A Modular Approach to Virtue Acquisition

By Evan Dutmer

Philosophy as a Way of Life (PWOL) pedagogy aims to activate profound lifestyle changes in learners through study, dialogue, and reflection on the good life for human beings. But once our students know what they want—the good, virtuous life, let’s grant—how do we empower them to really start this journey? How do we give them the practical tools necessary to continue character and philosophical growth outside of our classrooms?

Here I provide a few tools to help our students chart and plan their virtue acquisition within and beyond our classrooms (taking as a starting point that Aristotelian virtue ethics represents a clear example of PWOL). In particular, drawing from my own virtue ethics teaching in a high school that served students both in-person and at a distance in 2020, and inspired by the pioneering work in character education at the Jubilee Centre for Character and the Virtues, I propose what I call a ‘modular approach’ to acquiring and practicing the virtues within the context of an ethics course.

When I say ‘modular’, I mean to refer to instructional modules, discrete measures and waypoints for students in their learning organized not around chunks of time but around skills, practice, and mastery. Such modules—which have gained popularity in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic—provide our students with helpful structural schemata for understanding, planning, and implementing character and virtue growth (helpfully, whether they are learning with an instructor synchronously or asynchronously).

Reconceptualizing a philosophical virtue ethics course around character development modules, in my view, helps to demystify the daily behaviors, plans, goal-setting, and corrections which make up the good life of practiced virtue. These will in turn help our students complete the final step of PWOL pedagogy—a new kind of daily life praxis guided by phronesis.

Modules for Virtue Acquisition

So what might these modules look like in a PWOL-inspired virtue ethics course? Following Aristotle when he says that the end of ethics is practice, not knowledge, these modules need to have a non-theoretical action, a way of being and doing, really, as their end. This means our virtue acquisition or character development modules oughtn’t conclude with a traditional test, presentation, or performance grade. Rather, they culminate in a new kind of activity for students.

Such a course structure calls for orienting course materials and learning experiences around the growth of the students themselves. A helpful visualization for this kind of course structure can be found in the constructivist Spiral Curriculum Model developed by Jerome Bruner. Following in the pioneering work of the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues at the University of Birmingham, I’ve used the Spiral Curriculum Model to conceive of character growth in my virtue ethics classes.

The spiral curriculum helps our students to conceptualize their journey toward continuous personal ethical growth. (A freely-accessible version of it can be found here on the Jubilee website, here.) It is especially useful for structuring our students’ asynchronous character journeys over a few weeks (one can’t really chart how one’s character will grow with real precision—it is entirely personalized and unique).

The spiral curriculum helps to make visible for students the continuous personal ethical growth afforded by character reflection and virtue practice both in and outside of a taught virtue ethics course. It also helps to make the basic steps of this process and their interlocking order clear:  (i) “personal experience and practice” leads to (ii) “information gathering and documentation”, which in turn leads to (iii) “reflection and analysis, and formulation of personal theories” and ultimately (iv) “informed action”.

Virtue Field Research

As their instructor, then, I use this model to chart our lessons and practice of a particular virtue for a week. If we are studying ‘courage’, for instance, I will first ask students to record and reflect on their pre-existing notions of ‘courage’, previous times when they practiced courage, and courageous exemplars they see in the world (and in their own lives) both singly and in groups via active learning activities.

Two Interconnected Courage Modules

This initial personal experience and practice will then be amplified by an information gathering stage. Students will be asked to record daily instances of courage—friends, mentors, adults that they see practicing courage—and courage exhibited in consumed film, TV, and music. Students collect these records in their process notebooks and in online repositories on our Learning Management System as ‘virtue evidence’. These can include written reflections, photo essays, an Instagram post, a YouTube clip—as long as they genuinely document a student’s ‘courage journey’ for that particular week.

These records can become quite robust, and make for excellent in-class analysis: What do we see in common across these courageous individuals and actions? What pulls them apart? What does Aristotle see tying together these figures? What does Confucius think about courage—how might his opinions differ from Aristotle’s or our own?

Finally, students will then commit to really practicing courage in a particular week, taking careful notes on how they were or were not courageous and where they could see room for improvement. This then culminates in an informed action for my students—they bring the entirety of their new information and new reflections to bear on their actual daily life and activity.

This informed action then becomes the personal experience and practice of a second full module of courage practice. The second module can then repeat the four steps delineated above, helping students to see the continual nature of character growth and practice of the virtues.

This process is a radical change of perspective from a merely ‘theoretical’ approach to an ethics course. In order to give our students authentic practice in development of the virtues, I order the instructional modules in my virtue ethics course not around the number of pages read in the Nicomachean Ethics or on concepts ‘comprehended’ via argumentative essays and multiple-choice exams, but rather via character growth planned, effected, and evidenced through practice, development, and self-assessment before and after the completion of every module.

I’ve included here a visualization (‘Two Interconnected Courage Modules’) of this two-week sequence to help make these schemata more clear.


Virtue as a Way of Life

Giving our students what they need to achieve the good life requires us as instructors to radically reconceptualize the teacher-student dynamic. Ethics teachers can help guide our students’ ethical development. PWOL helps us to see just how important this function of the ethics teacher is. Here I provided some tools for beginning this process: modular course design based on the unique character growth aims of each student is an important part.

As but a sampling of the evidence I’ve collected for students’ connecting their genuine virtue theory with their realized virtue practice in the course of an enacted virtue ethics class, I end with one student’s end-of-term reflection on how they have grown in their understanding of virtue ethics through its application to their lived experience:

When I first stepped into this classroom, I did have an idea of all the virtues, but I did not know how they applied to our lives. I think the exercise that helped me a lot is the virtue of the week practices—they “forced” me to apply the selected virtues into my life. For example, courage. After I picked this virtue, I have to think about how to apply it with specific action items and make a list. The list will always be in the back of my head throughout the week, and when a opportunity comes up, I will try to be courageous. This exercise has made me truly learn the meanings and actions of the cardinal virtues plus two [adding ‘humanity’ and ‘transcendence’ to the traditional list]. And now that I know, I have tried to apply wisdom, moderation, and humanity to my daily life already. Later, I will continue applying more to my life to live a virtuous life.