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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