Character Education

Bruno Novaes, Teaching staff’s conduct manual, 2018, ink on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

A popular saying is that the best laid-plans often go awry. Despite how carefully we plan for something, there are things both apparent and unforeseen that could still go wrong. This is absolutely true within the educational sphere where teachable moments, flexible purposing and adaptability (see: Eisner, 2004) are essential modes of operation.

Educators rarely go into their classroom with a fixed script. They know that using a finite method to direct their students’ course of learning is generally inadequate and counterproductive. This is because education is not a one-size fits all endeavor. Unfortunately, the willingness and understanding possessed by teachers, which reflects best practices and experiences in pedagogy and a passion for supporting students’ social and emotional growth, is sometimes obstructed by forces outside of schools. The overarching influence of bureaucratic commonization and standardization of curricula has stifled the creativity, criticality and morality of educators, students and school administrators (see: Ravitch, 2013; Vilson, 2013 and Greene, 2014).

One major outcome of educational bureaucracy is social conformity (see: Mohammadi, 2000). The desire to mold and maintain social norms is a catalyst for the implementation of pedagogical standards, such as the common core curriculum and stringent instructional and cultural hierarchies. Under this system, measuring predetermined proficiency and meeting performative standards matter more than developing and nurturing diverse perspectives, democratized collaborations and critical thinking. Social conformity affects educational indicators, such as what is deemed necessary to teach and how students should behave, by focusing on subject matter, character values and morality that are desired within the status quo. This can implicitly neglect or explicitly dissuade students’ autonomous expressions of cultural intersectionality and the fluidity of gender (see: Alber, 2017 and Chidi Nduagbo, 2020).

Measuring students by test scores and adhering to sociocultural and political norms instead of honoring and exploring their humanity and ingenuity is a sure sign of our collective moral depravity. In the article, “Bureaucracy and Education: An Examination of the Foundation and the Impacts of Bureaucracy on the Purpose of Twentieth Century Education,” Mohammadi (2000) states that “The bureaucratic method of school management has had a dichotomous effect on the purpose of schooling.  In the late nineteenth century, the system performed its tasks flawlessly.  It promoted social conformity in an increasingly complex society.  Bureaucracy was an excellent method of organization.  However, these same qualities have had detrimental effects in the twentieth century.  The time for social conformity has long passed.  In the innovative world of the twentieth century, there is little room for conformity.”

While there are good pedagogical methods that focus on social and emotional learning and educating the whole child (see: Noddings, 2015) already being employed; the application of these practices can fall prey to the aforementioned desire to uphold the status quo and shape social, cultural and emotional behaviors that are inline with a governing or administrative body’s idealistic political and economic aims.

The fallacies, failures, trials and tribulations of educational indicators and social and academic benchmarks, influence the content of Bruno Novaes‘ multidisciplinary and experiential artworks, which depict a physical and metaphysical structure that he calls “character education.” Novaes is an artist and educator from Brazil. His background teaching adolescents in formal education settings inform his critical body of work, addressing what he describes as “a hidden curriculum that points to what we have learned, discovered and invented and that hegemony cannot handle.”

Bruno Novaes, Teaching staff’s conduct manual, 2018, booklet. Courtesy of the artist.

Novaes’ conceptualization of character education envisions a kind of school whose mission is to focus on students’ academic proficiency within the curriculum, while also developing their moral outlook. Material depictions of this school and its pedagogy are drawn from his own educational experiences (as both a student and a teacher), pedagogical philosophies and his imagination. Novaes’ artwork reflects ideas and aesthetics of contemporary schooling through a series of experiential activities and objects presented in ways that resemble familiar educational environments and teaching methodologies.

Teaching staff’s conduct manual (2018) is an installation that addresses the idealism of academic and social performance. It includes an edited compilation of rules that are sourced from conduct regulation documents, which are given to teachers upon employment and at the beginning of each school year. Novaes published these rules as a re-presented guidebook and distributes free copies whenever the work is exhibited. Novaes accompanies the publication with ten ink drawings depicting a school environment that is informed by the standards and codes described within the guidebook.

The idea of trying to make each student’s lives more fulfilling and productive is obviously great in theory, but sometimes in practice it can ignore the crux of why these students are feeling downtrodden. To address this, educators must have ample time and the means to get to know their students. Professor of education, Rebecca Alber (2018), argues that a “rigid, standardized approach to teaching contradicts so much of what we know from whole-child education research. It can sabotage the humanness of all those beings growing and exploring daily together in one room.”

