What Character Traits to Teach in School? Grit and Self-Control?

What does it mean to have “self-control” and “grit”?

How does that look in the person who is successful versus the person who is not?

I can think of some amazing young adults who have grown up in extremely challenging situations and while they still make plenty of mistakes, they manage to move forward more than they move back. They remind me of the saying, “Plus three, minus two,” meaning for all their mistakes (partying, drinking, pregnancy) they somehow right themselves back up, make amends, reflect, hold down jobs and care for others. They show grit.

I can also think of a number who do not.

And, I can think of young adults who grew up with incredible privileges and supports who are not nearly so resilient (perhaps they don’t make as many grand mistakes, but they could list plenty of things that are wrong in their lives and they certainly could use a good dose of integrity).

This brings me to an article I recently read in the New York Times (Tough, P.  What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?) which looked at character education in the schools and what two very different schools were grappling with. The first school is a network of charter schools in New York City that serves students in the South Bronx who are at high risk of dropping out. The second school is a prestigious New York boarding school where the graduates frequently go to Harvard.

The network of charter schools in the South Bronx called KIPP has attempted to build character traits and skill sets into the curriculum that teach their students the keys to succeed not only in high school, but in college. They plastered the walls with slogans such as “Work Hard” and “There are no Shortcuts” and they infused lessons on perseverance and empathy into their daily conversations with students. Their students thrived and their first cohort was the fifth top school in New York City. Eighty percent of their students went on to college. Their school should serve, rightfully so, as a model for other schools around the country. (There are some great articles about KIPP in the archives of the New York Times.)

However, only 33 percent of the kids who went to college stuck with it and the founders’ goals were that the students would make it through college. David Levin and Michael Feinberg, the co-founders of KIPP wanted to figure out what component they needed to build in to help kids stick with it. They discovered that the students who completed college were not “necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence”.

How does this information pertain to the students at the “Ivy League-track” school?  It makes me think about how it’s not always the sharpest tool in the box that gets the job done – or the fastest rabbit that wins the race.  It implies that success is not about merely being the best or the fastest, but somehow striving and achieving something and feeling good about that experience.

At the prestigious New York boarding school where it is assumed that all the students will go to college regardless of any type of character education, there is a superintendent who is currently making some waves. He asserts that while the kids do learn to be nice, respectful and so on, they are lacking in some important character traits. He believes that those lacking traits are linked to things we develop by having the opportunity to fail.

I love this idea because when we fail and nobody else picks us up nor solves our problems, we are forced to solve our problems ourselves. It’s very empowering. It teaches us to control our emotions, our negative self-talk, to develop new skills outside our comfort zone and to think creatively. It also teaches us how to ask for help, work with others and learn to help others. It teaches us to be accountable for our own actions.

(This is not to say that we should purposely set kids up to fail, but that there might be some value in allowing children the opportunity to succeed through their own efforts, which includes making mistakes)

The superintendent of the prestigious school and the co-founders of KIPP both were drawn to some research in this area. The researchers, Seligman and Peterson, “Consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters, and they settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras” that help one to live a happy, meaningful, productive life.

Listed below are a few of them:

Bravery

Citizenship

Fairness

Wisdom

Love

Humor

Zest

Appreciation of beauty

Social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations)

Kindness

Self-regulation

Gratitude.

The character traits are divided into two categories: “moral character,” which embodies ethical values like fairness, generosity and integrity; and those that address “performance character,” which includes values like effort, diligence and perseverance.

But where does one begin?

If you were in charge of a school and responsible for trying to teach, not only academics, but also the keys to success to a group of children from different ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, what character traits would you choose to focus on?

I remember growing up with the Golden Rule and while that is all fine and good, it doesn’t really help me grapple with complex issues and it certainly doesn’t help the teenager who has grown up in an abusive setting feel control over their life.  I find myself wanting to teach kids optimism and stick-with-it-ness.  I want to figure out how to help them be resilient in the face of adversity and to understand the perspective of others.  I want….I want….There are so MANY things I can think of.  And this is the problem.  How do we choose just WHICH traits will help make the most positive difference?

The two schools in this article grappled with choosing character traits to teach and how that would look.  The students at KIPP wanted to know the secrets that would allow them to succeed (the hidden mores), but the students at the boarding school did not have that desire because they were pretty confident in their ability to go to college.

What the two schools recognized as crucial was deliberate instruction on character traits in a meaningful manner, in a safe environment, with adults that the students could discuss and reflect with.

The following excerpt from the New York Times article is one I really like because it shows what this type of education might look like:

I came to Witter’s class to observe something that Levin was calling “dual-purpose instruction,” the practice of deliberately working explicit talk about character strengths into every lesson. Levin wanted math teachers to use the strengths in word problems; he explained that history teachers could use them to orient a class discussion about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad.

