Character Education Builds Strong Students
True grit. I hear that phrase and memories of watching John Wayne (AKA Rooster Cogburn) movies with my father tumble through my mind. But school officials in a few academies across the country have a renewed vision for grit – one that focuses on strong character traits as much (if not more so) than algebra or chemistry.
What is Character Education?
A new education model being pursued by those affiliated with KIPP Academies based on strength of character is catching a wave of enthusiasm – and some criticisms. Since its inception in 1994, KIPP Academy has been approaching education with a new model based on research conducted by Dr. Martin Seligman, Dr. Chris Peterson, and Dr. Angela Duckworth. In particular, KIPP NYC (in New York City) has been a leading model for other academies across the country.
The research by Seligman, Peterson, and Duckworth has identified 24 character strengths that are important for leading productive, conscious, and enthused lives and that range from grit to love to spirituality. (You can see a complete, descriptive list of these 24 strengths in this supplemental KIPP file.) From this list of 24, the KIPP NYC school focuses heavily on 7 specific character traits.
Grit – The administrators at KIPP define this as the combination of persistence and resilience, and it is demonstrated by the ability to finish things that are started, the effort to continue trying even after failure, and the ability to focus on work independently.
Zest – Students approach life with excitement and are actively engaged, participating in events and activities with enthusiasm that helps to engage others.
Gratitude – Students are taught that gratitude means they are appreciative of the good things that happen, and that they recognize and demonstrate appreciation of others and the opportunities in all of their lives.
Optimism – As students are taught in an environment of optimism, they learn how to get over setbacks and have faith that effort has the ability to improve the future.
Curiosity – Students are encouraged to explore new things, ask questions, listen to the ideas of others, and enjoy learning for the sake of learning.
Social Intelligence – Rooted in empathy, social intelligence requires that students are aware of the feelings of others, and are able to adapt to various environments and situations. They learn to solve conflicts with others and demonstrate respect.
Self-Control – Students learn self-discipline that is applied to various aspects of their lives. In school work self-control means being prepared for class and resisting the temptations of distractions to their academic studies. Self-control on an interpersonal level means that students are taught to allow for the ideas of others without interruption, to demonstrate polite and respectful behaviors, and to remain calm even in the face of criticism.
Grades for Character
Not only does KIPP NYC teach character strengths, they have developed a grading scale for these specific traits as well. Instead of only a GPA (Grade Point Average), students are held accountable on a CPA (Character Point Average). Teachers assess the students on the seven character traits, and assign grades based on how far the student has come, and how far he or she has yet to go in character education. The students I saw being interviewed about this CPA approach had clear understandings of their own strengths of character, as well as which areas they needed to improve and why (which is a lot more than many adults might be able to do).
How to Implement Character Education in Schools
One of the things I love most about the approach of the KIPP Academy is that it is not trying to sell this approach like an infomercial – requiring stretched out and unknown payment plans. The administrators are so enthused and educated about their own model of education that they want other people to use it and they help provide the tools to do so. You can visit their website for Q&A materials, character development supplemental downloads, a Framework for Excellent Teaching, and titles for further reading. In short, their approach for implementing character in schools includes:
- Believe it and model it.
- Name it – label the character traits so the kids understand their goals.
- Find it – use real world and fictional examples of the desired character traits.
- Feel it – help others find the positive effects of character strengths.
- Integrate it – use activities in the classroom that are dual-purposed for academics and character strength.
- Encourage it – use “mindset praise” that helps to build strength of character.
- Track it – record and track character goals (they use the CPA model).
Criticisms of the Character Education Approach
Interestingly, not all parents are thrilled with the approaches taken in KIPP academies. In the generation of “feel good parenting”, where kids get trophies for trying, reward stickers for what should be commonplace, and are protected from failures, teaching kids to thrive on failures as they develop such traits as grit can make parents feel uncomfortable. Some parents worry that as the emphasis is placed on character, the academic preparation and rigor will suffer.
Those who are proponents of character education, however, point to numerous studies that show that character and the ability to experience failure and come out the other side is much more indicative of success than academic letter grades.
The KIPP approach is not only a valid and valuable approach to education, but one that we as parents can use in our own homes. After all, if we don’t teach strength of character, what good does the rest of education do for our children?