To be fair is to be human?

Give WaySandwiched in the middle of the Six Pillars, Fairness doesn’t always get to take center stage. But in a fascinating article in The New York Times, Natalie Angier traces the human desire for fairness back to our evolutionary roots.

Angier begins by looking at the equalizing habits of hunter-gatherers in Paraguay and bushmen and foragers in Africa. To keep things balanced, these societies have rituals in place, like casting insults at a hunter who is too full of himself, or requiring childless gatherers to share excess food with families with children. In the United States, by contrast, as of 2007 the top 1% owned almost 35% of the wealth, and the top 20% owned 85% of the wealth. It’s not fair, and it makes a lot of people’s blood boil.

That, Angier says, is no surprise. Brain scientists in Stockholm have found that the desire for fairness begins in the primitive amygdala, which means fairness has been with us throughout our evolution. According to biologists, Angier writes,  “Homo sapiens have an innate distaste for hierarchical extremes, the legacy of our long nomadic prehistory as tightly knit bands living by veldt-ready team-building rules: the belief in fairness and reciprocity, a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively in ways that even our smartest primate kin cannot match.”

The desire for fairness is one of the traits that makes humans human. Chimpanzees will allow the toughest member of the group to dominate, but humans can band together, place their trust in each other, and overcome that bully.

Angier makes sure to point out that we still tolerate hierarchy. Scientists from the University of Washington studied five hunter-gatherer groups, and found “the average degree of income inequality to be roughly half that seen in the United States.”

Are Americans just different from hunter-gatherers? Are we more tolerant of unfairness?

No. According to another survey, Americans – both Democrats and Republicans – imagine an optimal wealth gradient in the U.S.A. that in no way resembles our actual wealth gradient. Instead it looks a lot like Sweden.

*Read Angier’s New York Times story here.

*Visit our free Lesson Plan Bank for lessons on Fairness for students of all ages.

Dalai Lama urges ethics education in America

His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Photo by Martin Louis

Attending the Newark Peace Summit in New Jersey earlier this month, His Holiness the Dalai Lama led a panel discussion on ethics in education.

According to the Tibetan Buddhist leader’s website, he spoke about how all humans, irrespective of religious affiliation, desire the same thing: to be happy. Attempting to achieve happiness through material gain does not work, as the source of happiness lies within each individual.

We can tap into that source of happiness through education and action — specifically action that promotes peace. “From kindergarten, we have to teach that whenever there is conflict, teaching the use of force is the wrong method. It brings mutual destruction,” he said. “Whenever there is conflict, the immediate thought in our mind should be how to solve this through dialogue instead of how to solve this through force.”

Elaborating on the interdependent nature of the world, the Dalai Lama noted that America’s future depends on the future of other countries, so that destroying others is really destruction of self. (Any kid disciplined for fighting probably knows this fact to be true.) Forgiveness, the Dalai Lama said, doesn’t mean bowing down and letting people do whatever they want; it means separating the action from the actor, opposing wrongdoing without forgetting the humanity of the actor.

When asked if he had a message for the youth of Newark, a city beleaguered by gun violence even as the Peace Summit went on, the Dalai Lama said a message from him wouldn’t help. What’s needed in Newark and other American cities is a long-term plan. In addition to the need to lessen the gap between rich and poor, the Dalai Lama cited the need for the teaching of secular ethics in school. By secular ethics, he explained, he did not mean disrepect for religion, but respect for all religions and non-believers.

What’s your long-term plan for your students? Whether you already have one, or you want help implementing it, we know we can help you teach your students to value themselves and one another, and do their part to make this world a more peaceful place. Check out our training opportunities, or call 800-711-2670.

What do you think of the Dalai Lama’s emphasis on dialogue, forgiveness, and fairness? Add your comment below.

Teaching kids to care for animals and one another

As Manager of Humane Education at the Arizona Humane Society in Phoenix, Dr. Kris Haley uses the Six Pillars of Character to teach kids about having empathy and compassion for animals – and each other. We love hearing about new applications for CHARACTER COUNTS!, so we asked Dr. Haley a few questions:

Oso, the Adorably Adoptable Dog

How long have you been working with animals? What first drew you to this field?

