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International Journal of Educational Management

ISSN: 0951-354X

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Character, school leadership, and the brain: learning how to integrate knowledge with behavioral change


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DOI (Permanent URL): 10.1108/09513540210434603

Article citation: Raymond L. Calabrese, Brian Roberts, (2002) "Character, school leadership, and the brain: learning how to integrate knowledge with behavioral change", International Journal of Educational Management, Vol. 16 Iss: 5, pp.229 - 238


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The Authors

Raymond L. Calabrese, Wichita State University, Kansas, USA

Brian Roberts, Editor, The International Journal of Educational Management

Abstract

Character is at the core of leadership. Leaders with virtuous character provide benefit to their schools and communities. Whereas, leaders with character flaws create harm for themselves as well as their community. The ethical lapses among teachers, principals, and superintendents create an even larger issue when one considers the fiduciary trust placed in educators by the public. Character development requires behavioral change as well as knowledge acquisition. Incorporating behavioral change into university administrator preparation programs requires faculty to consider recent findings in neuroscience on how the brain learns and the incorporation of these findings into program design and instruction.

Article Type:

Research Paper

Keyword(s):

Universities; Leadership; Ethics; Standards; Cognition.

Journal:

International Journal of Educational Management

Volume:

16

Number:

5

Year:

2002

pp:

229-238

Copyright ©

MCB UP Ltd

ISSN:

0951-354X

Introduction

Historically, character has been an important part of American culture. In Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796, he stated, “’Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government” (Washington, 1796). Consideration of character education in contemporary society, for a while, was linked to the agenda of conservative politicians. In recent years, given the wide media attention on violence in public schools, educators and politicians representing a broader political spectrum joined forces for the inclusion of character development in the public school’s curriculum (Muscott and O’Brien, 1999). Ironically, character education is exclusively focused on public students from kindergarten through high school. Adults are presumed to have the virtues of character. As a result, character formation in adulthood is limited to those institutions that value character as a part of their culture.

The American and British military academies, for example, focus on character development as a prerequisite to leadership. The British Royal Military Academy Sandhurst uses Lord Rowallen’s words as a guide to officer training, “Develop character first and military leadership will follow.” (Rowallen, 2002). The focus on character development is missing in traditional universities in undergraduate and graduate work in general and specifically in teacher education and school administration preparation programs. In essence, there is a tacit assumption made by those in educational administration programs, as well as those in the public school hiring positions, that adults innately have the virtues attributed to people of character and students are in need of character formation.

Recently, a resurgence is emerging for a deeper examination of the notion of character and its importance as a part of leadership selection and development. Virtuous character is tacitly understood by those using this term to define the standard of how leaders should behave. Notable leadership experts such as Bennis (1989) believe that of all the characteristics associated with leadership, character is the most important. Bennis (1989, p. 42) states, “Developing character and vision is the way leaders reinvent themselves.” Covey (1989, p. 217), in his widely popular book, Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, centers his attention in the notion of character, “Character is the foundation of win/win, and everything else builds on that foundation.”

Unfortunately, the genesis of this groundswell is focused more on the private sector, the training of military leaders, and those in religious organizations concerned with moral formation. It is not part of the conversation of those preparing teachers or educational leaders. This tacit belief is unfortunate, since character plays a significant role in the education as well as the leadership process. It is the sine qua non of leadership training. Character is expressed individually and collectively.

In an individual sense, character is expressed through individual behavior. This framework has its beginnings in Aristotle’s belief that character explains the history of a person’s actions as well as the ways in which a person can be counted to act in the future (Sherman, 1989). In essence, as organizational psychologists inform us, the best predictor of future performance is past performance. A person of questionable past character is likely to act unethically and pursue his or her self-interests in the future. Whereas, a person whose past character is of sterling quality is likely to act with integrity and with a sense of mutuality in the future (Calabrese and Roberts, 2001).

Originally, character referred to the stamp that ancient brick makers placed on their bricks. The stamp represented the personal signature of the individual on his or her work. If the work was of quality, the character was all that was needed to communicate it to members of the brick maker’s community. Character has since come to be known as our individual stamp on our actions and personality (Schofield, 1901).