And when I arrived in Witter’s class at 7:45 on a Thursday morning in March, he was leading a discussion about Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart.” Above Witter’s head, at the front of the class, the seven character strengths were stenciled in four-inch-high letters, white on blue, from optimism to social intelligence. He asked his students to rank Okonkwo, the protagonist, on his various character strengths. There was a lot of back and forth, but in the end, most students agreed that Okonkwo rated highest on grit and lowest on self-control. Then a student named Yantzee raised his hand.  “Can’t a trait backfire at you?” he asked.

“Sure, a trait can backfire,” Witter said. “Too much grit, like Okonkwo, you start to lose your ability to have empathy for other people. If you’re so gritty that you don’t understand why everyone’s complaining about how hard things are, because nothing’s hard for you, because you’re Mr. Grit, then you’re going to have a hard time being kind. Even love — being too loving might make you the kind of person who can get played.” There was a ripple of knowing laughter from the students. “So, yes, character is something you have to be careful about. Character strengths can become character weaknesses. (Tough, D)

I can’t even begin to express how refreshing it is to read about a classroom discussion of this caliber in a classroom where kids are traditionally schooled in remedial reading, writing and math.  THIS is the kind of education I want for my own kids where they learn to develop themselves as resilient and capable humans.

The two schools grappled with identifying exactly which traits to teach, so they turned to Angela Duckworth who worked with one of the researchers.  She found that self-control, not IQ, was more directly correlated with good grades and achieving a certain level of success.  She then found that the quality that led people to really succeed was a mixture of passion and dedication – something she identified as “Grit”.

This resonates with me when I think of some of the kids who have really stuck with it and made gains regardless of the circumstances around them.

The amount of grit that a person has can be quantified based on a self-assessment using the following scale created by Angela Duckworth, the professor at Penn State University.  It’s interesting to do and nothing about it is set in stone, though there is a definite correlation, the research shows, from those who rank themselves with high grit and those who achieve their goals.

(Grit test questions can be found on the internet or at the bottom of this post)

It makes me think of the guitar I still don’t play and other resolutions.  But it also makes me think of the things I have stuck with in and insisted on in my life.  And of course, it makes me think of the movie “True Grit” and lastly of my own little boy who proudly exclaims, “I did it” when he accomplishes something on his own.

 

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1087-1101.

Tough, Paul. What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?  Published: September 14, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/what-if-the-secret-to-success-is-failure.html?pagewanted=all

 

12- Item Grit Scale

Directions for taking the Grit Scale: Please respond to the following 12 items. Be honest – there are no right or wrong answers!
1. I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.
– Very much like me
– Mostly like me
– Somewhat like me
– Not much like me
– Not like me at all
2. New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.*
– Very much like me
– Mostly like me
– Somewhat like me
– Not much like me
– Not like me at all
3. My interests change from year to year.*
– Very much like me
– Mostly like me
– Somewhat like me
– Not much like me
– Not like me at all
4. Setbacks don’t discourage me.
– Very much like me
– Mostly like me
– Somewhat like me
– Not much like me
– Not like me at all
5. I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.*
– Very much like me
– Mostly like me
– Somewhat like me
– Not much like me
– Not like me at all
6. I am a hard worker.
– Very much like me
– Mostly like me
– Somewhat like me
– Not much like me
– Not like me at all
7. I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.*
– Very much like me
– Mostly like me
– Somewhat like me
– Not much like me
– Not like me at all
8. I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.*
– Very much like me
– Mostly like me
– Somewhat like me
– Not much like me
– Not like me at all
9. I finish whatever I begin.
– Very much like me
– Mostly like me
– Somewhat like me
– Not much like me
– Not like me at all
10. I have achieved a goal that took years of work.
– Very much like me
– Mostly like me
– Somewhat like me
– Not much like me
– Not like me at all
11. I become interested in new pursuits every few months.*
– Very much like me
– Mostly like me
– Somewhat like me
– Not much like me
– Not like me at all
12. I am diligent.
– Very much like me
– Mostly like me
– Somewhat like me
– Not much like me
– Not like me at all

Scoring:
1. For questions 1, 4, 6, 9, 10 and 12 assign the following points:
5 = Very much like me
4 = Mostly like me
3 = Somewhat like me
2 = Not much like me
1 = Not like me at all
2. For questions 2, 3, 5, 7, 8 and 11 assign the following points:
1 = Very much like me
2 = Mostly like me
3 = Somewhat like me
4 = Not much like me
5 = Not like me at all
Add up all the points and divide by 12. The maximum score on this scale is 5 (extremely gritty), and the lowest scale on this scale is 1 (not at all gritty).
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1087-1101.

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