Friday, November 30, 2012

All About Character


Much is being made these days about character. Especially those virtues of character related to grit, perseverance and all manner of a person's capacity to persist and endure. Educators across the country are making waves in schools and school districts on the heels of the release of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. Tough is a writer for the N.Y. Times who wrote an article last year presaging the publication of his book. Pulling together findings from various fields, Tough makes the case that there are traits beyond cognitive ability, namely perseverance, resiliency and optimism, necessary for academic success.

Even before his book was released, I could see the tides rising. Last year I wrote an article for Park Central asking to what extent the development of character was the province of a school, using as examples Tough's description of schools in New York which have embarked on efforts to make character development essential to their mission.

Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania is featured prominently in Tough's book (see her 2009 TEDtalk on the subject of Grit ). Duckworth's research focuses on hundreds of subjects who had achieved measurable success, and revealed that the most successful individuals have in common character traits such as perseverance, grit, and diligence. More than intelligence or talent, in study after study these attributes demonstrated that the "grittier" a person is, the more he or she is likely to succeed. Both Tough and Duckwork make the distinction between two categories of character: moral character and performance character. Moral character embodies ethical values like fairness, generosity, compassion and integrity, while performance character refers to values such as effort, diligence, and grit.

So, what is grit? In her tool measuring this attribute in children and adults, Duckworth looks at a person's reaction to very difficult or challenging tasks; how does one respond to failure? Does one have the capacity to stick with projects that require perseverance and hard work? Grit is a measurement of how one endures and pushes through obstacles in pursuit of a goal or passion.

It's no surprise if you are asking (as I have been), "So, how can we teach grit?" Are there teacher, parenting, or educational strategies that seem to foster these virtues in our children?

In his book, Tough illustrates that the most important factors in a child's early life are close, loving, nurturing, and attached relationships with a parent (or guardian). Ironically, the need to pull back becomes vital as the children grow. Resisting the temptation to intervene, we need to allow children to stumble and fall, experience failure, have lots of frustrations and disappointments, then to dust off and carry on, learning something about themselves in the process.

Progressive educators have resonated strongly with Tough's premise and the recent research in the measurement of student success. We understand the need to partner with parents in the challenging task of child rearing. Weighing on us is the tension between wanting to pave the way for children and allowing them to experience disappointment and failure. As parents, we can feel it viscerally - the pain of failure - we want to fix it or make it better. This tendency is quintessential to parenting. Teachers also face this struggle.

In part, the teaching of character arises situation by situation. I spoke recently with a parent whose daughter had "hit a wall" while trying to learn a new skill. Though she wanted to quit, he pushed her to stick with it and she finally succeeded in learning the process. It was difficult for him to watch her angst and resistance. Similarly, I recently observed a teacher who insisted that two students who were involved in a conflict sit as long as necessary for them to resolve their issue. I saw the students' transition from a fevered pitch of anger and venom to a reasonable place of calm and measured discussion and problem solving. In these situations, had it not been for the parent and the teacher, the players would have walked away from an important learning opportunity.  

Earlier this year, JuanCarlos Arauz spoke on a panel here about 21st Century skills and he adds another dimension to this discussion of grit--cultural competency and the need to translate the strength of students' lived experiences into a new definition of educational excellence. JuanCarlos talked about how much we have to learn from the child - to give just two examples from his talk - who translates languages in their homes for their families, navigates transportation to and from school, or the child can "code-switch" from one environment to another. I believe this is the stuff of building resilience and grit as well as self-esteem.

I recommend that folks read Paul Tough's book. It has spawned countless blogs and commentary such as this. The book validates our mission of holding children's social and emotional development, and brings into relief the importance of encouraging the development of their character. These virtues are important to their success as students, but equally to their success at life.