The stamp of good character is marked by the practice of virtues associated with character. Many people refer to the virtues Aristotle identified as being at the heart of character. These virtues include courage, temperance, generosity, pride, good temper, truthfulness, wittiness, friendliness, modesty, and righteous indignation (See Aristotle’s Virtues)[1]. Early American wit and philosopher Benjamin Franklin mentioned other virtues such as chastity, humility, moderation, cleanliness, sincerity, industry, frugality, order, and silence to supplement Aristotle’s efforts. The virtues of character acted out in daily actions are the building blocks of a lifetime of character. Churchill (1941) succinctly defined the argument for character, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

The case for character

“If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom is a measure for assessing character in pragmatic contexts. School leaders, often beset with high stress situations, in high stakes contexts, reveal the content of their character. Many rise to the occasion and do what is right. There are many others, however, who respond counterproductively with blatantly unethical actions. Calabrese and Roberts (2001) report that in the last five years, substantial evidence exists that a primary cause of school leader career derailment is a result of ethical lapses distinctly related to individual character.

Evidence continues to grow from all members of the education community: teachers, principals, coaches, and superintendents. Anderson[2] suggests that the majority of lapses center around the handling of money and information. Examples abound of ethical lapses among educators, opening the door to questions of character. Jonsson (2001) reporting in the Christian Science Monitor, states, “It’s become a familiar and disturbing front-page story from Nashua, NH to Fayetteville, NC: Teacher as predator, teacher as cheater, teacher as con artist … At the root of the problem, some say, is a generation of teachers that has come of age never having learned basic rights and wrongs.” The same criticism can be documented regarding school administrators with offenses ranging from rigging achievement test scores in Texas, using public funds for personal use in Kansas, to sexual harassment in New York.

Publicly reported incidents of unethical behavior may be the tip of the iceberg. Hidden below the surface, are ethical lapses that go undetected, unreported, endured by faculty and students, and covered up by school board unwillingness to tolerate public scrutiny. A review of newspaper articles using restricted search terms reveals a significant number of reports of school leaders and misconduct. In fact, in the last five years, there have been more than 600 reports of school administrator misconduct in the United States. This type of behavior is a personal tragedy and usually means the end of a promising career. It is a public tragedy in that members of the school community suffer because of the school leader’s character-less leadership. The significance of this issue is quantitatively and qualitatively documented in news reports of the impact of the actions of derailed school leaders on learning, morale, resources, and more significantly on the aspiration levels of teachers and students (Calabrese, 2000).

We propose that character is at the heart of leadership. It is the essential element that separates transformational leaders from all others. Burns (1975, p. 457), in his seminal work Leadership, speaks of the moral authority of transformational leadership, “It is the power of a person to become a leader, armed with principles and rising above self-interest narrowly conceived, that invests that person with power and may ultimately transform both leaders and followers into persons who jointly adhere to modal values and end-values.” Since character is the foundation of transformational leadership, it should be a central tenet of leadership development and preparation programs.

Character development is, however, non-existent as a formal part of the curriculum in educational leadership programs. This does not mean the field ignores its importance. In fact, there is increasing pressure from educational administration professionals, supervisory agencies, and standard setting groups to require ethics as a part of the training of school administrators.

The result is that an increasing number of American universities now require a formal course in ethics for those preparing for school leadership positions.

The inclusion of ethics courses is a positive step. Ethics courses, however, are only the beginning of the journey in developing character. Learning about ethics does not necessarily make a person act ethically; it provides a data bank as to what is appropriate action. In essence, knowing and doing are distinctly different tasks. An individual, for example, may enter a new context with a well-formed ethical grounding. The members of that context may hold a different set of assumptions that violate the individual’s ethical principles. The individual is left with three choices:

  1. conform and join the group,
  2. resist and challenge the group, or
  3. leave the group.

The context’s influence on the individual is exponentially increased by the expectations of the individual’s supervisor (Sims, 2000). Argyris (1999) supports this contention by pointing out the organization’s resistance to acknowledge or confront issues of embarrassment or threat. Whenever the organization perceives potential threat or embarrassment, it sets into motion a whole series of defensive routines to oppose the threat or protect the organization from embarrassment.

