Character Education

Dear Dr. Marshall,

I am the principal at Winter Park Elementary in Wilmington, North Carolina. Four years ago I was looking for a structure or paradigm of some sort to help explain to parents and community members our reliance on intrinsic motivation to manage our student body. I came your “Raise Responsibility System” and I was thrilled.

The entire staff met to discuss how to make “The Raise Responsibility System” work for us. We created a visual poster, wrote a parent-friendly version for distribution, and renamed our structure, “Action Zones.” Everyday we talk about being in the “D Zone” where you are doing what is right even if no one is looking.

I am delighted to let you know our “Action Zones” has been selected as a “promising character education practice” by the Character Education Partnership. We were selected from 206 applications across the U.S. and other countries. Our application included mention of your work as our structure and how we adapted the “Raise Responsibility System” framework.

Thank you for your inspiration and wonderful work.

Lynn W. Fulton, Principal
Winter Park Elementary School


The most wonderful tool I know of for teaching about “character” is the Levels of Development from Dr. Marvin Marshall’s Raise Responsibility System. It is a K-12 program, originally developed for classroom discipline but now is also used to promote academic achievement and character development.

Dr. Marshall’s hierarchy is most certainly the BEST tool that I, personally, have ever seen for helping young people understand what “character” is and for concretely showing them how to achieve a higher level of development with regard to any of the character traits.

Although incorporating the system into every aspect of the school day is the intended and most effective use of this program, you wouldn’t necessarily need to implement it so extensively in order to take advantage of the hierarchy and use it as a teaching tool for character education.

The Levels of Development describes four levels of personal and social development that can be taught to students of any age (It is often an eye-opener for many adults as well!)

As in any hierarchy, the highest level is at the top:

LEVEL D – Democracy  (INTERNAL motivation )
Develops self-discipline
Shows kindness to others
Develops self-reliance
Demonstrates responsibility
Does good because it is the right thing to do.

LEVEL C – Cooperation/Conformity (EXTERNAL motivation)
Does what is expected
Exhibits self-discipline, kindness, responsibility, reliance, etc.—when someone else is present

LEVEL B – Bossing/Bullying (Needs to be bossed to behave.)
Bothers others
Bullies others
Breaks classroom standards
(This level is never acceptable.)

LEVEL A – Anarchy
Out of control
(This level is never acceptable, It is the lowest level of personal and social development.)

To help you more fully understand, following is a brief explanation of the higher two levels of the hierarchy as they relate to character education.

At Level D, a person is kind, (or tolerant, respectful, diligent, etc.), because he/she is motivated INTERNALLY. A person operating at this highest level of development acts kindly (tolerantly, respectfully, with diligence, etc.), WHETHER OR NOT someone is watching or supervising. At Level D, there is no desire to impress, be rewarded, or even be noticed. When operating at this very high level, a person acts in a kind, tolerant, respectful or diligent way without any EXTERNAL incentive to do so.

In contrast, a person operating at a slightly lower (but still acceptable level), Level C, does all of the same things as someone operating at Level D, but is motivated by EXTERNAL influences, rather than INTERNAL ones. In other words, an adult (or perhaps a peer that the young person wants to impress) is watching or directly supervising, and this influences the young person to do the kind, tolerant or respectful, or responsible thing.

At Level C, a person is not acting from an entirely genuine desire to be kind or respectful, tolerant, etc. Rather, at Level C, a person acts due to the presence or influence of someone else. Although this level is certainly acceptable (and even many adults never move past it in their own development), it is important for young people to understand that this is not the highest level of personal or social development.

The main purpose of teaching the hierarchy to young people is to give them a reference that will enable them to evaluate and assess behaviour in any situation or circumstance. Even very young children can learn to do this quickly and accurately. In so doing, students gradually develop a clear vision of what constitutes highly evolved social/personal behaviour.

The hierarchy can be adapted to any situation that might arise in a school day and can also be used in conjunction with literature, current events, or social studies. When used specifically for character education, it can be modified to highlight any particular character trait that a teacher might choose as a focus.

Because the students, rather than the teacher, assume responsibility for using this assessment tool, they must actively engage in a process of critical thinking each time they are asked to examine behaviour. This thinking process naturally leads to reflection regarding personal and social development and is what makes the hierarchy such a valuable and powerful teaching/learning tool.

Here is an example of a hierarchy that might be created to highlight just one character trait, with some sample understandings that might be discussed in a classroom:


Level D (Motivation is INTERNAL.)

• Perseveres in spite of a challenge
• Retains an optimistic attitude toward obstacles
• Doesn’t require constant adult direction or supervision to stay on task
• Independently asks for help when necessary, rather than unnecessarily worrying

Level C (Motivation is EXTERNAL.)

• Does all of the above but ONLY when an adult is nearby or when there is a desire to impress someone who is watching

Level B/A

• On task ONLY when an adult is directly supervising and even then doesn’t choose to focus well
• Gives up without much effort or care
• Displays a pessimistic attitude toward obstacles
• Blames others/circumstances as an excuse for giving up
• Doesn’t ask for help or accept help that is offered
• Worries but doesn’t choose to take action that will help move her/him forward

As I mentioned earlier, one of the main understandings to convey to students when using the  hierarchy for any purpose is that levels C and D differ only in their motivation. This is the only program I know of that features this crucial concept.

Marshall’s reference to motivation in the hierarchy enables teachers to describe, in a very simple way, exactly what adults mean by “a person of the highest character.” That is, a person of the highest character is motivated INTERNALLY to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do.

Another difference between the two highest and acceptable levels is the fact that each level of operation brings with it different and predictable results. Although Level C operation leads to decent relationships with others, a decision to operate more consistently at Level D naturally leads to EXCELLENT relationships and, additionally, a strong sense of self-esteem.

By focusing on the benefits of operating at Level D (the great feelings of inner satisfaction that come from knowing that you are an authentic and genuinely motivated individual), I have found that young people become inwardly motivated to WANT to reach for this highest level of personal development more and more often.

One concern I have regarding many of the character education programs designed for children these days is that they often seem to recommend that teachers institute some sort of classroom/school reward system in the hopes of motivating students to exhibit one or more of the featured character traits. Although I realize that the authors of these programs are well-intentioned, the actual fact of the situation is that by offering EXTERNAL incentives to children, these programs are actually limiting young people; they are encouraging Level C motivation.

Kindness motivated by a desire to please an adult or a desire to receive a treat is NOT the highest level of behaviour. A program that offers a child a prize, a badge, or a raffle ticket for displaying kindness is promoting less-than-the-highest type of behaviour. A good book to read for further information about human motivation is “WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO” by Edward Deci.

One thing that I especially love about the hierarchy is that it is meant to be used in real life situations, as they actually happen in the classroom, in the gym, in the line-up, or out on the playground, etc. Everyday situations provide countless opportunities to discuss kindness, tolerance, honesty, patience, responsibility, etc., in very real and, therefore, meaningful ways.

In my opinion, many character development programs fall short because, in contrast to Dr. Marshall’s hierarchy, they seem quite superficial. Character education teaching manuals routinely suggest using party games, snappy jingles, commercially prepared role-playing scenarios, artificial compliment-giving sessions, and contests or raffles to teach or encourage the development of various character traits.

Despite the fact that students might display enthusiasm for character lessons centered around games and songs, to my way of thinking such activities are all quite limited in value when it comes to building character. Being somewhat contrived and at the very least, one step removed from real life, it seems difficult to imagine that such exercises could ever be very effective in helping students to become genuine and authentic individuals.

Kerry Weisner
British Columbia, Canada