Each student brings a complexity of identity, social and academic behaviors into the school environment. Education should be an engaging process, where students have agency in creatively constructing information from lessons in accordance with personal collective experiences that have relevance in their lives. A way of achieving this is to set up pragmatic situations where students can partake in real world problem solving with their peers and eventually become self-directed learners. The teacher’s role is as a facilitator and a motivator. They set up situations for students to explore and express interests and issues, develop a thirst for acquiring knowledge and partake in transformative actions. The same is true of the socially engaged artist’s responsibility. It is important that the teacher and the artist leave ample room for their students or viewers to approach a lesson or work of art in an interpretative manner and feel empowered and emboldened to respond on their own terms.

Of course, the aforementioned principles are easier said than done. Human beings are very impressionable, which is evident from the plethora of media platforms and social networking sites that peddle false information, conspiracy theories and hateful rhetoric. Attempts toward indoctrination are unfortunately present within the educational realm and can include the refusal to teach evolutionary science, acknowledge students by their preferred pronouns, honor their civil rights and respect their boundaries and consent.

Bruno Novaes, Empty class, 2018, blackboard and chalk.
Courtesy of the artist.

Addressing social inequity and resisting instructional dogmatism is where Novaes’ progressive educational derived work shines. Novaes is critical of trickle down approaches to teaching and learning. He has witnessed how good academic and ethical intentions were implemented in a manner that felt militaristic and pedantic. Through imparting standardized academic and social codes, a hegemony is established with students at the bottom. This unyielding procedure focuses on common sociocultural and emotional benchmarks instead of the humanity and everyday issues of the students, and can be a significant roadblock in their development and exploration of identity (see: Del Carmen Salazar, 2013).

Novaes’ art posits that inherent nature and experiential nurture work in tandem with regards to acquiring and communicating knowledge. We have certain imbued characteristics that are true to ourselves, and other forms of social, emotional and cognitive behaviors that we develop through experience and educational frameworks. The metaphor of the tabula rasa (blank slate) is a recurring theme in his participatory installations, such as Empty class (2018). The work of art consists of a pile of white chalk arranged on the floor in a towering mound. The pieces of chalk are supported by a blank blackboard. In Open draw (2020), blackboards, chalk and educational toys are transported outside of the classroom and installed in a public space. The installation utilizes interactive learning modules in an atypical space that is more indicative of a playground than a school. In each of these experiential works of art, Novaes gives viewers a chance to express themselves by making marks with the chalk, which become instant and informal conversations. The marks that are left, reworked and erased by various participants over time, suggest a sense of collaboration and inform others about the intersectional identities and dynamic culture of the surrounding locality. The crux of these works is that education can transpire anywhere, and profound learning happens when it is encouraged to occur organically and communally.

Bruno Novaes, Open draw, 2020, chalkboard, chalk and educative toys on wood and metal.
Courtesy of the artist.

Brazilian educator, activist and philosopher, Paulo Freire developed a methodology that sought to make social and pedagogical relationships in schools and communities more democratic, socially engaged and emotionally empowering. His theory of problem-posing education, which he coined in his 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, opposes the idea and practice of teachers being the be-all and end-all of knowledge transmission within the educational system. Students are not blank slates or banks to be filled with information that only the teacher or curricula designers believe to be important. Problem-posing education is in stark contrast to the banking model of teaching, another term coined by Freire (1970), which he described: “Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the ‘banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to students extends only as far as receiving, filing and storing the deposits.”

In a problem-posing model of education, knowledge is constructed through socially engaged conversations and actions between the teacher and the students. The classroom hierarchy is shattered when both students and educators listen, learn and collaborate together to address issues that are affecting their individual and collective experiences.

Bruno Novaes, Observational draw as intervention, 2018, graphite and color pencil on wall. Courtesy of the artist.

Novaes’ pedagogically infused artwork reflects Freire’s drive for epistemological equality and equity. This is evident in the collaborative mural-like work, Observation draw as an intervention (2018). The cultural organization, SESC São Caetano, invited Novaes to create a work of art for their art and technology site. He proposed that any work of art within the shared space should reflect the people who utilize it on a daily basis. During site-specific workshops (one for adults and another for children) Novaes and the participants made observational drawings of objects that were found within the community center. During the final meetings the collective arranged the drawings on the walls, creating an aesthetic conversation about the physicality and essence of the space, as well as the interests, vision and democratic impetus to depict shared experiences and memories. The drawings are simultaneously a unified portrait and still life, which function as a living legacy that meaningfully and critically embodies communal spirit.

