Professor Angela Duckworth on character education

We have to take a more scientific approach to character education, suggests psychologist Angela Duckworth

Angela Duckworth

“If a teacher takes a moment to think about what they actually do in their own classroom, there is tons of experimentation. You try a lesson plan one way and you realise at the end of that class that it’s really not going as well as you would have liked and then maybe your new class files in and you tweak it a little bit,” says Angela Duckworth, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Duckworth, best known for her work on the science of "grit" – the combination of passion and perseverance for long-term goals that she says sets high achievers apart from the rest of the population – is currently conducting research more broadly into character education through her non-profit organisation Character Lab, with the aim of providing a robust, scientific basis for teaching the "soft" skills that are viewed with scepticism by some.

To do this, she explains in this week’s episode of Tes Podagogy, she is relying on classroom teachers conducting experiments with their classes. This is a task that they are more than equipped for, she believes.

“I know that in the UK there is a really robust and reasonably recent, but really robust and admirable, tradition of doing research in schools,” Duckworth says. “So, the idea of experimentation isn’t really new [for teachers]...I think that idea of really closing the loop and doing it systematically with measures and statistics is, of course, new.”

The Character Lab Research Network, of which Duckworth is a co-founder, conducted its first large-scale experiment in January, with 14,000 high school students, who participated in a variety of different activities designed to increase positive character traits.

“It was a coin-flip which activity they would get. This enables us to see if any of the activities were helpful, which of the activities were more helpful than others,” Duckworth says.

'Innovation and experimentation'

The random nature of the experiment was the best way to ensure fair results, but it also required participating teachers to take a leap of faith and accept the uncertainty of the scientific method, she adds.

“Generally, teachers like to try to give the best thing to their students and just give it to all of them. When I was a classroom teacher, I never did anything with half my kids that I didn’t do with the other half of the kids, and so that is a bit of a paradigm shift for some teachers.”

So, what has Character Lab uncovered about character education so far? In the podcast, Duckworth shares her findings and explains why she is hopeful of taking this research further, working in collaboration with teachers and helping them to become "psychologically wise".

“Innovation and experimentation is what every teacher has to do. We’re just hoping to do it in a more cumulative way," she says.

“So many things that teachers figure out work for them, they never really get to tell other teachers what it is that they did and why it might have worked, because teachers tend to not have that medium. But scientists, that’s kind of what they do: they have hypothesis, they test it, and whether it works or not, hopefully you write it up and you tell the world so that the insight can be shared."

You can listen for free by downloading the podcast from iTunes or listening below.

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