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While it might not be a simple task, it is possible to teach children concepts like perseverance and self-control. We can cure them of the “instant gratification” mentality, but there’s still uncertainty when it comes to teaching our children about character. This is something that cannot be clearly defined, so it has been ignored because schools had other concerns to address. However, this is changing.
Educators and policy makers are now considering more scientific research on character. Upon first reading that sentence, it might have inspired a laugh or a roll of the eyes. How do you measure character scientifically anyway? Would you say someone has 237 pounds of character, or would you use the metric system? It seems absurd to even consider, and yet it is being done.
The question researchers are having a hard time answering is, “Which traits matter the most?” That is just the first stumbling block. Once you answer that, you immediately come upon the second: “How do we TEACH these character traits to our children?”
If you are going to try teaching children character traits, then you must maximize your time. The best way to do that is by measuring the child’s current character traits and then focusing on their areas of “weakness.” However, this is a difficult task. Ask a child if they are open-minded or optimistic. Odds are they have heard these are important traits to have, so they may lie about it. It’s also a matter of perception too; one person might think of themselves as optimistic, but other people look at them as one of the biggest pessimists around.
It is an endeavor full of frustration, but educators and policy makers say it must be done. Andreas Schleicher, head of education and skills for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, says, “Most employers tell you how important collaborative skills are becoming at the workplace, and that is also what we are seeing in our data. But then you still see most students sitting behind individual desk and learning to take their individual exam. That just does not add up.”
With such a difficult task ahead, the best place to start is right at the beginning with a simple question that has a complicated answer: “What is character, and how is it measured?”
Schools that are a part of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) approach this question by handing out “character growth cards.” These measure children on seven qualities and a long list of behaviors such as self-control, gratitude, and grit.
While these growth cards do provide a good assessment of how much of a certain trait is exhibited by a child, it does nothing to help educators figure out how to instill something that a child might lack. Dave Levin (the founder of KIPP) teamed up with Angela Duckworth (Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania) and Dominic Randolph (the head of Riverdale Country Day School) to form the Character Lab, which applies scientific methods to character research.
Levin couldn’t have asked for a better partner than Duckworth, who has an extensive background investigating this issue. When she was a teacher, she realized the kids with the highest IQ’s were not her most successful. While attending the University of Philadelphia for her PhD in Psychology, she studied adults and children in challenging situations. Her research confirmed that the most deciding factor for success was grit. To put it in Duckworth’s words: “Passion plus perseverance for long-term goals.
Countries like the UK have programs like the Educational Endowment Foundation, which is spending over $1 million to test education strategies that will develop character traits like motivation, resilience, and perseverance. The main thrust of their research is to figure out how to teach these attributes.
Character education is not new, but new research has made educators and policy makers realize just how important these traits are. In 2011, a handful of researchers published results from a study they did on 213 schools. They were looking into the results of children who learn social and emotional learning skills (SEL). SEL skills include things like self-awareness, self-management, and relationship skills.
On average, the students who learned SEL skills got higher grades (an 11 percentile-point gain) than those who did not. They were also better at getting along, being engaging in school, and managing relationships. In this day and age, where employers are constantly looking for the best “team players,” these are important factors. Being disengaged can also affect grades, behavior, and health.
Of course, all of this still comes back to the problem of figuring out how to measure character traits. No one can agree on what skills matter most, or how to measure them. Character assessments have proven to be useless because they are subjective. For example, when asked to rate themselves on how prepared they are for class, it was Korean, Chinese, and Japanese students who rated themselves the lowest. When you consider the fact that, in Korea, police actually have to raid tutoring centers at night to force kids to go home, it’s easy to see this ranking is an interpretation they make of themselves based on their culture; they always think they are doing WORSE than they actually are. American students are not exposed to this kind of mentality. However, Schleicher doesn’t believe this is out of reach for American students. “There’s an element of culture for sure,” Schleicher said. “But the longer I work in the field, the more I conclude it’s more an outcome of the design.”
Many people are against using measurement tools to rate teachers or judge schools. However, this data is needed so schools can determine the best way to help these students. We need to give character building a priority because it is in incredibly short supply these days. For proof of that, then look no further than the politicians of today. “They are insulting each other’s wives, “Levin said. “There’s no universe in which that would have happened a generation ago.”