Even at an early age, I felt a special kinship with animals that has carried over the years. The animals have been masterful teachers for me throughout my life. What keeps me in this work is the privilege to be of service in such a significant way. What more important work is there than teaching an expanded concept of empathy to kids through the extraordinary lessons of animals? If each heart had empathy, we truly could change the world! The Six Pillars of Character, deepened with a humane dimension, can do just that!

What, for you, is the most important aspect of having good character?

Good character is a framework for life. I work with a blended model of Humane and Character Education, and the way I explain the role of each is that Character Education builds the foundation and walls of a strong and solid “house,” and Humane Education fills the inside of that wonderful house and makes it a home. Each is better because of the other.

When did you decide CHARACTER COUNTS! could help you teach kids how to care for animals?

From the moment I discovered CHARACTER COUNTS! about five years ago, I immediately made the connection. Here in the Phoenix area, many schools use CC! and the Six Pillars materials and activities in their classrooms. I sensed immediately that if I could add elements of Humane Education to the great CC! work already in place, I could better teach kindness and compassion for animals, which would quickly lead the children to a greater understanding of their relationships with each other. The addition of the Six Pillars to my presentations has been an incredible “accelerator” in terms of children’s ability to understand the true scope of the lesson.

Also, and most importantly, I immediately saw a connection between animal cruelty and bullying. There isn’t a school of which I am aware that doesn’t struggle with bullying. If we can invite the animals to help guide students to an understanding of how it is wrong to treat animals with anything other than kindness, it becomes infinitely easier to suggest that they carry that concept over into their human relationships.

As a result, I place a significant focus on this parity in my classroom presentations. Most kids will refuse to treat an animal cruelly but might not even realize when they are bullying a classmate. The animals significantly shorten the journey to that heightened awareness by helping children to immediately see the correlation between animal cruelty and bullying and why neither one is ever OK.

A Cat

3 Legs, 8 Lives, 1 Big Heart

How have you incorporated the Six Pillars into your programs?

The integration of the Six Pillars has been seamless. During classroom presentations, I use the names of the Pillars throughout, querying the students, “Are we treating this animal respectfully?” or “Is it fair to keep that rat in a cage without exercise?” And then I move to empathy: “How would YOU feel if YOU were kept in your room all day? Would that be fair to you?”

Usually I conduct a Character Education activity or lesson and then add a similar dimension that makes it a Humane Education activity or lesson. For example, with the “Folded Heart” activity, participants recall something hurtful that was said to them or another person and fold a paper heart. The folds form “scars” on the paper, illustrating that while we can take back hurtful statements, the scars remain. I added a photo of an animal and did the activity a second time, illustrating that there’s not much difference between our hearts and animal’s hearts when it comes to being treated unkindly.

Then, as we unfold the heart, we discuss things that people say or do to heal those scars. At the conclusion of the activity, I hold the heart and animal photo side by side and we discuss how we are really not so different from our animal friends. I have conducted that activity for virtually every age group, from preschool to seniors, and the reaction is the same. It is a wonderful, sustained lesson. And, once again, it affords me the opportunity to discuss bullying and its correlation with animal cruelty.

Finally, the Six Pillars are a featured part of our summer camp, Camp Compassion. We have two three-day camp sessions in June, which are repeated in July. An individual Pillar is assigned to each day, and we couple each Pillar with a group of animals. For example, Day 1 may be SHELTER ANIMAL DAY and our Pillar may be RESPECT. Day 2 might be FARM ANIMAL DAY and our Pillar might be FAIRNESS. Our last day is always CITIZENSHIP DAY, in which we talk about our responsibilities as good global citizens with regard to all of the animal groups we’ve discussed over the previous five days.

By definition, Humane Education has three components. In addition to our relationships with animals, it is also about our relationships with Earth and with each other. Character Education and, in particular the Six Pillars of Character, provides a wonderful way to move back and forth among those three components.

Adorably Adoptable RabbitAdorably Adoptable Rabbit

How has using CHARACTER COUNTS! affected the children’s consideration and treatment of animals?

