Got Character?

Cover of Today's New York Times Magazine

Today’s NYTimes Magazine is the Education Issue. Our Head of School forwarded one of the magazine’s featured articles to the faculty earlier this week: What if the Secret to Success is Failure? A Radical Re-thinking of how Students Should be Taught and Evaluated. It’s a thought provoking article, but if you’ve been following some of the changes in education over the past few years, it doesn’t seem all that radical.

Daniel Pink has explored zest, grit, and optimism in his work Drive along with empathy (social intelligence), play (curiosity) in his book A Whole New Mind.

Carol Dweck, in her book Mindsets discusses self-control as an important factor in developing growth mindsets.

Nel Noddings has been writing about the ethic of care for years.

I was able to catch a few of the TEDxLondon talks that were live-streamed this weekend, and there was definitely a call to spark curiosity in our students. Hopefully, the videos will air soon, but Ewan McIntosh posted the transcript of his talk about creating a generation of ‘problem finders’ on his blog. I encourage you to read his post.

Character Ed. isn’t new, but what I found compelling about the article was how they broke down the list of character traits into two categories ‘moral character’ and ‘performance character.’ I also liked how the article mentioned many of these character traits can backfire. “Too much grit…you start to lose your ability to have empathy for other people.”

I also liked the Head of Riverdale’s “philosophical issue with quantifying character.” It’s true that the last thing we need are people trying to game the system with test prep on character traits. Also, if too much of a certain trait can backfire, how would you measure what is best?

Another great question brought up in the article is: How do you teach these traits? I don’t know the answer, but it’s definitely one worth exploring. I know you can’t do it with carrots and sticks and you can’t do it simply by putting quotes around your school. You can start by modeling these traits (I’m 41 and I’m still learning how to grow some of these traits and moderate others), getting to know your students, and creating supportive relationships with their families. I suppose what’s radical is that more an more people and schools are thinking about these questions. It’s exciting to see some start to try new things.

I’m looking forward to hear what others at my school think, as our Mission and Values have both the moral and performance character traits we strive towards.


2 thoughts on “Got Character?

  1. “How do you teach these traits?”

    That’s one of those Great Questions. For a long time, I’ve been wondering if you can teach creativity. All of a sudden, I believe those two questions are related.

    My quick response is that those traits can be brought out, based on innate ability. Like a concert pianist (or violinist), not everybody gets to Carnegie Hall. Those with the talent will, but only if they put in the long, hard hours of practice.

    I believe it’s the same with creativity. Everybody has some creative ability; some have more, some less. It’s the difference between Rembrandt and Sam Willits. (Willits is one of the guys with none, which explains why you haven’t heard of him.)

    Character is more basic, more fundamental. I think it’s mainly inherited, partly taught by example (usually a parent), and partly by experience. And like many other talents, it has to be brought out early on. (Nobody is likely to teach Bernie Madoff or Ghadaffi character.) One of the facets of character is doing what’s right, and not letting somebody else do it. Unfortunately, that leads to the question “What’s right?”, which is another of those “how do we teach that?” questions.

    What do they mean, “What if”? The only guy who never fails is the guy who never tries. Somewhere (maybe here?) someone made a comment about parents correcting their child every time he makes a mistake tying his shoes. By doing that, they don’t let him fail the first few times, and gradually figuring out the right way. That’s a micro-example of the over-protective parent (the “helicopter parent”). Not too many generations ago, some parents taught their children how to swim by throwing them in the river. That may be a bit extreme, but it often worked.

    I’ll be reading that article later today. A quick skim led me to “The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity;”

    A lot of those we picked up early on by reading the classics: stories of King Arthur, Mark Twain, &c. But we don’t read those any more. Not “relevant”.

    Sometimes it seems that schools are more interested in getting kids to “feel good about themselves”, get “self-esteem”, without actually doing anything to feel good about. Another commentor said that’s not self-esteem, that’s narcissism.

  2. Pingback: Riverdale, KIPP & a Speech Pathologist in New Orleans | The Caisson

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