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.



Daniel Pink extended his 6th and final right-brained skill, meaning, in his latest book Drive. According to Pink, purpose and meaning are key to motivation.

I grew up in a very L-brained world (stuff that can be measured by SATs or require theoretical and analytical skills) and schools have traditionally favored that kind of brain. Pink calls it the SAT-ocracy, “a regime in which access to the good life depends on the ability to reason logically, sequentially, and speedily.” He states that that system is dying. The reasons, abundance, Asia, and automation. It’s not just all the stuff that’s made in China, it’s the lower cost of L-directed thinking related jobs, such as writing computer code that is being outsourced to places like India. And well, if your job can be automated, it will be. How does one protect themselves from becoming irrelevant? Pink says switch to R-directed thinking.

Pink’s point is supported by other leaders in the field of learning, motivation, and how the brain works. Making that shift isn’t always easy. The world is still dominated by L-directed models. However, companies like Google and Apple (two companies with rather different philosophies and approaches) have seen tremendous growth because of design (iphone), story (seen those “I’m a Mac” commercials?, symphony (it’s not a phone, it’s not a laptop, it’s an ipad), empathy (carefully observing the end user), play (Google’s 20% time),  and meaning (doing it because you want to). Making the shift to R-brained thinking isn’t easy. We are still bounded in many ways by an ever growing curriculum that focuses on a standard set of skills rather than a system of ways to think about things, tests and assessments that focus on one correct answer rather than processes, and a belief that to minimize failures, risks should be minimized.

It’s clear that this last chapter in A Whole New Mind was a catalyst to his most recent book about motivation. Says Pink about managing a successful team, “Motivation 3.0 means giving up control over the process and the outcome.” He points out that many businesses suffer from this and unknowingly encourage apathy and automatons.

My personal efforts in moving from L to R have included both successes and failures. In trying to make meaning of something I care a great deal about today, I let my emotional side get the better of me and made a mistake. But, as we like to to promote to the students at our school that “mistakes are learning opportunities,” I hope I learned something from it.

Or perhaps Oscar Wilde had it right, “Looking good and dressing well is a necessity. Having a purpose in life is not.”


Continuing with Daniel Pink’s  A Whole New Mind’s 6 “senses.” The fifth right-brained skill he identifies is play. When you’re doing something and it feels like play, your motivation automatically goes up. Just imagine if your job was like that. What if learning for kids involved play?

Innovation and invention often come about from play. The Smithsonian had an exhibit linking play to inventors. It’s clear the with its new building, also had play as part of the design process.

Books, such as, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown and The Power of Play: Doing What Comes Naturally by David Elkind have reached bestseller lists.

Kids need to be kids sometimes too, but often the pressures of ‘covering’ a ballooning curriculum all across this country continue to grow with new things added to it all the time.

In addition to the traditional core curriculum, themes like global awarenes, financial, business, and entrepreneurial literacy, health literacy, civic literacy, and environmental/sustainable literacy should all be integrated. In addition, Creativity and InnovationCritical Thinking and Problem SolvingCommunication and Collaboration, Information, Media, and Technology skills are all viewed as essential according to the Partnership for 21st Century skills. Then there’s life skills as well as social/emotional learning. No where does it say play. But I agree with Brown, that it indeed invigorates the soul. We need to make learning fun for kids, and they can learn so much from playing.

According to Daniel Pink, the workplace should include play. Companies like google have done remarkably well because of play. One of Pink’s recommendations is to play some sort of Caption This game.

Looking John Medina’s Brain Rules: it’s easy to see that play fosters many of them: Exercise, Attention, Stress, Sensory Integration, and Exploration just to name a few.

Everybody’s play is different. Currently, keeping this blog and tinkering with web2.0 tools has been my personal play, and I’m learning a great deal as a result. For others, gardening, walking their dog, or running, may be theirs. Sometimes we become too serious and biased by our previous experiences to let new ideas blossom. We don’t give ourselves the chance to fail to learn, and risk to succeed in a changing world. Instead, while well-intentioned, we let “busy” get in the way and forget to play.


Sometimes things need to be designed from scratch and our attachments and biases to old technologies or the way things have been done in the past need to put aside. One way to start is by establishing empathy with the end user.

A group of students from the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability class at the Standford traveled to Nepal with a task of designing cheaper incubators (traditional ones cost $20,000) for premature babies. When they got there, they realized most of the expensive incubators were sitting in the hospitals empty. Traveling to the villages themselves, they realized it wasn’t cheaper incubators they needed since the villages were hours away from the nearest hospital and most premature births happened in the remote villages themselves. The resulting design was a $25 sleeping bag of sorts that had a phase change pouch that could be heated with boiling water and keep a constant temperature for up to 6 hours and then just needed reheating. Thinking outside the box and not bound by constraints of simply trying to take the known incubator technology and trying to cut costs with materials, the team redesigned from scratch. By visiting the women in the villages in Nepal, focusing on their needs, they were able to create an innovative, affordable, life-saving piece of equipment. You can read more about this product by clicking this link to embraceglobal.

How it Works

Empathy allowed these designers to understanding the end user and remove their biases from already existing technologies. By the way, their goal is to save 100,000 lives in 5 years.

Not only is empathy part of’s design process or one of Daniel Pink’s Right Brain Senses mentioned in A Whole New Mind, but it is something that is important in the development of young minds. Giving children opportunities to develop empathy should be part of any school’s social and emotional learning curriculum. When looking at problems in a classroom or school, sometimes it takes walking in that student’s shoes to begin to understand how one might go about designing a solution. Our kids will be able to tackle many of the so called insoluble problems of the world and many of these, if we remain optimistic and give them opportunities to innovate, will in fact, be solved.

Here is a TEDtalk featuring the product ’embrace’.

Test Prep at Age Four???

Private School Screening Test Loses Some Clout –

Oh yes, the dreaded ERBs are in the news again (click the link above for the article). It would be hard to convince me that testing for the purposes of admission in pre-K and K seem like a bad idea. The article focuses mostly on test prep, competition, and anxiety which are all terrible things to expect a 4 year old to do. Then there is also the validity in question. 4 year olds? What about late bloomers?

Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a place for standardized tests, but how they are used and how much weight they hold, should be carefully scrutinized.

My school administers a test put out by the Educational Records Bureau (the same company mentioned in the article) called the CPT4 every year. Here are some significant differences in how we use these tests to make them more meaningful:

  • It is administered in the fall, so that when we get results in late December, we can actually use the data and compare it to our own assessments, and then further customize instruction for each child for the remainder of the school year.
  • We do not use the tests for admissions or advancement.
  • Only kids in 2nd grade and above take it.
  • We try our best to minimize anxiety (in parents, teachers, and students) – although admittedly, sometimes this can be difficult.
  • We look at trends in the scores across grades to plan for school-wide initiatives and to examine how we teach.
  • “Prepping” them for the test is kept to a minimum – a few hours the week before.
  • The ERB is not our only assessment tool, but part of a whole set of tools. Seeing relationships between these tools is an example of what Daniel Pink refers to in his book, A Whole New Mind, as symphony.

Any teacher knows how much you can learn from a child by simply having a conversation with them.