Lots of terrific questions came in following publication of Paul Tough's article in The New York Times Magazine about how character education is being taught at KIPP New York and Riverdale Country School.
Thanks again to David Levin, the charismatic superintendent of KIPP New York, and Dominic Randolph, Riverdale's iconoclastic headmaster, for agreeing to answer your queries, even as they have been overwhelmed by e-mail and other responses to the article.
We will publish one more round of answers. Meanwhile, to keep the discussion going, click here or scroll to the bottom of this post.
Sam Nayman First off, thank you for sharing your experiences with the world. There is a lot to be learned from your work. How has Riverdale's use of "Design Thinking" played into the types of strategies and tools being used to develop students' character?
Dominic Randolph The work was not connected at all; however, I do think that the work we did with IDEO, design firm, on producing a Design Thinking Toolkit for schools and teachers overlaps quite considerably. We wanted to take some of the work that IDEO has done over the years in creating a framework for "design thinking" and provide a free resource for educators to bring the process into schools in order to redesign their classrooms and their work with kids. In doing this, we found that the characteristics of great designers make manifest many of the character strengths we have been working on. The folk at IDEO and great designers are optimistic, possess zest, demonstrate self-control and social intelligence. I think it is great that two disparate projects that are coming from very different sources are actually overlapping to such a degree.
How do you answer studies that have so far proven that no character education program is effective? Indeed, the implication from the studies is that no program can be effective. That is, October 2010, a federal study, the largest and most thorough ever conducted, found that schoolwide Character Education programs produce exactly zero improvements in student behavior or academic performance.
D.R. Exactly the reason that there should be a new effort to create programs that are effective. There is plenty of research to show that "character" as defined by people like Marty Seligman and Chris Peterson is positively correlated with success and high achievement both in individuals and groups. I just think that many supposed character programs have been ill conceived and not well executed. We have not yet worked out an entire program at both our schools, but I think that the work that we are doing is heading in some interesting directions.
Does this work like Clifton's Strength Finders 2.0 where you take the top 5 character strengths and leverage for the student or do you look at the bottom 5 and try to "strengthen" them?
D.R.: Seligman and Peterson’s work with the 24 strengths very much works like this. Take the Values in Action test at www.authentichappiness.org. It gives you your top six strengths out of the 24. Our work also aims to have students look at strengths in the same way — in that you might be better working on your top strengths rather than trying to remediate your weaknesses. However, our work also has the belief that there need to be some core character strengths that we all aim to improve.
David Levin: In general, I agree with what Dominic wrote — with the caveat that the 24 character strengths taken together are designed to capture a holistic view on what makes a good life. This is why the key is to build off of strengths.
What kind of interventions do you do if you find out that some of the character strengths are lower compared with other ones? Can you give examples?
D.L.: Interventions are definitely the next step. In every conversation with parents and kids this was the immediate question: how do we develop each strength further. We are now looking to raise money to help sponsor research and evaluation of interventions.
If you were to reduce the 24 character strengths to a smaller list, what would you pick? Why? What would be the minimum number of character strengths that should be focused on to have any visible impact? Five? Seven? Nine?
D.R.: We thought the 24 were not manageable for our schools and that we needed to focus on a core group of seven strengths: optimism, zest, grit, curiosity, social intelligence, gratitude, self-control.
D.L.: We do feel like it is critical for kids, parents and teachers to understand that the seven we selected are a subset of the larger 24. This ties into the question above about the need to build off of each individual’s strength and each of our strengths may not be exactly the seven we’re focused on. For example, one of my signature strengths is creativity — it is essential for my life and the key is how I use the seven we identified to maximize what I do with my creativity.
Diana Moses: A little challenge may be necessary and helpful for building character, but what about too much challenge? What do we do about kids and families whose challenges are experienced as overwhelming?
D.R.: I don’t believe that this work is intended to overwhelm students with “challenges” so as to toughen them up; rather I hope that it provides the school community with a focus, with a “language of character” and the means to give feedback to students as they develop their character strengths. One would hope that as this work proceeds that students will be better able to cope with the challenges in life, even the most overwhelming types of challenges.