In contemporary jargon, the use of “spin doctors” is a common organizational strategy to misdirect attention or to attribute blame to a third source.

The dichotomy between ethical policies and virtuous behavior is summed up in the differences between espoused theories and theories-in-use. Where the gap is great between espoused theories and theories-in-use, it is almost certain that character deficiencies exist among members and those deficiencies are supported, tolerated, or overlooked by the organization.

Developing character in prospective school leaders

The gap between espoused theory and theories-in-use does not exist in organizations comprised of people of character. In character-driven cultures, members act out of habit-driven behavioral expectations. Character tied to correct behavior emanates from a person’s inner being where the behavior is based on habit (Wetlaufer, 1999). The habits chosen by the person are a collective series of choices formed and supported by a person’s group. Goliszek (1987, p. 28) states, “Habits are defined as behavior patterns that become regular or spontaneous due to regular repetition. A habit increases in strength over time because it’s really a kind of conditioned response that becomes ingrained in our subconscious and is released whenever a certain mental or environmental cue is given.”

Shaping behavior patterns becomes more crucial to the formation of character. Essentially, character formation is constantly occurring. The organizational culture and behavior of its leaders shapes, for better or worse, the character of its members and the behavior of the members shapes the culture of the organization. In effect, there is a character-driven relationship between the individual and his or her organization. The individual contributes to the culture of the organization and the organization reinforces the individual’s behavior. As such, institutional character and integrity are the foundation for the development of individual character. Organizations with strong institutional character and integrity have a social contract with the community. It is an organization’s duty to produce good.

A social contract to contribute to the civic good is at the foundational core of many universities. Checkoway (2001) states, “Many American universities were established with a civic mission to prepare students for active participation in a diverse democracy and to develop knowledge for the improvement of communities.”

Character development is essential to educational leadership development and ultimately to the efficacy of change, learning, and generation of community support. Character development and measurement can serve as a stimulus to the creation of a higher quality of leadership pool and ultimately to the selection of school leaders whose character has been developed and tested. Christman (2001, p. 258) contends “Leadership, today and tomorrow, is the art of influencing others in a manner that earns their respect, their confidence, and their whole-hearted cooperation. It is developed through education, training, and experience.” Education is one piece to the puzzle. Coaching, and experience in contexts that support positive character development are other equally important pieces to the puzzle.

Ramifications of character development

Character is an important intellectual and behavioral concept in school leadership training. The school leader’s character influences people, programs, and the educational profession. As Bellah (1985, p. 284) says, “Human beings and their societies are deeply interrelated, and the actions we take have enormous ramifications for the lives of others.” The impact is at a tacit level where members of the school community model leader behavior and at an overt level where the leader’s actions have public significance. The leader does not operate in a vacuum, but in a public venue where his or her actions have deep and significant consequences on the community (Bennis, 1993).

Leaders lacking character create chaos and foster despair. Leaders, who manifest the virtues of character in their actions and decisions, create learning communities where members operate in a sense of mutuality and trust.

Administrator preparation and character

School leadership preparation programs opt for specific knowledge acquisition and are driven by licensing requirements. The majority of administration preparation programs, for example, have courses on personnel, supervision, finance, law, and others. Moral formation and the emphasis on moral leadership are a by-product and not at the heart of preparation programs. Hence, character formation is of secondary consideration in this environment.

Licensing requirements are one issue in understanding the absence of character formation in school leadership preparation programs. A more pertinent issue and central to the critical nature of character formation is an understanding of neuroscientific research and its impact on learning in general and more specifically on the preparation of school administrators. Hart (1983) argued nearly two decades ago that pedagogy without awareness of the brain’s learning functions is akin to constructing a glove without an understanding of a hand. This is increasingly critical when we realize that the brain’s complexity significantly dwarfs human developed structures (Goldberg, 2001).

