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Character education: Can traits like 'grit' be taught?

'Soft skills', such as perseverance, are important for success, but can they really be taught in the classroom?

Can character education be taught

'Soft skills', such as perseverance, are important for success, but can they really be taught in the classroom?

There was a time in education when you could not have a conversation without someone mentioning “character”, “grit” or “resilience”. Consultants and politicians jumped on these “soft skills”, and teachers embraced the movement in the hope that it could make a real difference in their classrooms.

But then the focus seemed to shift. Unfavourable studies were published questioning the evidence behind the research that propped character education up and the politicians lost interest.

So where does that leave character education now?

Angela Duckworth is a good person to ask. Her book Grit: the power of passion and perseverance remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 20 weeks after it was released in May 2016, and the Christopher H Browne distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania became the go-to spokesperson for the entire movement.

Has the partial fall of “grit” (and character) in education left her more circumspect about talking up the importance of these traits? Not at all. However, she does believe that ongoing, rigorous – and impartial – research still needs to happen in this area.

In the 7 September issue of Tes, Duckworth talks to Helen Amass about what she believes "character" is and the challenges of turning research on character development into useable practice in classrooms.

“For me, character includes strengths like grit and self-control… but also extends to empathy and compassion, kindness, generosity, gratitude – so strengths that I would call strengths of the heart, because they are really about you relating in positive ways to other people,” she says.

She identifies two other groups of strengths that she believes make up character.

“Strengths of will” – which include grit and self-control – and “strengths of mind". Those are strengths like curiosity and creativity, intellectual humility; "those strengths that enable you to have a really free and fertile life of the mind,” Duckworth explains. “And I think that all of these strengths are important for kids to develop.”

Can character be taught?

As for what teachers should be doing to help pupils to develop in these three domains, that is something that Duckworth is still trying to figure out. Like many others, she is not yet convinced about how far character can be “taught”.

“There is some debate about whether you can teach these [strengths] or whether, in fact, you have them or you don’t. Or maybe somewhere in between, people say you can pick them up, but you can’t be taught them in the way you can be taught tennis or calculus.”

Nevertheless, Duckworth has been trialling different activities that could support the development of positive character traits in students through her non-profit organisation Character Lab, and she does have some suggestion that teachers can try.

Modelling is important, she says, as is the way you frame feedback when a student makes a mistake.

“Do you frame [the feedback] as, ‘Oh gosh, this is terrible. You have a real problem here?' Or do you frame it as, ‘Failure is a necessary part of learning; let’s look at exactly what you got wrong,'” she says.

Duckworth doesn’t have all of the answers yet and stresses that the goal at the moment is to get people engaging with research around character, to create “psychologically wise” professionals.

“By that, I mean adults who really understand the way motivation and attention and interest and habits, grit, empathy – the way these things really work as a child is developing and insofar as they do understand better, based on science, how development works, that they’re doing a better job of raising kids to develop these character strengths of heart, mind and will. That’s the dream,” Duckworth says.

This article is an adapted from a version published in the 7 September issue of Tes. To read the article in full, pick up a copy from your local newsagent or subscribe to read online

You can also listen to Angela Duckworth speaking about this topic on the Tes Podagogy podcast.

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