As readers may know, a new book is getting a lot of national press these days: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough. I well recall the NY Times article that led to the book because it featured my friend Dominic Randolph, Head of Riverdale. And the other day, Ira Glass devoted his wonderful show “This American Life” to the book, and interviewed the key people in it. I have started reading the book; I am about 1/4 way through. I find it interesting and a good read – but slightly problematic.

Tough’s premise is worth considering and discussing in a world in danger of fixating on academic standards. Perhaps the key to making it through school and into life is not intellect but character; perhaps what we have learned about psychological strength and weakness (in the face of stress) can be used to improve the chances of learners living in poverty and abuse who tend to not make it.

Such character-based programs as Outward Bound and Project Adventure have certainly influenced educators, me included. I used to call my student-led discussions Intellectual Outward Bound in the 1970s. And my old colleague Jim Wilson taught the coolest course ever – Wilderness – in which HS seniors in the fall took only that course for the trimester. It involved the history/science/literature of the wilderness as well as group dynamics work and two extended hikes to the White Mountains and Adirondacks. Most kids in the course were profoundly affected by it, to the good. (Alas, the college admissions frenzy and timid guidance counsellors killed it!) So, sure, let’s look again at issues of character and competency in education. (I say “again” in part because a famous brushed aside 1973 paper by McClelland showed that academic success as measured by our tests does not yield competency and adult success generally.) Habits and attitudes surely matter more than how much algebra or history you know.

The Tough book highlights fascinating research on the biochemistry of stress, the power of coaching in key social skills on the part of caregivers to re-direct stressed kids, and the (hopeful) data that show that while IQ is not malleable, executive control of functioning (and strength of character more generally) ARE improvable. Mind may not grow much but habits can – Aristotle redux. The word often used in the book and now more widely to describe a key character goal – a term central to the KIPP schools – is grit. With it, you can make it; without it, you cannot.

INTELLECTUAL INTEREST & EFFICACY. There is an obvious appeal to such reasoning. It tugs at a deep Horatio Alger strain of American thought. But should schooling be so intellectually dull that it requires grit to get through it?

Character is not something that can simply be demanded and coached in an otherwise dreary school. Otherwise all we are doing is developing delayed gratification. Worse, we may unwittingly be encouraging mere extrinsic motivation to learn and cynicism about school.

Rather, character is something that must be evoked, challenged, and strengthened by quality schooling, by challenging ideas and tasks at the core of academic experience. The entire system of curriculum, instruction, and assessment of performance must be designed, in other words, to elicit and demand all the traits we value. Character demands can’t just be stuck on to a boring and passive approach to learning or ‘self-discipline’ becomes mere compliance with authority.

A vital clue as to this more intellectual direction to character development is found in How People Learn, the National Academy of Sciences key meta-analysis on what we know about learning:

“Feeling that one is contributing something to others appears to be especially motivating. For example, young learners are highly motivated to write stories and draw pictures that they can share with others… Learners of all ages are more motivated when they can see the usefulness of what they are learning and when they can use that information to do something that has an impact on others—especially their local community.”

Courses in the arts make this point clearly, as do pedagogies like Socratic Seminar and problem-based learning.  So does involvement in glee club, drama and sports: you feel efficacious, you make a difference, you clearly accomplish something. There is even positive peer pressure to sublimate ego to the larger good. I well recall kids missing their classes due to illness but none the less showing up at my soccer practices before a big game! This is why courses in music, art, and athletics always score highly in our student surveys, and in Goodlad’s A Place Called School, in my view.

How can intellectual freedom and character develop in a compliance world where people merely strive to do well on inauthentic tests with only extrinsic motivation? They can’t. This is one reason I have always been faintly bothered by the KIPP (and other) lists of virtues. They lean toward compliance and blur the crucial difference between discipline (vs. self-discipline) and conventional success (vs. intellectual autonomy and freedom).

Dewey’s (and Piaget’s) great insight many decades ago was that you cannot separate intellectual and moral development. And neither is developed in typical schools in which being dutiful matters more than being creative and productive. It all comes down to how content mastery is approached. The central question becomes: does the curriculum merely require students to dutifully learn stuff? Or does it require students to actively create and refine worthy products, performances, relationships, and their own understandings using ‘content’? The best schooling helps learners become able to contribute and to create something of value (where content is the means, not the end).

