In Paul Tough’s new book How Children Succeed he provides compelling evidence for how so-called character strengths, such as self-control, optimism, and grit, are what make people successful or not. A large chunk of these attributes are instilled within us as babies and toddlers (for more on that click here) however Tough provides evidence that these traits can be taught to teenagers. His prime example is the KIPP charter school’s character report card (pictured above).
KIPP’s approach to teaching character involves a multi-faceted approach which includes everything from banners and t-shirts to bulletin boards where students “shout-out” each other for various traits to the character report card. One of the driving reasons behind creating the report card is KIPP wanted to show students and parents that character (like intelligence) is malleable and can be learned. Teaches use descriptors such as “Comes to class prepared” and then evaluate students on a scale and average scores to reach an index for each of the 8 traits KIPP assesses: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence (both academic and interpersonal), gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.
At one of the first report card nights where the new character report was rolled out Tough describes a conversation between an African-American woman, her eight-grade son Juaquin, and his English teacher Mr. Witter. The teachers tells the mother that the report card represents traits that are “indicators of success.” “They mean you’re more likely to go to college. More likely to find a good job. Even surprising things like more likely to get married, or more likely to have a family,” says the teacher. After discussing the parts of the character report card where the student scored well the teacher turns to the low numbers:
“The first thing that jumps out at me is this.” Witter pulled out a green felt-tip marker and circled one indicator on Juaquin’s report card. “Pays attention and resists distraction,” Witter read aloud: this was an indicator for academic self-control. “That’s a little lower than some of the other numbers. Why do you think that is?” “I talk too much in class,” Juaquin said a little sheepishly, looking down at his black sneakers. “I sometimes stare off into space and don’t pay attention.” The three of them talked over a few strategies to help Juaquin focus more in class . . . “The strong points are not a surprise,” [said the mother] “That’s just the type of person Juaquin is. But it’s good how you pinpoint what he can do to make things easier on himself. Then maybe his grades will pick up.”
Wait. That’s it? And just like that, Juaquin is told, essentially, that if he does not pay attention in class then he will not go to college, find a job or even get married and have a family. Where in this conversation, on this report card, is there space for Juaquin to give his two cents? What if his teachers are boring? What if they can not manage their classrooms and Juaquin is unable to focus amid all the distractions? What if Juaquin is completely uninvested in learning subjects like Algebra 1 and early U.S. History? What if no one has explained to Juaquin why he should be interested in school? Undoubtedly, implementing these report cards is much more complicated and more involved than what Tough has described in his book however I find the lack of student ownership of this process troubling. Another way to describe the acquisition of traits like gratitude, zest, and self-control is self-actualization. Without explicit student ownership over the process of character building, there is no self-actualization. To twist-quote Yeats, education, and certainly character education, is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.
Character report cards seems to be a wishful shortcut. One of the basic tennets of modern, research-based education pedagogy is students must practice what they learn. Teaching is a cycle of direct instruction, authentic and assessment aligned student practice, and teacher feedback. Practice and feedback. Practice and feedback. More practice and more feedback. The classic novice’s mistake is to lecture about writing an essay and then miraculously expect students to write a perfect essay. This is like lecturing about swimming and then throwing kids into a pool. Or lecturing about playing the violin and then handing a child an instrument. Students must practice what they are expected to learn. This is true regardless of the learning objective: math, history, English, French, science, or underwater basket weaving . . . and character.
Juaquin may yet learn to sit still in his classes, but he may also learn to hate math (or English, or history). He may also come to believe he “just isn’t good” at math (or science, or Spanish) because he is disengaged by the instruction. He may also learn to dislike school and authority figures in general because they have wasted both his time and focus. To what extent are Juaquin’s character short comings the result (or lack of) teacher actions like boring methods and teacher-centered instruction. What is the role of culture and race in defining character traits like zest and gratitude?
I have a huge amount of admiration for the attention KIPP is paying to character and I think it is a step in the right direction. However, I worry about how effective a school with ridged culture expectations (in uniform, SLANT, rules, etc.) will be in promoting traits like self-control. When will students have authentic opportunities to practice character? Most character lessons are learned outside a classroom. I personally learned about character via sports, waiting tables, and traveling to South America with my parents on medical exchanges. What would it look like for schools to release students to internships for part of the school day? What about sponsoring two week hiking trips? What about allowing students to choose what interests them and learn character along the way?