Character In Schools Part I: What Exactly Is “Character?”

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This is a first in a series of three posts about student character in schools. In previous posts, we’ve described why we should measure character and how we are measuring character. This post will provide the definition of character as we see it here at EduMetrics. In future posts, we’ll be diving into what character traits are essential to measure in schools and expand upon our previous posts about how to most accurately measure these traits.

To paraphrase a saying I heard a professor once say, you can’t improve what you can’t measure, and you can’t measure what you can’t precisely define. In other words, once we agree on a definition, then we need to agree on the accuracy with which we can measure the thing we just defined. Only then should we try to measure it’s improvement over time.

But we would also take it a step further and say that if you can’t reliably measure what you believe is important, you can’t convince the right stakeholders to join you in improving them. This is crucial for lasting reform in any industry, and education is definitely no different. Take a quick glance at the ongoing debate nationwide about how to measure teacher quality as an example of the need for agreement before progress can be made.

So as the mainstream catches on to the promising academic research from the past 15 years on the “hidden power of character” to improve educational outcomes for students, we would like to add to that discussion an important question: “What exactly are we trying to measure and how well are we measuring it?”

We should start with the “what” before we move to the “how,” so what exactly is “character?”

You’d be surprised at how hard this is to figure out. To many scholars it’s more a philosophical than a psychological question, so I’ll be drawing here from the work of our colleague Christian Miller of Wake Forest University. He’s a professor of moral psychology and philosophy who has been a close consultant in our grant-funded study of student character using daily questions on smartphones, tablets and laptops. He’s written two phenomenal books on moral character that I reference often in the office:


So here we go!

The term “character” comes from the ancient Greek word charaktêr, which referred to the mark impressed upon a coin.(1) And that’s a good place to start, in that character is definitely about qualities that endure over time and across context, just like a mark would endure on a coin I carry around in my pocket. That mark would allow me to discern that coin from another one, in fact, and that’s how character works for us in the human realm. We can describe people as “honest” or “hard-working” or “compassionate”, and this helps us differentiate them from others. We often call these things “traits.”

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy can help say this crucial point in a more illustrative way:

“The virtues and vices that comprise one’s moral character are typically understood as dispositions to behave in certain ways in certain sorts of circumstances. For instance, an honest person is disposed to telling the truth when asked. These dispositions are typically understood as relatively stable and long-term. Further, they are also typically understood to be robust, that is, consistent across a wide-spectrum of conditions. We are unlikely, for example, to think that an individual who tells the truth to her friends but consistently lies to her parents and teachers possesses the virtue of honesty.” (2)

But not all traits have to do with character. For instance, everyone would agree at first glance that I’m tall, Caucasian, and have dark blond hair. Those are three traits that endure over time and across contexts that people could use to describe me. They’re my “marks,” impressed upon me at birth, that people use to differentiate me. But there’s no way you could argue that these have anything to do with my character. Character definitely has to do more with my personality, or mental life. (3)

So on that note, if you got to know me a bit more, you’d probably start to notice that I tend to worry unnecessarily. Is that a character trait then?

This is where things get a bit murky, but Dr. Miller would say no, and most philosophers and social scientists interested in morality and ethics would agree, because my anxiety proneness is largely something I have little conscious control over.

Yes, it’s definitely a trait of my personality, but in many ways my average level of anxiety from day-to-day is higher than other people because of a complicated mix of heredity and early childhood experiences.

That said, I could commit to daily meditation or remember to practice deep breathing every time I felt myself getting anxious, and perhaps, over time, I could reduce the amount to which I get anxious, but to get there I’d have to exhibit things like self-discipline and perseverance to stick with those new habits. I’d also have to exhibit some level of prudence, to keep my long-term goals in mind and avoid short-term satisfactions. Not only would I have to exhibit these things consistently over time and across various contexts, but I’d have to do them consciously. This is at the heart of what character is.

Character, then, refers to tendencies to think, feel and act in certain ways that are relatively stable over time and across different contexts that we also have conscious control over. And because we have the choice to exert control over these tendencies, we are often held responsible for upholding them by society.

For instance, what does it take to NOT punch that guy in the face who took your parking spot? Self-discipline in the moment, for sure. Prudence to remember that the short-term gain of “defeating” him may be outweighed by getting arrested and put in jail, which will affect your long-term life goals. And I’d argue compassion is at play here too, something that might prevent you from even considering the thought of punching him in the first place. But if you decide to punch him, society will look pretty harshly on that, by and large, and you may be brought to court as a result.

So, we’ve established that character is about our personality, or our mental lives, but it also is about consciously choosing to think, feel or do something consistently over time and across different situations. That’s a pretty solid definition of character, and one we feel good about using as a starting point. We’ll pick up in our next post about what character traits to measure, and then we’ll move on to how to most accurately do it!


  1. Timpe, K. (2015). “Moral Character.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from
  2. Ibid.
  3. Most of my discussion of the differences between kinds of traits comes from Christian Miller’s talk at the 2012 Character Project Conference. YouTube link here.

Also published on Medium.

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