they care about.

The Eight Themes of Character Education

The Framework defines eight themes of character development. Each theme corresponds to one or more character virtues. A character value or virtue is the attitude that represents a person’s moral standards for behavior.

The eight themes do not cover the full range of virtues. These themes have been selected because they are salient aspects of children and adolescents’ lives and character education programs (and related school-based programs including values education, civics education, peace education, and health education).  Each theme is phrased in a manner that states the central quality that is required for the virtue to take place.

In teaching each of the eight themes of character education, The Markkula Center’s programs aim to foster:

  • The ability to name a virtue, describe the cognitions and behaviors that make up this virtue and recognize the situations in which it is needed.
  • The understanding that virtues and one’s ability to act on them can improve over time.
  • The motivation to integrate virtues into problem-solving and decision-making in all aspects of one’s life.
  • The frequency and efficiency of expression of one’s virtues.
  • The appreciation that the values of individuals and communities can vary by culture, religion, life experiences, and personal needs (e.g., needs for security, growth, and belonging).
  • The willingness and ability to engage in civil discourse about differences in opinion about ethical issues.

This Framework uses a holistic view of virtues, which sees the sum of character virtues as greater than its components. The existence of multiple virtues strengthens each one. For example, courage supports preserving one’s integrity. Ethical behavior strikes a balance among various virtues (e.g., virtues that promote a moral society and virtues that promote individual performance) through critical analysis and decision-making process. 


An important 21st Century character strength is the willingness to initiate and adapt to change. To do well in school and the workplace, individuals should strive for continuous improvement, change bad habits to good habits, and persevere in the face of challenge. They need to develop a sense of agency. Rather than feeling a victim of the circumstances, young people recognize that change is possible and they can steer their lives in the direction they desire. They can resist negative peer pressure, fight addiction, escape abusive relationships, and pursue personal and academic goals. Resilient individuals see life transitions, such as moving to a new city or country, as a growth opportunity. Their flexibility and openness to new experiences help them cope with stressful situations.


Courage is the mental ability to do something despite one’s fears to benefit the well-being of oneself or others. While courage involves the willingness to take risks, it is considered a virtue only if the risk-taking behavior is for a reason rather than for a thrill. There are “small” acts of courage, such as not being afraid to ask for help or learning a new sport. There are “bigger” acts of courage such as standing up to popular kids who bully a lonely kid, admitting cheating on a test, and fighting for human rights in a country that does not support equality.


Kindness is the desire to protect and promote the welfare of others. Kind individuals say or do things to lift others’ spirit, get them out of trouble, and mend conflictual relationships. Kind behavior resides in the understanding of others’ feelings. Kind people are competent observers – they take the time to listen attentively and grasp the situation. They show the commitment to treat every person with respect, dignity, and courtesy, and they are motivated to give or share something with others for the joy of giving rather than anticipated social recognition or a reward.


Integrity connects self-image to ethical behavior. The person with integrity is someone who acts in a way that is faithful to his/her values, beliefs, and principles. This person achieves a state of harmony or lack of internal conflict. Integrity depends on the accurate perception of one’s strengths, limitations, life goals, and beliefs and the willingness to work towards self-actualization within the limits of social norms and ethical standards. Integrity also requires honesty. A person who consistently is dishonest with oneself or others is likely to encounter situations in which he or she would act in a manner inconsistent with one’s needs or worldviews.


Justice provides a perspective for what individuals think and do in a society that protects the dignity, freedom, and welfare of all its members. Justice means treating people in a way that does not favor some over others. It depends on the understanding that all human beings should be equally entitled a range of civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. Justice requires the self-regulation of one’s own emotions, thoughts, and behavior to show fairness, courtesy, respect, and compassion to all individuals regardless of economic disparity or of class, gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship, religion, age, sexual orientation, disability or health.


Leaders promote the welfare of others when they act as moral role models who provide support to others. They dedicate their time and talent to voice their opinions about moral issues, and initiate and participate in civil discourse and projects that benefit the community. Leaders need to show a high level of engagement with their communities to deeply understand others’ point of views, needs, and concerns. They demonstrate curiosity and eagerness to learn about the world. Their concern for others motivate them to go above and beyond their defined roles and duties. They are able to set aside their self-interest and work for the benefit of community members, the natural environment, or the greater society. Benefitting the greater good is embedded in young people’s sense of purpose.


Resourcefulness is the ability to use one’s imagination, creativity, and ingenuity to solve problems.  Resourcefulness depends on initiative – the capacity for thinking of and acting on one’s own new ideas. Resourceful individuals independently seek to expand their learning. They apply their knowledge to finding new ways to do things. They persevere and keep a focus on the problem-solving process when they struggle to find solutions. Resourceful individuals can think about new ways for helping other people and the natural environment. They use old materials to build new tools. They identify new ways to build caring social networks, and new strategies for coping with stressful situations. Resourceful individuals are self-reliant – they are willing to rely on their abilities and resources rather than those of others. They show agency in their entrepreneurial and forward thinking to proactively anticipate challenges and prepare for college, career, and personal relationships.


Responsibility the virtue that enable young people to act as autonomous, healthy, competent, and trustworthy individuals. There are two sides to responsibility: personal and social. Personal responsibility is the capacity to carry out activities with fidelity in a timely fashion. It means keeping one’s promises, fulfilling one’s duties, and developing healthy life habits. Personally responsible individuals hold themselves accountable to the results of their actions. They comply with the law, social norms, safety regulations, and ethical standards. They have a “growth mindset” – they are willing to put effort to accomplish something, work hard and persist to achieve goals and they do not blame others for their failures. Social responsibility means taking on roles that support the functioning of one’s family, class, social group, and community. Socially responsible individuals are commitment to fulfill the duties of a citizen, including the actions and attitudes expected by democratic governance. They commit themselves to transparency – disclosing the information needed to maintain high quality performance or decision of groups.