The John Templeton Foundation, which is known for its funding to answer humanity’s biggest questions—like about the origins of life—recently put up $2.4 million to make sure educators have a sense of purpose and set of core values.
The gift fits with a growing trend that looks to expand educational outcomes beyond the more traditional metric, academic achievement. And it channels widespread anxieties about a moral breakdown of American society, along with more recent fears about what some experts call an “existential crisis” that is reflected in a record number of suicides and drug overdose deaths.
The Templeton Foundation uses its about $2.5 billion in assets to further an eclectic group of causes. Though the funder is probably best known for its support of research in physics, math, psychology and genetics, it has also gained attention—not all of it good—for its support of religion and spirituality, and their intersection with science. The foundation draws its inspiration from its founder John Templeton, who was both a devout Christian and a great admirer of science and progress.
This grant is part of the Templeton Foundation Character and Virtue Development program, which supports science and practice of character with a focus on instilling virtues, like humility, gratitude, curiosity and honesty.
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A perusal of recent grants reveals the range of the program. Past partners have included a public television station to evaluate an interactive, online comic designed to teach empathy based on Arthur, cartoon TV series; a professor piloting a program to make sure seminaries from several different faiths prepare seminarians don’t just preach, but live virtuous lives, and an institute intent on bringing empathy to the Jewish study of ethics. Templeton also has grantees, like the recipient of this recent gift, that seek to bring virtues into the classroom.
The $2.4 million will go to the University of Missouri-St. Louis where it will fund the work of two professors, Melinda Bier and Marvin Berkowitz. Berkowitz leads the Leadership Academy in Character Education, founded in 1998, which will use the grants to fund its Cultivating Virtues in Leadership (CViL) curriculum. The academy launched the curriculum in 2017 with help from Templeton.
The eight-part module emphasizes purpose, humility, gratitude, forgiveness, courage, empowerment and foresight. The focus here is fostering what the academy calls “servant leaders,” a leadership style that emphasized the needs of others and guides through persuasion rather than control. Advocates say it’s a type of leadership that has long been a part of religious and philosophical teachings, but only recently been incorporated into the sociological study of leadership styles.
“Many educators first enter their profession out of a strong sense of purpose and a desire to serve their students,” said Sarah Clement, the foundation’s director of character virtue development. “Until recently almost no formal school leadership development programs were centered on developing and enhancing such virtues.”
The funding will allow the center to work with a cohort of about 60 school leaders from St. Louis. It will also go to creating a guidebook to make the curriculum more widely available after the initial run ends.
The curriculum is designed to change how future school leaders think about and develop student character, and academic and social skills. Though the emphasis on virtues may seem unusual, at its core this gift and the curriculum actually have a lot in common with other activity in the education funding space.
For one, the end goal is to expand the concept of student success to include “soft” skills, along with traditional academic outcomes. A number of high-profile funders back efforts with similar goals. The NoVo Foundation, which draws from Buffett coffers, is a long-time supporter of social and emotional learning. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative focus on the education “whole child,” an approach that expands the concept of education to include social and emotional, cognitive, identity, physical and mental needs. The Einhorn Charitable Trust, bankrolled by a billionaire hedge fund investor, supports education work aimed at “helping people get along better.” The Anschutz Foundation is another billionaire-backed grantmaker that funds efforts to teach values. As with Templeton, the Anschutz Foundation’s work on values reflects the Christian commitments of its founders, Philip and Nancy Anschutz, but is often advanced through non-religious programs, like the couple’s huge investment in the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, which seeks to make “kindness the norm,” including through working with educators.
On top of that, several funders see the way to get to teaching that takes those additional needs into account, is caring for and addressing the social and emotional needs of the teachers themselves. For one, CZI gave out several grants in 2018 that were designed to account for teachers’ social and emotional well-being.
There’s a similar strategy at play with the recent Templeton grant. The focus is a little broader—educators, instead of teachers only—but the underlying principles are the same. The bet is that educators with a clearer sense of purpose, specifically one built around service, are better at their jobs, which in turn would spell better outcomes for students.