Heavy mettle

7th March 2014 at 00:00
Grit and resilience set students up for success, but are these traits innate or can they be taught? Richard Vaughan hears from educationalists on both sides of an intensifying debate

Lining the walls of Wellington College's Great School, an elegant Victorian reception room at the heart of one of England's elite boarding schools, are the names of hundreds of Old Wellingtonians who have fallen in defence of their country.

Sitting proudly among this display is a collection of items that belonged to the Duke of Wellington, the general who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and after whom the school is named.

It seems a fitting venue for a conference on the subject of teaching character and resilience. After all, according to the ever-robust Victorians, there's nothing quite like a war to stiffen the backbone.

Private schools were the most avid subscribers to this cult of personality; character was built on their playing fields and then shown on the battlefield. And their alumni went on to suffer disproportionate casualties on the killing fields of the First World War - the names now etched in gilded letters on Wellington's walls.

Opinion has, mercifully, moved on. But the belief remains that character, grit or resilience are either hard-wired or discovered only through facing adversity.

Character was seen as a key trait that schools should cultivate in their students, right up until the 1960s when, outside the private sector at least, it dropped out of fashion. But the term is making a comeback and, according to the select group of teachers and academics mingling in Wellington's halls, character is far from something a child is just born with, something coded within their DNA. The group believe - indeed they say they can prove - that character can be both taught and learned.

Fast-forward six months and this conversation has gone mainstream. Politicians of every hue are demanding that character should be taught in all schools across the country. It is, they seem to be arguing, just what the youth - who of course "lack backbone" - need to sort them out.

Ingredients of success

But before the world's policymakers charge like one of Wellington's regiments towards "character lessons for all", it is perhaps timely to ask: can you really teach it?

The answer, according to those who gathered at Wellington, is a most definite "yes", but only after the meaning of "character" has been defined. And it isn't as simple as making sure that all young people have a rough ride in the debating society or are shouted at as army cadets.

For the attendees at Wellington's conference, character is something altogether different. Angela Duckworth is a former teacher and psychologist who runs the Duckworth Lab, which operates out of the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center. She has built a career from arguing that character is a mixture of well-being and self-control, optimism and determination. And she is sure that all this can be imparted in the classroom in a way that allows students to flourish in later life.

Duckworth doesn't call the trait "character", she calls it "grit". And she believes that it can be as good a determinant of success as a child's IQ - and in some cases better.

"I take an Aristotelian view of character," she says in reference to the ancient Greek philosopher. "Character strengths are dispositions to think, act and feel in ways that are beneficial to the self and to others. And that is the crucial thing, that they are beneficial."

In other words, character is more than just having the confidence to succeed in a formal interview or to pick yourself up after suffering a setback. It is showing self-control, not giving in to your impulses. It is, as Aristotle's work on ethics suggests, to do the right thing at the right time in the right way in order to create well-being or "human flourishing".

"It's really clear to teachers that kids need the capacity to get on with others. They need the capacity to manage their conflicting impulses. They need to develop, with our help, the skills to set long-term goals and work towards them," Duckworth says. "From my first week of teaching it was very clear that character mattered to [students'] success. And while it was obvious that they would need it for later life, I just wanted them to develop it so they would do better in my maths classes."

But her interest moved beyond getting better test scores, leading her to start looking at the traits of determination, grit and self-control in a more detailed way. She left her teaching job to study for a doctorate on the subject, finding through this that "grit" was sometimes a better path to success than simply being bright.

Duckworth admits the discovery that young people who are predisposed to working hard will probably fare better than those who are simply clever is hardly earth-shattering. But what is interesting, she counters, is that those positive character traits - such as hard work and determination - can be accurately measured.

"It's not surprising that hard work matters," she concedes. "But not many people can say, `This is exactly why this person works hard.' And that is the really important work. We can now ask the question of how we can change it to make other people hard-working."

Thinking positive

Duckworth's research took place under the watchful eye of Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center, who has done more than anyone else to suggest that character can be taught.

Seligman's work in positive psychology started 20 years ago as a type of cognitive therapy. He began trying to teach optimism to children aged between 10 and 12, to see if it would have any impact on their levels of depression by the time they went through puberty.

He found that it did. In fact, his figures showed that it more than halved the incidence of depression among those he worked with. Since then, he has dedicated himself to teaching children optimism in a bid to give them the resilience they need to succeed in later life.

For years his work, now known as the Penn Resiliency Program, was unhelpfully misnamed "happiness lessons" by the media, and was treated with scepticism and often dismissed as pseudoscience. But recently it has begun to be taken more seriously and is finding supporters across the globe.

Interested parties include the US Army, which recently invested $45 million (pound;27 million) in positive psychology training for its recruits from Seligman to create an army "as mentally fit as it is physically fit".

His work has even featured in the UK government's policy, where Seligman found an unlikely believer in the power of positive thinking in James O'Shaughnessy, who at the time was UK prime minister David Cameron's senior policy adviser and a key player behind the government's 2012 "happiness index".