Brain function and learning

According to Wolfe and Brandt (1998, p. 1), “The recent explosion of neuroscientific research has the exciting potential to increase our understanding of teaching and learning. … Although educators must be cautious about many neuroscientific findings, a few are quite well established:

  1. The brain changes physiologically as a result of experience;
  2. IQ is not fixed at birth;
  3. Some abilities are acquired more easily during certain ‘window of opportunity’; and
  4. learning is strongly influenced by emotion.”

Neuroscience research provides an understanding for educators related to the complexity of the brain and its connection to the mind and body. Neuroscience research findings can inform those preparing school leaders how people see, speak, act, hear, think and behave (Barrett, 1995). Researchers are also exploring how brain functions connect to emotions and learning.

In many ways, the more we know, the more complex the issue becomes, especially for those not deeply involved in neuroscience or a related field. For many, brain function has undergone a mystification because of its complexity and its association to the fields of neuroscience and psychology. The mystification of the brain is understood when one realizes that the potential connections between brain cells in a single human brain exceed the number of atoms in the universe (Ornstein and Thompson, 1984). Mystification causes a reluctance to understand brain function, but it becomes further mystified when educators use metaphors such as a super computer or a complex web containing a myriad of pathways to explain brain function (Caine and Caine, 1990).

Given the mystification of the brain, it is crucial for those who prepare school leaders to develop a rudimentary understanding of how the brain learns. Neuroscientists report that the brain influences all of our thoughts and actions and causes these thoughts and actions to interact in nanoseconds with every cell in the human body. Because of the rapid processing capability of the brain, the human being frequently acts and then reflects. Well-worn neural pathways that resist change drive behavior. Most people can relate to the frustration of desiring a change, committing to the change, but two months later report being stuck in familiar behavior patterns. Emerging research indicates that overcoming behavior patterns may be difficult, but is possible (Howard, 2000). Human beings have an amazing capacity to learn and are not condemned to be stuck in patterns of unproductive behavior unless they freely choose to be stuck.

The ability to learn does not decrease significantly with age. According to researchers, “Many scientists once believed that as we aged the brain’s networks cemented in place. But now an enormous amount of evidence uncovered in the past two decades finds that the brain never stops changing and adjusting” (Brain Briefings, 2000). Accordingly, adults retain a significant capacity to learn and adapt. The brain’s ability to learn and adapt to new circumstances is known as plasticity (Swan, 1998).

The human capacity for learning does not reside solely in the brain. Another significant finding in brain research indicates that learning takes place in the entire human body as well as the brain. The brain and body are intricately involved in the learning acquisition and application of new knowledge (Caine and Caine, (2001). The brain continually learns and guides the body to learn. This helps explain why change is so difficult for most people. People who smoke, for example, know that smoking is the primary cause of a number of preventable human diseases. Many smokers make resolutions to change, but break those resolutions. Their problem is what they understand intellectually is not fully incorporated at the cellular level until much later. Further, given certain circumstances, the cellular memory elicits the emotion of the pleasures of smoking creating an overwhelming desire to return to the habit.

Learning to smoke was accompanied by sensory and emotional data. The greater the strength of the sensory data tied to a strong emotional trigger, the more significant the learning. Sylwester (2001) asserts that when our brain makes meaning out of an event and determines that something important has occurred, it starts a cognitive process of emotional arousal to activate our attention on the event. This provides direction for critical thinking, decision making, and problem-solving systems, out of which flows our behavioral response.

Many people, for example, can recall instantly when they viewed the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The graphic pictures of suffering were imprinted at the cellular level and bonded with five of six emotions (surprise, sadness, anger, disgust, and fear). This event could have occurred while a person was listening to Beethoven’s Symphony Number 9. Years after this event, the person attends a symphony where Beethoven’s Symphony Number 9 is performed and he or she is filled with deep sadness and begins weeping for no apparent reason. The person is unaware that the music stimulated cellular memory of the tragic event and produced a corresponding behavioral reaction.