D.L.: Additionally, the idea behind teaching kids and teachers about the character strengths is to hopefully give them the tools to deal with the challenges we all face in our lives — whether these challenges are large or small. Over the last 20 years of teaching, I’ve become convinced that people have remarkable wellsprings of grit and hope that allow them to accomplish tremendous things.
Can a school environment be engineered to match the family and neighborhood choices that young persons may live? Is it not the case that these expensive and prestigious schools are a problem by their very nature?
D.R.: I completely understand the point that the socioeconomic divide in America is a major problem and schools can exacerbate the divide and the thinking linked to this divide. I have devoted my life to working in independent schools primarily because they are independent and free of the bureaucratic obstacles that have caused so many problems in the public school system in the States.
I strongly believe that we need to increasingly understand that there are problems that are common to all children, rich and poor. Unless we can actually come together and think about those common issues and come up with solutions to resolve them, then I would be very pessimistic about improving education. I found that the liberating nature of working across the public-private divide on this project is potentially a way forward in bringing the work on reforming our educational system to another level.
Judith L: Duckworth's said that "to help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.” Is character education for "intelligent" students only? What about students of varied abilities?
D.R.: I think it is important for all students. However, I do think that many students with learning differences do develop resilience and become more adaptive than some of their supposedly higher-performing peers. The character work could play an interesting role in leveling the playing field for students. Some of our highest performing students are the most fragile in regard to their conceptions of their selves and their performance. Carol Dweck is really instructive on this point.
D.L.: Having worked with Angela for the past five years, I think she is highlighting her belief that all kids have the potential to thrive academically. It is often the way kids apply themselves to their efforts in school that interfere with their accomplishments. Our character work is designed to provide a road map for all kids and teachers.
Fernette Eide: Grit is underestimated as a character strength — and I am glad it's included. But what about flexibility — more than resilience. Being able to change approaches or perspectives, adapt?
D.R.: We decided to focus on these seven strengths, but they are not by any means comprehensive. I agree with flexibility and adaptation as being an essential strength in a child’s development and in adult success. There is some overlap with strengths such as optimism and social intelligence — those strengths require people to be adaptive, flexible and hopeful.
Margaret: How do we teach children to balance the various character traits that may sometimes be at odds with one another, and balance character with intellectual learning?
D.R.: I guess I don’t see the strengths as much at odds with each other. I do think that you can have too much of a given strength to the exclusion of others and that can be harmful. In regard to academic or intellectual work, I think that the strengths are essential to working at the highest level. I think that we have put an emphasis on purely cognitive work and getting better math scores while ignoring the non-cognitive character strengths that make that challenging academic work possible. We are focusing on character because it will help all students become better students.
Parents for Educating Texas: As one researcher put it, "Do we think these kids were hatched from eggs? Where are the parents in all this?" I try to encourage the parents to think about what we can do, along with our kids, to improve education right now. What do we bring to the table?
D.L.: Since 1994, the key to our success at KIPP has been the sense of team and family among teachers, students and families. A shared commitment to doing whatever it takes for each kid to develop the character and academic skills for college and life is central to keeping our promise to each KIPP student. Our character work helps us accomplish this by providing all members of the KIPP community with a shared vision and language.
D.R.: The parents have to be in partnership with the schools on this. In fact, many of these character strengths are best developed at home. However, if schools and parents do not have the same assumptions regarding the intellectual, social and personal development of children, then I think any work in schools is doomed to failure. One impetus behind this work is to provide the entire school community (students, parents and faculty) with the same language and same focus in regard to the development of character strengths.
Do you think it's pure coincidence that Harvard Business School this year has an essay question for M.B.A. applicants that asks the candidate to "Tell us three setbacks you have faced?" This is in addition to an essay question they've had for years, asking that the applicant talk about three accomplishments. This year's "setbacks" essay replaces one from prior years that asked, "What have you learned from a mistake?"
