September 2012
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Day 17/09/2012

Character? It’s More Than That…

We figure prominently about our work on the development of character strengths in Paul Tough’s book on non-cognitive capacities and their influence on performance, especially in schools. I think Paul’s book is important, and I have also spent my last years focusing on this work in two independent schools. The other thing about these ideas is that they intuitively make sense. Strengths such as grit, self-control, optimism and gratitude are naturally important in work and life. However, this work does not propose that these strengths should become the sole focus of our work in schools, rather it is a matter of rebalancing our myopic focus on math and verbal ability with a broader conception of what it means to be human and successful in the most humanistic terms. In other words, finding meaning and purpose in our lives, finding well-being.

I have been questioned why we chose these strengths rather than more lofty virtues such as honesty or respect. Again, David Levin at KIPP and I are not proposing that these “higher” virtues should not be emphasized in schools. What good school or school leader does not emphasize honesty and respect regularly in schools? However, these more “simple” strengths, these steps towards virtue need also to be emphasized and encourage in schools. They are purely a concrete means to improved work and achievement.

At the same time, the academic programs in schools need to change. We do not want to develop more grit in our students so that they can suffer more effectively through dull and boring lessons. At the same time, we need to change our classrooms to become more constructivist, more about creativity, more engaging and more useful to our future generations. As always, life is about sparks and sweat, about engagement and effort. This work on developing a language of character in schools is only part of the broad work that we all have to do. Sometimes we just have to find ways into the work. Our work on character strengths is one such way that we are using to confront the assumptions about schools and what it means to do well.

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In one of her newest songs, Regina Spektor, asks this question poignantly. As I think about the world we are living in and the uncertainty we face, I feel that this is our critical question, and a question that is daunting for us all. As we can see in the presidential debates, it is less a question of what Obama and Romney should do, but rather how they should do it. I think the problems are pretty evident in education, in healthcare, in our social fabric and in the world at large. Problem identification is not the issue. How are we going to tackle having to change our educational system radically? That is a much more vexing problem.

What that means is that we have to get better at tackling the “how” of things. What processes or methods do we have at our calling to bring to bear upon these problems. That is the crux of the quandary for many of us in many different fields.

I have hired many consultants in my time, and one of the issues with such consultants is that you end up hiring a single methodology. Why is it not as easy to hire a menu of opportunities in one consulting resource? Why is it that consultants often tout their results rather than their methods? I think that this is a critical problem. The outcomes of solving a challenge are not irrelevant, but they should be difficult to predict with out methods and processes. The methodology should be tailored to the specifics of the situation and, the methods and processes, should lead one to perhaps an unexpected outcomes.

That is why I am taken with design thinking as a method. I don’t think it is the only method of solving a problem, but it does allow the participants to come to a solution that meets many of their needs and is a much more democratic way to face up to a challenge. I hope that we will have design thinking as one of our menu of methods and also develop others, such as integrative thinking, reverse argumentation (deriving the challenge from the conclusion) and TbE (trial by error).

As the rethinked…* team evolves, I hope that we will develop a menu of different ways and methods to problem-solve. I hope that we develop as an adaptable, nomadic, temporary problem-solving team that can help open people to possibilities rather than impose one method thereby imposing a particular solution. How? is what we are…*


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