Because most of the children/schools we visit already have an understanding of the Six Pillars, we can springboard from a common denominator that blends beautifully with Humane Education. And because of that rich understanding, students immediately know what we mean when we ask why it is important to be respectful to animals or to assume responsibility for their wellness. Blending the two types of framework, Humane and Character Education principles, has really optimized the integration of the individual lessons of each.

Does it affect how the children treat each other?

I mentioned this a bit earlier – but because we invite discussion of animals into the activity, through their stories and lessons, kids see immediately that cruelty is not an option – and certainly not an option without consequence – and they arrive at this conclusion very quickly when discussing animals. When the discussion shifts to their own relationships, it actually takes a bit longer, but the light bulb does go on once they make the connection between cruelty and bullying. You can literally see in their eyes, that moment when they really “get it.”

You must see many mistreated animals at the Humane Society. How do you maintain a positive attitude?

Sometimes the stream seems endless. And in that definition of mistreated, we must include those who are surrendered through no fault of their own. Our staff and volunteers do an extraordinary job caring for the animals who come through our doors, and our veterinary team is unequivocally the best there is. But the animals are still homeless, and each and every person is focused on the common goal of finding every one of them a forever-home.

Being part of a team that can change the lives of animals and the people with whom they will find love is the highest level of service I can imagine. I am privileged to do this work. Is it easy sometimes to feel that we can’t possibly make a difference when 44,000 are coming through our doors every year? Yes. But then I remember the Starfish Story – and smile because I know, “I made a difference for that one!”

The Starfish StoryAZ Humane Society poster
Original Story by: Loren Eisley

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.

Approaching the boy, he asked, “What are you doing?”

The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The surf is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”

“Son,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said… “I made a difference for that one.”

* Interested in incorporating CHARACTER COUNTS! into your education efforts? Check out our Character Development Seminars and Webinars.

A Taxing Assignment

Tax People
Illustration by Wing-Yee Lee

It’s tax season, and why should grown ups have all the fun?

This lesson will help students in grades 6-8 understand the different ways in which taxes are calculated and how hard it is to create a system that works well for everyone. Students will do a little math, consider the merits of each tax structure, and work together to find the fairest system.

Check out the lesson plan >>

Dear CC!: Why do parents do their kids’ homework?

Homework ReviewDear CC!,

Teachers do not assign homework to make students stress out, push parents over the edge, or ruin precious quality family time. Teachers assign homework to reinforce concepts taught in the classroom, provide meaningful practice, and help students master newly taught skills.

Why, then, do I have so many parents doing their kid’s homework for them?

And secondly, how do I get across to my students’ parents that the homework I assign is not just busy work?

Yours truly,

Tired of Correcting Parents’ Homework


Dear Tired,

We need to understand that parents are much busier in 2011 than when you and I were growing up. More parents work outside the home, and kids have much busier schedules than ever before. There is more pressure on them to do extracurricular activities, take Advanced Placement classes, and apply to top colleges.

All these factors lead to wanting to do well but not having enough time to do well. It’s much easier for parents to do the project for their children once they have gone to bed and justify it by telling themselves it was busy work. It’s much easier for some reason to schedule soccer practice than flash card practice.

Parents need to understand that, by doing their children’s homework for them, they may be sending the message that what their teacher has asked them to do is not all that important. Parents should also think about the behaviors they’re modeling for their children. If you do their homework for them, aren’t you showing a lack of trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, and fairness?

Perhaps you can send a letter home to parents in the beginning of the year that explains the purpose of homework and the need for students to do their own work. (For more on how the Six Pillars and the T.E.A.M. approach relate to parents, check out these Tips for Parents.)

Teachers also have responsibilities. They must make sure they send home meaningful work that reinforces what has been taught in class. They should also work in extra time for assignments to be due, allowing for busy schedules.

Homework can be extremely valuable if it helps a child master a skill and learn responsibility. If it’s fun, too, that’s even better.

The CC! National Office

Is plagiarism a character issue?