It is worth quoting Dewey at length on this:

The principle of the social character of the school as the basic factor in the moral education given may be also applied to the question of methods of instruction,—not in their details, but their general spirit. The emphasis then [must fall] upon construction and giving out, rather than upon absorption and mere learning.

We fail to recognize how essentially individualistic the latter methods are, and how unconsciously, yet certainly and effectively, they react into the child’s ways of judging and of acting. Imagine forty children all engaged in reading the same books, and in preparing and reciting the same lessons day after day. Suppose this process constitutes by far the larger part of their work, and that they are continually judged from the standpoint of what they are able to take in in a study hour and reproduce in a recitation hour. There is next to no opportunity for any social division of labor. There is no opportunity for each child to work out something specifically his own, which he may contribute to the common stock, while he, in turn, participates in the productions of others. All are set to do exactly the same work and turn out the same products. [emphasis added]

The social spirit is not cultivated,—in fact, in so far as the purely individualistic method gets in its work, it atrophies for lack of use.

One reason why reading aloud in school is poor is that the real motive for the use of language—the desire to communicate and to learn—is not utilized. The child knows perfectly well that the teacher and all his fellow pupils have exactly the same facts and ideas before them that he has; he is not giving them anything at all. And it may be questioned whether the moral lack is not as great as the intellectual. The child is born with a natural desire to give out, to do, to serve. When this tendency is not used, when conditions are such that other motives are substituted, the accumulation of an influence working against the social spirit is much larger than we have any idea of,—especially when the burden of work, week after week, and year after year, falls upon this side.

Fast forward to now. As I wrote recently, I fear that the Common Core will have this a pedagogy of compliance as an unintended consequence. This was also Haberman’s insightful argument 20 years ago in talking about the limited ‘pedagogy of poverty’ in urban schools. This is also my disappointment with Doug Lemov’s otherwise useful and interesting attempt to categorize the most effective teaching moves. Alas, most of them are about inducing student attentiveness and compliance. Don’t get me wrong: attention is necessary; it is not sufficient.

An alternative approach is for us to be attentive; for us to listen, really listen, to kids about their academic experience. Boredom is a constant and unnecessary reality of conventional schooling. How are we so blind to it?  That’s why I am expanding our use of student surveys: as this is being written we are not only engaging in a new round of student surveys but also asking parents and their teachers to predict the students’ responses! At our summer institutes this year we had a number of students available for teachers to interview about their experience as learners. One of the more fascinating and disturbing comments, made by a 7th-grade girl, was that typical teaching made her feel lonely. There was no need for sharing or interaction with anyone, really; “just learn, please.” Any sharing was voluntary and not vital. That’s Dewey’s point:

But lack of cultivation of the social spirit is not all. Positively individualistic motives and standards are inculcated. Some stimulus must be found to keep the child at his studies. At the best this will be his affection for his teacher, together with a feeling that he is not violating school rules…

Fear is a motive which is almost sure to enter in,—not necessarily physical fear, or fear of punishment, but fear of losing the approbation of others; or fear of failure, so extreme as to be morbid and paralyzing. On the other side, emulation and rivalry enter in. Just because all are doing the same work, and are judged (either in recitation or examination with reference to grading and to promotion) not from the standpoint of their personal contribution, but from that of comparative success, the feeling of superiority over others is unduly appealed to.

The weaker gradually lose their sense of power, and accept a position of continuous and persistent inferiority. The effect upon both self-respect and respect for work need not be dwelt upon. The strong learn to glory, not in their strength, but in the fact that they are stronger. The child is prematurely launched into the region of individualistic competition, and this in a direction where competition is least applicable, namely, in intellectual and artistic matters, whose law is coöperation and participation.

The more you are taught at, the less important you are and the less connected you are to others – with both moral and intellectual consequences. That’s part of the power of Eric Mazur’s peer instruction in Physics: even in a 200-person ‘lecture’ you can have sufficient opportunities to share your ideas and learn from others via the clickers and prompts. The conventional pedagogy of a conventional ‘coverage’ focused curriculum works against the growth of character because in it the sole job of the student is to submit to the teaching, to the norms of winning approval in a ranking system, and to standardized outcomes where some will be winners and others not. Kids want to create and contribute; they want to be efficacious; they want to make a difference. Academic demands must build upon that urge, not stifle it.

