Friday, February 3, 2012

Education and Character: Another Reform?

I came across this article in one of the blogs I follow.

It's wicked long, but really interesting!  In a nutshell, it talks about two schools who looked at research for what makes successful adults, after school.  They found that those kids that went on to graduate from college and become successful weren't those that had the highest test scores, grades or even IQ, but had a certain set of characteristics, and they set about teaching "Character" in their schools.  Not only moral character like being nice and treating others with respect, but performance character which include values like effort, diligence and perseverance.  They focus on seven characteristics and use "duel purpose instruction", intermeshing academic lessons with character lessons.  

The characteristics they focus on include zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity. The idea is that they try to prepare their students to become people who are going to make it in the real world, and make it well.  

Another key behind it is to challenge the students and get them to learn from their failure.  It mentions the movie "Race to Nowhere" (trailer here: which takes a look at where American education is heading, with so much focused on high stakes testing, and how it is damaging the ability of students to go on and be successful because they either can't cope, or they've never had to deal with failure.

From the article:

" What is good character? Is it really something that can be taught in a formal way, in the classroom, or is it the responsibility of the family, something that is inculcated gradually over years of experience? Which qualities matter most for a child trying to negotiate his way to a successful and autonomous adulthood? And are the answers to those questions the same in Harlem and in Riverdale?"

If you've got time (ha, ha!) it's worth a read.

As a parent and educator, I'm really intrigued with this idea.  First off, is it the schools place to teach character, something that traditionally should be left to the parents?  Don't teachers do enough parenting already, on top of more and more requirements being set on their shoulders?  My father (Hi, Daddy! *MUAH!*) vehemently opposes wasting his tax dollars to teach something that should be left to the family.  On one hand, I agree.  On the other, isn't it the job of the community also?  Isn't their school a big part of their community.  Nowadays, however, the community, including the school, doesn't seem willing to take on the role of disciplining the community or neighborhood children, because many parents have the "not my child" syndrome, where everyone else is to blame.  In this sense, my kids are screwed, as we tend to side with the 1960 cartoon, below, and people in my little community are not afraid to call me up and let me know when my kids step out of line.  

The other question educators could ask is how do you, or even, can you, teach character?  Don't they just have zest, or grit?  Could you get to them while they're young?  What about students with learning difficulties, who need meds to focus or have and self control?  Are people born with the amount of optimism they're going to have in life?  Can teenagers, who are so me-focused, even grasp the concept of gratitude?  Isn't it their God-given right to have things handed to them?  

As a parent, I really, really want my kids to have these characteristics, even if I'm not as steeped in them myself as I wish I could be.  I have some idea of how to get my kids there at their age:  Make them do chores, challenge them to do things on their own to promote independence, cheer them on when they run into something hard, don't hand them everything, lead by example, and the hardest thing - let them fail... ouch!

And here's the thing in education, you can't "let" kids fail any more, even when it seems like they are trying.  The school I'm at doesn't penalize a student's grade for late work, even if it is very late.  Like a month late.  What are they learning from that?  I don't think anything good, and certainly not responsibility.  It allows them to keep their grade up, but creates a cat and mouse game of the teacher keeping track and hounding the student until they turn it in.  A teacher can see if they are understanding the material the homework is designed to help them with, but sometimes after the assessment.  Or, because there are no consequences to turning it in late, they fall behind the rest of the class, who, after learning what they need to from one assignment, moves on to the next step.

There's that, and, as the cartoon above points out, if a teacher doesn't have very explicit documentation to show everything they did for that student to help them pass, they face the wrath of parents, and even sometimes the administration.  They question the job of the teacher first, not the job of the student.  I guess the idea is that students should fail the practice, not the test.  But with so little time to prove kids can get it, and the pressure to maintain good grades, there is no time to learn by failing.

In school reform, so many things are tried, but I think what everyone is really missing is that there is no blanket solution.  There is not a reform that will make a good education policy for the nation, the state, or even the community.  It all comes down to doing what is right for each individual student.  And who can do it better than their teacher, working in harmony with their parent and the student, to decide how they best learn, how to challenge them, how to help them become successful in the future?  

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