Similarly, a school administrator finds him or herself in a stress-filled context where he or she must acknowledge error. The school administrator’s reflexive neural system reverts to default and recalls a strong emotional event when he or she was eight years old and lied about his or her involvement to a strong authoritarian figure to avoid punishment. Because this ploy worked, the administrator instinctively refers back to this experience and begins to cover up his or her error confounding the situation (see LeDoux, 1996).

In addition to the impact of sensory data and emotions to memory and learning, our decisions and judgments, for better or worse, are made in the frontal lobes of the brain in the area behind the forehead. This knowledge of brain function and its relationship to teaching and learning is critical to advancing teaching and learning. Ironically, educators, for the most part, have fallen rapidly behind brain research advances in the areas of adaptive decision making (Goldberg, 2001).

Linking brain function to behavior

Understanding the link between brain function and behavior helps predict how human beings will behave. By being able to predict human behavior, we determine if a person will be an ally, enemy, or neutral. In effect, it determines our behavior. Based on our prediction of the person’s behavior, we formulate a response. Concern with prediction of behavior is a basic human concern as well as one for researchers (Chalmers, 1995).

Prediction of behavior is a learned response based on experience and sensory input. By understanding the brain and how it learns, we can devise learning strategies that teach people how to use sensory data, emotions, experiences, and knowledge to enhance their decision making. This has significant implications on moral development and character formation. No longer do we have to be satisfied with the processing of information related to ethical behavior, we can integrate information into the constitutional makeup of the individual enhancing the probability that his or her actions will be character-driven.

Human beings are complex organisms who store information in coded patterns at the cellular level. The coded patterns of information form neuro pathways that prescribe behavior. According to May (1988), each of the billions of cells comprising the human body acts interdependently with other cells based on feedback loops, prior learning, and new information. The interdependence is so strong that a change in one cell, affects all cells as each other cell adapts to the change in a single cell. In effect, the human body is a learning organism. In a positive sense, the human mind continuously learns through trial and error as a means of adaptation to changing environments as a means to enhance its survival. In a negative sense, when the human mind associates pleasure with a debilitating activity such as drug or alcohol abuse, it also remains. May (1988, p. 90) states, “Sadly, the brain never completely forgets what is has learned. Because of the deep attachments, their potential exists forever in us, even after we have effectively broken the habit of acting upon them.”

The fact that our brain does not forget and that much of our behavior is based on well-developed neural pathways can seem disconcerting. Does this mean that human beings, for the most part, are condemned to repeat behavior, especially in stress situations where the time and awareness of available options do not exist? At first glance, this may be the case, and it serves to explain why past practice is one of the best predictors of future success.

In essence, the brain guides both our voluntary and involuntary behavior. It continually processes and stores new information collected from our sensory apparatus and seeks to construct meaning by integrating new information with previous information. The meaning it constructs has a logical pattern, yet, is not logical in the sense that the same sensory data gathered by two separate brains do not necessarily result in the same meaning. The brain serves as a self-organizing system in its construction of meaning. Self-organization by the brain is at the core of meaning making. Emotion, thought, and body interact at a primal level to create understanding. Additionally, self-organization actions are filtered through core beliefs, values, and purposes. In effect, human beings form mental models as an organizing mechanism to interpret new experiences (Caine and Caine, 1997).

Educational administration programs and teaching character

At the heart of the teaching of character is the crucial need to link the acquisition of knowledge to behavior. The transition from focusing solely on knowledge acquisition to integrating knowledge acquisition with behavioral change flows out of how the brain learns through its constant seeking to create patterns and construct meaning. Caine and Caine (1991, p. 93) state, “We contend that the search for meaning and the consequential need to act on our environment are automatic, survival oriented, and basic to the human brain. The mind/brain innately seeks to make connections. We are therefore born to learn.”

Making meaning out of situations and forming judgments leading to decision are done in the brain’s frontal cortex. Leaders, according to Goldberg (2001) make two types of decisions in any given set of circumstances: veridical decisions or adaptive decisions. Veridical decisions focus on discovering the correct answer – they are deterministic in nature; adaptive decisions focus on self-interests. Adaptive decisions are more likely to occur in ambiguous contexts. Interestingly, leadership takes places primarily in ambiguous contexts where there seldom is a pure case of right and wrong. It is a context where the leader operates automatically based on a series of personal assumptions collected over time from a panoply of contexts (Stein, 1997).