Bruno Novaes, How do you want to be remembered? 2017, remissive forms re-signified by graduating high school students. Courtesy of the artist.

Another collaborative project that reflects individual and community expression is How do you want to be remembered? (2017). Novaes developed this work of art with students who were in their final year of high school. After an in-class discussion about memory and identity, the students were presented with blank administrative cards (known as remissive forms) that are traditionally used by the school secretary to create a database of graduating students (a record of names, registration numbers and dates of birth). Once they had the cards, Novaes made a variety of art materials available and prompted the students to respond to the question “how do you want to be remembered?” These cards, which are usually marked with quantitative data, became open-ended substrates for the students to symbolically represent their personas and react to their current and prior school experiences. Many of the students critically examined and commented on being identified via a numerical system (their student registration numbers), while others addressed standardized examinations and other formal assessments. As a series of works, the cards exhibit a student-centered revision and diversion of social conformity and impersonalization within a bureaucratic educational institution.

Bruno Novaes, Spelling book, 2017 – 2019, watercolor and graphite on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

As previously mentioned, one of the more glaring issues in education as a product of social conformity, is gender inequality. There are schools throughout the world that refuse to accept that there is a spectrum of gender identities, which can not be defined as exclusively masculine or feminine‍. These schools uphold gender roles, which are shattering to students’ social and academic well-being. Even if schools do accept the truth about the intersectionality of gender, there is a shortage of pedagogical materials and training that reflects a fundamental understanding and portrayal of gender’s fluid nature (see: Alber, 2017; Chidi Nduagbo, 2020; and Rafferty, 2018). Traditional learning materials such as anatomy and biology charts, diagrams and texts, often adhere to and highlight gender disparities by focusing on standardized depictions of gender binarism. Several of Novaes’ artworks call out gender inequality by critically depicting the discriminatory normative imagery and vocabulary that is prevalent in educational curricula. His Spelling book (2017-2019) series presents drawings of school objects accompanied by phonetically written words that are commonly used to insult and harass LGBTQ individuals. Sciences book: basic education re-presents anatomical diagrams in a manner that is inclusive of transgender and non-binary representations.

Because we are in school during the formative periods of our development, they are settings for some of our most profound social, emotional and epistemological moments. Therefore, it is essential for schools to foster an inclusive environment for both academic and sociocultural development and understanding. An ideal character education cannot be defined or enforced, because it must allow for the complexity and fluidity of those who teach and learn in classrooms throughout the world. Novaes’ symbolic school environments implore us to realize and address the problems our schools face and consider the possibilities for collaboratively creating an equal, equitable and social justice centered educational system. Hopefully life can imitate art.


The following resources are very insightful for implementing a consent-based and social justice curriculum:

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Alber, Rebecca. “Embracing the Whole Child.” edutopia, 12 March 2018.

Alber, Rebecca. “Gender Equity in the Classroom.” edutopia, 27 January 2017.

Chidi Nduagbo, Kieran. “How Gender Disparities Affect Classroom Learning.” ASCD Express, Vol. 15, No. 22, 2020.

Eisner, Elliot. What can education learn from the arts about the practice of education? International Journal of Education & the Arts, 5(4), 2004. pp. 1-13.

Freire, Paulo. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (English translation by Myra Bergman Ramos). New York: Herder and Herder.

Greene, David. “The Long Death of Creative Teaching.” U.S. News, 17 March 2014.

Mohammadi, Sina. “Bureaucracy and Education: An Examination of the Foundation and the Impacts of Bureaucracy on the Purpose of Twentieth Century Education.” 7 December 2000.

Noddings, Nel. “What Does It Mean to Educate the Whole Child?” Educational Leadership, 63(1), 2015. pp. 8-13.

Rafferty, Jason. Ensuring comprehensive care and support for transgender and gender-diverse children and adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 142(4), 2018. DOI:

Ravitch, Diane. (2013) Reign of Error. New York: Penguin House.

Del Carmen Salazar, María. “A Humanizing Pedagogy: Reinventing the Principles and Practice of Education as a Journey Toward Liberation.” Review of Research in Education, vol. 37, 2013, pp. 121–148. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Mar. 2021.

Vilson, Jose. “Changing The Language From Anti-Testing To Pro-Whole Child.” The Jose Vilson, 12 September 2013.

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