D.R.: I think that there is more and more good attention on character as connected to high performance in all fields. Tim Harford’s book on the value of failure is a great read: http://timharford.com/. I do think that we have always believed this. The work of Marty Seligman, Angela Duckworth, Chris Peterson and others has lent a more scientific bent to this emphasis, and I think that is great.
How can you create a learning environment that allows curiosity to predominate? Can it be done? John Holt addressed these issues in his classic "How Children Fail." It seems his ideas were never heeded, and now we have Seligman with his Positive Psychology industry focusing on individual character traits while ignoring the social context in which the schools exist.
D.R.: I think that there have been lots of ideas and people who have proposed failure as a means to success. Kurt Hahn, John Dewey, Churchill, Marcus Aurelius all saw failure and setbacks as a means for self-discovery and improved future achievement. It is not a new idea. However, I do think that Marty and his colleagues bring a level of rigor and scientific research to this work that has been notoriously absent in the past. Naturally, there is an element of the individual in this work, but it is also highly social in that David and I are trying to bring this focus on strengths to the entire community and have us focus on a core set of strengths.
Josh Hill: This approach sounds as if it has great potential for disadvantaged children. But I went to that school down the road, and almost all of my classmates did remarkably well by any standards. Which leads me to wonder, could this do more harm than good by interfering with the values inculcated by the children’s very successful parents?
D.R. I strongly believe that all students will benefit from this work. I know that we can think of many successful people who went to the most elite schools and the most disadvantaged schools. There are also many people who did not have very successful lives. I guess I find it hard to see what harm this focus in schools could do to any student.
D.L.: In addition to Dominic’s point about the importance of character for every individual, I think it’s also important that we take a look at our collective need for a shared language around character and well-being. Our society faces tremendous political, financial, and educational challenges. Our character as individuals and as a collective will be essential for our future.
There is an unquestioned assumption that everyone should go to college. The article implies that at best, around a third of students will graduate from college. Why, then, would a rational person push all of them to go college? What about career tests that help kids identify jobs they'd enjoy and be good at?
D.R.: I don’t think that everyone has to go to college. There are tons of interesting professions and activities that are not necessarily linked to a college diploma. However, I would argue that more and more an undergraduate degree is necessary in the world that we live in. The expectations of the workplace have risen exponentially, and we need a more literate, more creative, more thoughtful and more resilient work force. This is especially true for parts of our population that have not historically had the access to college and university study in America.
Is character always something you can arrange? Don't we end up with people who are "weak" just as much as you do with people who are "strong" or "have grit" from bad circumstances and good circumstances alike?
D.R.: I think that there is more room to play with character. Probably there are some people who are more curious or more optimistic naturally; however, this can be shifted by family, by culture and by schools. Therefore, it seems as though these are capacities we should try and develop in the youngest members of our society.
Don Hutton: Is optimism always a positive character trait? I would hope to teach our children to avoid the twin poles of intellectual cowardice, optimism and pessimism, and instead teach realism.
D.R.: I don’t think that we are espousing that everyone should be highly optimistic all the time. I do think that people who are optimistic tend to fare better in difficult situations; some of Marty Seligman’s research backs this up. On the other hand, it is true that any of these strengths in the extreme can be harmful. We are not trying to take these strengths to the extreme though, just help people along with their natural development by being a bit more intentional and offering a language of feedback to the members of our school communities.
I agree that coddling kids doesn't do them any favors in the long run. I was hoping the article would give some concrete examples of ideas to instill "grit," perseverance in the face of failure, lack of fear. Do you have any good, creative, gritty ideas?
D.R.: There are lots of things that are going on in our schools that try to develop these strengths. We have speakers come to talk about resilience and grit explicitly to our students. Our teachers use literature to show models of these strengths to our children. We have the strengths listed on our walls. We try to link the strengths to observed behaviors of our children and give them feedback. At the same time, we focused on developing the language and the inventory in these first years of the project. Now our focus is going to be on developing strong interventions in the schools that support the development of these strengths.