How do you teach character?

Dominic Randolph works as the headmaster of an exclusive prep school in NYC. He cut out AP classes. He limits homework. He focuses, instead, on what he calls the education of “being a successful human.” But how do you instill “successful human” in kids? Affluent ones, no less? From the NYT:

The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”


Randolph and his counterpart at a Harlem charter started searching for the keys to success in their students. They met Angela Duckworth along the way, a grad student in psychology who had worked as a teacher.

“The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves,” she wrote. “Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”

Be still, my beating heart.

Duckworth’s early research showed that measures of self-control can be a more reliable predictor of students’ grade-point averages than their I.Q.’s. But while self-control seemed to be a critical ingredient in attaining basic success, Duckworth came to feel it wasn’t as relevant when it came to outstanding achievement. People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word “grit.”

She developed a test to measure grit, which she called the Grit Scale. It is a deceptively simple test, in that it requires you to rate yourself on just 12 questions, from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” It takes about three minutes to complete, and it relies entirely on self-report — and yet when Duckworth took it out into the field, she found it was remarkably predictive of success. At Penn, high grit ratings allowed students with relatively low college-board scores to nonetheless achieve high G.P.A.’s. Duckworth and her collaborators gave their grit test to more than 1,200 freshman cadets as they entered West Point and embarked on the grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks. The military has developed its own complex evaluation, called the Whole Candidate Score, to judge incoming cadets and predict which of them will survive the demands of West Point; it includes academic grades, a gauge of physical fitness and a Leadership Potential Score. But at the end of Beast Barracks, the more accurate predictor of which cadets persisted and which ones dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s 12-item grit questionnaire.

Teaching kids who’ve never had the luxury of someone modeling specific behavior–positive behavior–can be gravely difficult. I liken it to a priest explaining his realization of working in the inner city: referring to God the Father meant nothing to kids because the only father they knew was one of abandonment. Head-slap moment. How could they identify? How could they understand that this was the one father who would never forsake them?  I digress.

Grit, zest, self-control. Social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. “Performance character” as opposed to “moral character.” The two schools–one posh, one poor–both focus on identifying which traits students possess and helping the kids learn to improve.  Both schools meet resistance from within.

Read the rest.


9 Responses

  1. Sorry, I’m obsessing and nodding my head as I keep reading the article. To the point:

    “As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in 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. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class. Those skills weren’t enough on their own to earn students a B.A., Levin knew. But for young people without the benefit of a lot of family resources, without the kind of safety net that their wealthier peers enjoyed, they seemed an indispensable part of making it to graduation day.”

    • Lisa, don’t you love nodding as you read? I do it all the time!)

      Optimism, persistence and social intellegence will carry you far in life. Very far. I’ve seen kids self-destruct after a bad report card. It wasn’t worth the bother of working hard to raise the grade “because the highest I can get is a C now.” WTH?! You do your best. Always. And if you can’t on any given day, you pick yourself up and try again. I fear for the generation of coddled quitters we have in our midst.

  2. Oh, P.S. Character absolutely needs to be taught by the PARENTS and simply REINFORCED at school. Period. I do not want our schools or our government teaching my children character. It is my job and I will be working hard at it for the next 15 years.

    • I agree. But so many kids don’t get it at home. My husband and I had a variation of this conversation tonight: how to children in single-parent homes learn how to be a good husband/father if they were absent one? It’s that much harder sans a model.

      I taught at a school that had a character and ethics curriculum. Two required courses, one as freshmen, one as seniors. And the model behaviors were targeted across the curriculum. I appreciate, though the distinction between “moral character” and “performance character.” I have never thought about it in those terms, but a good work ethic is performance character. And it means so much.

    • Why can’t it be taught and modeled everywhere; school, home, downtown? Should character be something we turn on when we go home and hide in public for fear someone will think I am teaching character when that is a parent’s job? I want my middle schoolers to be able to identify character in their peers and teachers and they might just learn some of those qualities at school.

      • It’s both, Janet. I taught in a school with a character program in place. It reinforces what’s taught at home. And helps if it’s not taught in the home. This is not sex ed, this is character–there’s an inherent difference.

  3. I firmly believe that hard work and good character will get you further in life than a Harvard degree or an extra amount of intelligence. Somewhere along the way, schools and parents decided that “intelligence” is the goal in schooling and raising kids, not character. It’s pretty mind blowing actually. Intelligence can only get you so far and has nothing to do with what kind of person you are. I actually had this epiphany myself a couple days ago (intelligence vs character in today’s society that is raising children) and your post dovetails nicely in with my theory.

  4. Wow, was this a great read. Thanks for highlighting this article. I could use more grit.

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