These assumptions are grounded in the person’s cognition, affect, and conation (intentions to act, reasons for doing, will). These mental dimensions interact with biological components: genetic influences, bodily functioning, and overt behavior or output (Huitt, 2001). It is the combination of mental and biological dimensions that produce a person’s actions and, in effect, contribute to the person’s character.

The university’s teaching role is to move beyond the transmitting of information to the construction of an enriched environment where information becomes one part of an overarching design. The construction of this overarching design occurs in the alignment of the delineation of a knowledge base with pedagogical strategies aligned with the neuroscientific research related to how the brain learns.

Program considerations for preparation programs

Creating this overarching design means that faculty has to overcome latent inertia in altering culturally accepted ways of teaching and delivering instruction. Faculty consideration of how students learn is a secondary consideration at best and neglected at worst. The knowledge of the brain is crucial to the development of effective teaching and learning strategies tied to administrator preparation. Few university administration preparation programs, if any, incorporate recent brain/mind research into instructional and learning strategies. Brain research competes with traditional norms, values, and myths embedded for centuries in university culture. The reticence to embrace and apply neuroscience research to pedagogical methods exists at all levels of education: public and private, K-12, or higher education. Even the recent reform efforts are grounded in the traditional model of teaching and learning (Caine and Caine, 2001).

Lazerson et al. (2000, p. 12) state, “For all the pedagogical innovations … there has been precious little deeper reform. Individual professors may teach somewhat differently than they did two decades ago … but there is little evidence that the changes add up to a systemic reconsideration of how and why students learn.” It is clear, that university teaching has remained stable and predictable for nearly a century, the pressures from government, technology, and industry not withstanding.

This, in part, explains why researchers complain about the ineffectiveness of university teaching. They lay much of the blame on the organization of the university, the cultural expectations faculty face, the discouragement of risk taking, and the lack of willingness by faculty to invest the time and energy to question current practices (Sunal et al., 2001). Educational reform researchers often attribute the cause of the slowness or lack of reform efforts to reticent faculty; faculty reticence may only be a symptom. The actual cause may be systemic with the university tied to a mechanistic model in times that demand a sociocultural organizational model (see Gharajedaghi, 1999). In effect, the structure of the university creates a convoluted learning situation where the brain function attempts to create meaning in a meaningless organizational context.

Failure of faculty to embrace neuroscience implications for teaching and delivery of instruction is more related to fear of survival in a highly structured environment than it may be to the desire to learn new knowledge or adapt to change. Schein (1997) calls the fear of survival anxiety two and the fear of change because of the lack of knowledge or skill as anxiety one. On one hand, when the fear of survival is less than the need to acquire new knowledge and skill acquisition, survival is no longer a priority and faculty feel little, if any, pressure to change. On the other hand, when faculty are frightened with survival, they quickly revert to behaviors that were successful in the past and not tied to new directions or learning. Given these considerations, it is possible to make inroads into constructive change in the university-driven preparation programs of school administrators. The following recommendations are ways that faculty can alter preparation programs to teach character and as an immediate by-product improve the instruction of all programs.

Recommendations

  1. Integrate the teaching of ethics into each course. When ethics is taught as a separate course, it becomes compartmentalized. Thus, when a student is taking a school finance course, ethical considerations are not a germane topic. When ethics is introduced into the course, the application of the knowledge is included with ethics to shape potential applications, thus integrating character considerations into the curriculum.
  2. Examples of the work of virtuous people need to be integrated into course work and discussed in a seminar fashion. Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is an excellent example of the challenge of character. Winston Churchill’s We Shall Fight on the Beaches to the House of Commons also illustrates the virtues of character.
  3. University faculty must reconfigure the delivery of course work for those in administrator preparation programs and creatively construct new instructional designs that support character development and behavioral change. Simply put, behavioral change cannot occur in traditional university settings. Prospective administrators need to be part of a richly intense environment that stimulates intellectual, physical, and moral development. This rich environment requires a multiple week residency for faculty and students. In this multiple week residency, a culture of character is formed, students recognize character deficits elicited under stress, and develop the self-discipline to handle stress-filled challenges.