Laptop Eyes by Jeff Bettens

Photo by Jeff Bettens

From a Six-Pillar perspective, this question seems like a no-brainer. Deliberately passing off another’s words as one’s own is dishonest; disrespectful to the teacher and original author; irresponsible; and unfair to the original author, the teacher, and other students.

But on the New York Times Opinionator blog, author and former college dean Stanley Fish offers a different interpretation. Fish thinks students who plagiarize “are just failing to become acclimated to the conventions of the little insular world they have, often through no choice of their own, wandered into.” Fish quickly adds that plagiarism should still be punished, but “what you’re punishing is a breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe.”

One could reply that a breach of discipline is a breach of the moral universe, but those of us who grew up pre-Internet have to consider that students today have spent their lives navigating a seemingly lawless frontier where humanity’s greatest works and worst gibberish live all mixed up together, and much is borrowed and re-purposed. Kids still download movies and music illegally without much sense that what they’re doing is stealing. Often the music itself borrows from previously recorded music, or the movies borrow from previous movies. In a world where new television shows are based on movies that were based on TV shows that were based on comic books, originality can be a tough concept to grasp.

The results of a 2009 survey commissioned by Common Sense Media highlight the severity of the problem: Out of 2,015 middle and high school students, 36% said downloading a paper from the Internet isn’t “a serious offense,” and 19% thought it wasn’t cheating at all. Twenty-one percent admitted to turning in a paper downloaded from the Internet, and 38% admitted to copying texts from websites and turning them in as their own work.

These high numbers suggest a complete misunderstanding of the conventions of academic inquiry. So how can we change this? Fish thinks we shouldn’t bring character into it. In a follow-up to the post mentioned above, he writes, “If, on the first day of class, you start talking about the moral abyss of stealing and the potential unraveling of civilization… your students’ eyes will glaze over…. But if you say to the students, ‘The enterprise you and I are engaged in here is underwritten by the assumption of originality and the possibility and desirability of the advancement of thought,’ you can then say that these assumptions and the outcomes they look forward to – new insights, solutions to problems – will be undermined if students and researchers take the easy way out and just copy something someone else has already done.”

Obviously Fish is focused on undergraduate and graduate students, but the point holds (in shorter sentences and fewer syllables) for middle and high school students. They aren’t too young to understand that learning is their primary responsibility, and the purpose of doing research and writing an essay is to learn. With guidance they can see that, by cutting and pasting or paying someone else to do the work, they shirk their main responsibility and rob themselves of the opportunity to learn something.

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, anthropology professor Susan D. Blum supports Fish’s claim that appealing to the morality of students could be ineffective. Students might prioritize other values over an honor code, and treating plagiarism as “the breaking of a law” might not help, since adolescents and teens often disobey rules they see as pointless. Teachers could, Blum says, treat “academic integrity, especially the mandate to cite sources, as a set of skills to be learned. Students must be persuaded of the value of citation… and instructed over time in how to do it.”, owned by the same company that invented Turnitin – which checks students’ papers against the Internet and hundreds of thousands of previously submitted papers – offers some sensible arguments to counter students’ justifications for plagiarism. For example, to the student who thinks the point of a research paper is just to compile information from the Internet, the teacher can explain that the point is to analyze and interpret the information they collect. That’s where one develops one’s critical thinking and communication skills. To the grade-obsessed student who thinks the ends always justify the means, teachers can explain that eventually the truth will out: “Your students’ grades won’t matter if they don’t have the skills to show for them.”

In addition to the why of academic integrity, teachers need to explain the how: How is summarizing different from paraphrasing and quoting? How should one take notes to avoid mistakenly copying the author’s words as one’s own? What does that slippery term “common knowledge” really mean? How can the process of writing be emphasized over the final product? What else can we do to de-incentivize plagiarism?

* For answers to these and related questions, check out How to Stop the Plagiarism Plague by educational consultant Candace Lindemann.

* The Online Writing Lab at Purdue University also has helpful resources for every aspect of the writing process for Grades 7-12 teachers and students, including this paraphrasing exercise.

* CHARACTER COUNTS! also offers resources to help you teach, enforce, advocate, and model academic integrity. Click here to learn more about our Honor Above All Manual.