Schools have done many great things to help students. So have countless administrators, teachers, aides, and parents. Character development programs around the world, too, have done good work in instilling important values in young people.  But, one of the critiques by scientists inside and outside of the character education field has been the lack of quality research on these programs. Thanks to the new science of character strengths that emerged in the mid-2000s, this is changing.

What is the next step for character education? I don’t know that there is one exact missing link to be added, such as adding more training in self-regulation or social-emotional learning, more teaching to students on finding happiness, or more training of students on the underlying qualities that will help them achieve more. These are indeed important and many schools are already scrambling to do more of each of these.

Perhaps we need to take a step back and look at our approach to education? What is our underlying philosophy in how we view students?

The dominant approach in character education is an approach and philosophy of prescription (e.g., build up these 3-5 character qualities in all students). This is in direct contrast with an approach of description (e.g., explore, discover, and describe the best qualities in each student and THEN help the student express these strengths).

In our recently published article in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Mark Linkins, Jane Gillham, Donna Mayerson, and I argue for this latter approach in education (view article: Through the Lens of Strength: A Framework for Educating The Heart). In the article we offer a provocative metaphor coined by VIA Institute chairman, Neal Mayerson, who says:

Prescriptive character education is analogous to the process of molding clay. The ‘potter’ (school, educator, or other authority) works to transform the ‘clay’ (student’s character) into a predetermined form. Such approaches are widespread in character education programs, as well as other institutions that promote positive character (athletics, religion, government, etc.)….he compares this descriptive approach to the process of planting and nurturing seeds. No two seeds are identical; each is genetically unique and contains certain traits and potential, which may or may not ultimately be expressed, depending upon environmental factors. The gardener’s task is not to determine how growth will unfold, but rather to create optimal conditions for growth and development to occur. Like an individual seed, each child possesses a unique constellation of predispositions and possibilities. Under favorable conditions, this potential will find expression. The role of the educator – like that of the gardener – is to provide favorable conditions that will stimulate, encourage, and nurture growth.

Virtually every character education program I have come across takes some version of this “clay” approach. Even people that should know better such as prominent authors, expert researchers, and people with degrees in positive psychology, are essentially, clay-makers. Each, in some way, is acting as “the authority,” eager to instill particular traits into another person, usually an impressionable young person.

This is surprising because most people seem to identify with the “seed” approach when it is described to them. It’s hard to argue with the explanation that each child is an individual and that the role of the educator is to help a student first reveal his or her strengths of character (referred to as signature strengths) and then create an environment where those strengths can shine. More and more research is revealing the importance and benefits of signature strengths (view research on signature strengths). Nevertheless, an approach that focuses on signature strengths appears to be the road less traveled.

In conclusion, take some time to reflect deeply on the essence of your philosophy and your actual behavior when you are with children or youth. What is your approach…the clay or the seed? And, don’t say “both,” as that is a way of escaping from the issue at hand (even though there is some truth in that response).

For those that are interested in exploring and advancing the “seed” approach, peruse some of the following resources and references below:


Linkins, M., Niemiec, R. M., Gillham, J., & Mayerson, D. (2014): Through the lens of strength: A framework for educating the heart. Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.888581

Madden, W., Green, L. S., & Grant, A. M. (2011). A pilot study evaluating strengths-based coaching for primary school students: Enhancing engagement and hope. InternationalCoaching Psychology Review, 7, 71–83. 

Proctor, C., Tsukayama, E., Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Eades, J. F., & Linley, P. A. (2011). Strengths gym: The impact of a character strengths-based intervention on the life satisfaction and well-being of adolescents. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6, 377–388. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2011.594079F

Seligman, M. E. P., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: Positive psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35, 293–311. doi: 10.1080/03054980902934563

White, M. A., & Waters, L. E. (2014): A case study of ‘The Good School:’ Examples of the use of Peterson’s strengths-based approach with students. Journal of Positive Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.920408

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