Building adolescent character

What builds character? Family and child studies professors Jennifer Urban and Miriam Linver are studying the question with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to specifically evaluate a character development program for teens in Scotland. 

Students in Scotland’s Inspire>Aspire program reflect on universal virtues and values – such as generosity, future-mindedness, joy, purpose, curiosity and humility – identified by the late investor and philanthropist, Sir John Templeton, in his book, The Essential Worldwide Laws of Life.

Inspire>Aspire program participants, who are ages 12 to 14, develop posters based on research and writings about inspirational figures, quotations and their own future aspirations.

“Character education programs like this promote positive development in youth,” notes Urban. “Teens tend to gain an increased sense of purpose by engaging in a process that helps them establish personal goals.”

While last year roughly 55,000 youths participated in the program across Scotland, there has yet to be a systematic evaluation of the program. “We’ll be applying the Systems Evaluation Protocol that I developed with NSF funding to this project,” explains Urban, who is also the director of the Montclair State Developmental Systems Science and Evaluation Research Lab.

“Our fantastic team of graduate students, undergraduates and staff is helping us conduct surveys and interview about 150 to 200 boys and girls from five different Scottish schools, both before the program starts and after it ends,” says Urban.

“We’ll also talk to 35 teachers to learn how they are integrating the program into their curriculums.”

Urban plans to seek funding for a subsequent, larger-scale project that will provide additional, in-depth insights.

“Our project has new implications for character education,” she says. “This research helps us see how we can help young people ultimately work towards a more just and civil society.”