Pedagogical strategies aligned with neuroscientific research

Administrator preparation programs must lend themselves to training the frontal lobes of the brain cortex to function accurately in ambiguous situations. As Goldberg (2001, p. 2) states, “The frontal lobes are to the brain what a conductor is to an orchestra, a general to an army, the chief executive officer to a corporation. They coordinate and lead other neural structures in a concerted action. The frontal lobes are the brain’s command post.” In a sense, the frontal lobes of the brain are the seat of leadership and character. The goal is to create a rich learning environment where the frontal lobes learn the virtues of character and map them to behaviors in experiential contexts.

A key consideration in establishing a rich learning environment is the removal of threat. The brain perceives any hint of threat. Once the brain perceives an immediate or impending threat, it shuts down learning and focuses on survival. The area of brain responsible for this action is the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS acts as a toggle moving a person from hot to mild to cold. In hot stages, fight or flight mechanisms take priority. In mild stages learning, problem solving, collaboration are active. In cold stages the RAS is relaxed, the person is asleep or deeply engrossed in an activity not requiring learning or dealing with threat (Howard, 2000).

Creating a learning atmosphere that provides an environment conducive to the moving and sustaining the RAS into a mild stage is the first step in infusing character development. In this environment the prospective administrator is free to fail, open to learning, and willing to test personal assumptions. In such an environment, structured practice of behavior begins to develop neural patterns that are infused into the learner’s experiential base. In this sense, each person has the opportunity to create patterns enabling the integration of a character-driven knowledge base into experience.

The creation of this environment has distinct implications for faculty. It requires faculty to undergo significant shifts in attitude, knowledge, and application of instructional strategies. Faculty development entails a university commitment to support professional development in terms of acquiring and practicing the skills for a transformational shift in pedagogical applications. For faculty to make this type of commitment, it requires the university to rethink its traditional function of tenure and promotion. The traditional function of tenure and promotion will have the same stultifying effect on the faculty member’s RAS as a threatening environment has on the faculty member’s students. In effect, a revolutionary change in university culture minimally occurring at the College of Education is required.

An additional component in the teaching of character to prospective administrators is the need to conceptualize behavioral change as an integral part of learning. An essential component in the development of character is self-discipline. Military academies are aware that self-discipline is essential for leadership and character development. It is through self-discipline that a person learns to operate under stress and make decisions consistent with virtuous character. Self-discipline cannot be taught in the traditional classroom environment; it entails the exploration of creating sustained, multi-dimensional environments that train the body as well as the mind, the heart as well as the head.

Summary

Character can and must be taught as part of all leadership training. It is at the core of leadership. Leaders with virtuous character provide benefit to their schools and communities. Leaders with character flaws create harm for themselves as well as their community. Institutions, whose primary function is to prepare leaders, such as the military academies, ground their training in character development. They know that leaders without character destroy morale and even if victory were to occur, it comes at a price that is exorbitantly high. We continually witness the high price of character-less leadership in education. The ethical lapses among teachers, principals, and superintendents create an even larger issue when one considers the fiduciary trust placed in educators by the public.

The infusion of character development has been neglected, for the most part in university preparation of school administrators. It is addressed peripherally through the inclusion of ethics courses in the curriculum. Yet, even where it is addressed through ethics courses, it is taught as an information processing activity and not focused on behavioral change. Behavioral change can occur when a significant shift in pedagogy occurs at the university level. The faculty must consider recent findings in neuroscience on how the brain learns and incorporate these findings into program design and instruction. This requires the retraining of faculty as well as the redesign of university programs.

Notes

  1. Aristotle’s Virtues, available at: www.molloy.edu/academic/philosophy/sophia/aristotle/ne2_notes.htm (accessed 10 January 2002).
  2. Anderson, B. (n.d.) “A question of ethics”, available at: www.cpcusociety.org/members/ethics1.htm (accessed 29 January 2002).

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