CHARACTER AS GOOD JUDGMENT. The essence of character is not mere backbone. As Dewey said, it is good judgment borne of having learned to really think and to be held accountable for one’s judgments by the demands of schooling:

This involves training on both the intellectual and emotional side. On the intellectual side we must have judgment—what is ordinarily called good sense. The difference between mere knowledge, or information, and judgment is that the former is simply held, not used; judgment is knowledge directed with reference to the accomplishment of ends. Good judgment is a sense of respective or proportionate values. The one who has judgment is the one who has ability to size up a situation. He is the one who can grasp the scene or situation before him, ignoring what is irrelevant, or what for the time being is unimportant, who can seize upon the factors which demand attention… Mere knowledge of what the right is, in the abstract, mere intentions of following the right in general, however praiseworthy in themselves, are never a substitute for this power of trained judgment…

Just in so far as the present school methods fail to meet the test of such questions moral results must be unsatisfactory. We cannot secure the development of positive force of character unless we are willing to pay its price. We cannot smother and repress the child’s powers, or gradually abort them (from failure of opportunity for exercise), and then expect a character with initiative and industry. I am aware of the importance attaching to inhibition, but mere inhibition is valueless. The only restraint, the only holding-in, that is of any worth is that which comes through holding powers concentrated upon a positive end.

An end cannot be attained excepting as instincts and impulses are kept from discharging at random and from running off on side tracks. In keeping powers at work upon their relevant ends, there is sufficient opportunity for genuine inhibition. To say that inhibition is higher than power, is like saying that death is more than life, negation more than affirmation, sacrifice more than service.

I have seen this with my own eyes: my kids had more executive power and freedom in Montessori pre-school than they did in high school. You develop judgment by exercising it and seeing its consequences. But if all you do in school is respond to required assignments that involve recall, no judgment – thus, no true character – is needed to succeed in school.

Judgment is at stake academically when there are competing or problematic claims to consider in the content itself. A link to the design of core academic experience becomes clear: any genuine learning has to involve perspective on what is learned, not a flat authoritative march through Official Knowledge. Here again is Dewey:

 I have heard an educator of large experience say that in her judgment the greatest defect of instruction to-day, on the intellectual side, is found in the fact that children leave school without a mental perspective. Facts seem to them all of the same importance. There is no foreground or background. There is no instinctive habit of sorting out facts upon a scale of worth and of grading them.

The child cannot get power of judgment excepting as he is continually exercised in forming and testing judgments. He must have an opportunity to select for himself, and to attempt to put his selections into execution, that he may submit them to the final test, that of action. Only thus can he learn to discriminate that which promises success from that which promises failure; only thus can he form the habit of relating his purposes and notions to the conditions that determine their value. Does the school, as a system, afford at present sufficient opportunity for this sort of experimentation? Except so far as the emphasis of the school work is upon intelligent doing, upon active investigation, it does not furnish the conditions necessary for that exercise of judgment which is an integral factor in good character.

Understanding by Design was developed 15 years ago with this quote constantly in mind. Indeed, one reason why we chose the phrase was to highlight the dual meaning of ‘understanding’ – understand the subject and understand other people and the likelihood that they may understand things differently than you do. That’s why empathy and perspective are central to academics, not merely social relations; that why we made them two of the six facets in UbD.

I’m not sure, in sum, that those working on character development as a linchpin of better educational outcomes for disadvantaged kids see this connection with how curriculum is written and delivered. Perhaps I’ll understand things differently when I finish Tough’s book and read further on the KIPP approach. But my hunch is that few such educators are facing the brutal fact that poor schools often have terrible curricula and compliance-focused pedagogies, no matter how caring and hard-working the teachers are.

And so, to ask kids to persist in the face of boring and isolating work conditions is not only somewhat hypocritical but borders on cruel. It certainly isn’t preparation for a successful life – it’s not enough to be REALLY good at delaying gratification and trusting adults. You have to have a passion and a purpose, and typical schools often work against it.