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Internalizing Virtue – Skills to Habits in Our Students

written by John Yeager 10 July 2007

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.

Sow a thought and you reap an act;
Sow an act and you reap a habit;
Sow a habit and you reap a character;
Sow a character and you reap a destiny.
~ William Makepeace Thackeray

internalizing-virtue.jpgBy reflecting carefully and closely examining the design of classroom learning, teachers are more inclined to create and sustain a blend of mastery and performance conducive to environments where habits are learned from skills.  When students have a clear sense of purpose in classroom activities, they become “partners” in the process, rather than subjects under the teacher’s command.  The meaning behind the skill promotes the acquisition of a habit.  Habits cannot be learned in the same way a child learns the alphabet.  It requires relationships between student-student and student-teacher.  It is only through relationships that creativity, passion, and empowerment can be conveyed. 

The Internalizing Virtue Model developed by Kevin Ryan, Karen Bohlin, and Deborah Farmer, is a process that includes awareness, understanding, action, reflection, and the eventual acquisition of the virtue.  They state that “internalizing virtue isn’t just about acquiring a set of habits.  It’s about gradually gaining wisdom – acting and then reflecting on what we’ve done, learning from our mistakes, and coming to a greater understanding of how to live compassion, respect, or honesty.”

The Progression for Internalizing Virtue


First, teachers ought to explain and define virtues to their students so as to develop a common language that supports the shared mission of the class and school.  Students become aware that virtues such as respect, responsibility, and integrity are important parts of the whole educational experience.  Awareness helps us all know the good.


Second, teachers can help students develop an understanding of a virtue – what it looks like and feels like when it is lived.  Understanding is enhanced through stories, images, and examples of past and present paragons of the specific virtue.  Understanding helps us to value the good in that it allows athletes to contemplate the important influence of virtue on enjoyment and performance.

An inspired teacher’s use of timely narrative can be quite riveting and can serve as an effective way to reinforce the influence of stories on character formation.  From personal experience to the classics to current literature, the stories of joy and frustration are brought to life by good teachers.  When teachers tell stories, not just for entertainment, students are invited to journey into the deeper, more meaningful structure through which the purpose of the story is made clear. Stories that captivate students can only be effective when they illustrate and instruct the students with information that makes sense and inspires wise actions.  To tell a story of courage or respect is to possess in a way that rote learning does not, and there is a natural human desire to be possessed in that way on occasion.  Learning how to make up, tell, relate, and listen to a story of character is about balance and judgment.  Children, adolescents, and even adults consistently respond to such illustrations. 


Although preparation is an important component of the learning experience, taking action can also provide an enduring and compelling education.  When students act on virtue, they learn by doing.  It is about doing the good.  When students learn, they declare to others what is important to them.

Reflection is a thoughtful examination of our action in and out of the classroom.  Were my actions appropriate?  Did I make a wise decision or not?  How might I do it differently at another time?  Reflection is about knowing the good.


People acquire a virtue when they have developed the ability to choose and act well.  This happens when teachers and students consistently evaluate their actions through thoughtful reflection.


Recommended Reading:

Ryan, K. & Bohlin, K. E. (1999).  Building Character in Schools: Practical Ways to Bring Moral Instruction to Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bohlin, K.E., Farmer, D., & Ryan, K. (2001). Building Character in Schools Resource Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

10 Tips for Raising Children of Character by Dr. Kevin Ryan.  

Interview with Dr. Karen Bohlin.

FAQ about Character Education on the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character website.

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