One of his main techniques is to ask a person to imagine the very worst things they could think about themselves - to have what he calls a "catastrophic thought". By making someone aware of those notions, they can learn to confront them.

"So a 10-year-old girl may say, `I am unlovable', and if you teach her to be aware of that, she can then learn to dispute it," Seligman says. "There is good evidence that when children have good well-being, when they are happy, they learn better than when they are sad or depressed or anxious.

"I was sceptical but the proof is in the pudding. There are a large number of stats showing you can teach people optimism and say that it has been learned."

Seligman's work has been adopted by schools the world over, with his most zealous disciples coming from the Australian private sector and the US charter school movement.

In fact, both Seligman and Duckworth have been working closely with charter school provider the Knowledge Is Power Program (Kipp) for some time. The chain has placed character development at the heart of its ethos since it was founded in 1994. Its motto is "Work hard. Be nice" and it has embedded character within its curriculum to such an extent that it is given as much weight as the academic side of education.

Kipp aims to develop character by focusing on seven "highly predictive" strengths: zest, grit, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity. These strengths are worked on either explicitly or implicitly every day. Students may be asked to reflect on particular aspects of a class, such as whether they worked hard to improve after failing at a task, thereby demonstrating "grit". Or teachers may use a lesson to focus on the subject of "optimism" in the context of the choices made during the Vietnam War, for example.

Kipp schools even demand that teachers and students fill out "character growth cards", with students given a mark from one to seven on each of the seven strengths.

A seamless blend

For Dave Levin, Kipp's co-founder, the development of character skills "must go hand in hand" with the development of academic skills. Learning hard facts and, in some cases, drilling your students is absolutely necessary, he believes, but it must be coupled with a broader development of the student - in other words, teaching so-called "cognitive" and "non-cognitive skills".

"A good teacher knows when drilling is necessary. A good teacher knows there's a time for times table drills," he explains. "At the same time, drilling your times tables is meaningless if you don't know when and how to multiply. But if you know when and how to multiply and yet, when it comes time to do it, you don't know what 3 x 4 is, it's equally problematic, and that can hold true across the whole spectrum of education.

"So it is seamlessly weaving academic [training] with character [building]. Testing alongside deeper conceptual work is the hallmark of a high-quality teacher and a high-quality education. And any time the pendulum swings too far either way is problematic."

The work of Kipp and Levin has garnered supporters and imitators on both sides of the Atlantic. One unlikely mimic in the UK is Wellington College.

Unlike England's state schools, which have largely deserted the notion of formal character development, the country's private schools have long promoted the cultivation of character and resilience as one of their unique selling points.

Wellington not only places resilience at the heart of its curriculum, it also teaches it as a discrete subject. In 2010, dozens of members of staff were put through a "resilience teaching" course, supervised by members of the University of Pennsylvania, and the school even has a director of well-being, Ian Morris.

Morris, who has written a book on the subject, says the main objective behind Wellington's resilience lessons is to help its students to "lead better lives".

When politicians call for more resilience, too much of the subtext is about getting children to achieve more, Morris says, and that is not what it is really about. "Results are nice but they are just part of the picture," he explains, before adding knowingly: "But I am not a headteacher."

For Morris, and indeed for Wellington, resilience is less about getting the most out of students and more about developing the traits that mean students can get the most out of any given task.

The school teaches its students particular skills to enable them to deal with what Seligman describes as "catastrophising" - how to overcome negative thoughts - as well as holding lessons on topics such as friendship.

Many state school leaders would point out that the pound;33,000-a-year Wellington College can afford to offer such lessons but the approach wouldn't necessarily transfer to schools that are constantly under pressure from league tables and visiting inspectors.

But Morris, who attended a comprehensive school and has taught in the state sector, disagrees. "I guess it really comes down to the imagination of the leadership," he says. "I see headteachers under huge amounts of pressure to get results, and they think the best way to better maths results is to put on more maths lessons. But what may help them more is getting the kids to develop the learning habits that will help them to engage with maths in a different way.

"Resilience skills, they're learning habits that help you to keep going when the going gets tough."

In other words, teaching children to put off the instant gratification of opening Facebook or Twitter when they should be knuckling down to the more laborious task of revision.

Knowledge is power

Such thinking, however, is met with serious scepticism among advocates of a more traditional education - those who place imparting knowledge ahead of fostering the "softer skills" that help children to learn.

One such sceptic is ED Hirsch, the US academic and founder of the "core knowledge" movement. Hirsch recently reviewed the book How Children Succeed: grit, curiosity and the hidden power of character by the aptly named journalist Paul Tough. In his review, published in the journal Education Next, Hirsch refers to longitudinal research from the US that is following 15-year-olds into adulthood. This appears to show that the "single best predictor" of later academic success is how much general knowledge young people have. The non-cognitive skills of self-control and perseverance come a lowly third for predicting success, Hirsch adds.

"Knowledge-based schooling is far more interesting to a child than how-to schooling and far more effective," he claims. And he even questions the idea that a person's character traits are anything but innate in any case, citing the work of Jerome Kagan, the now-retired Harvard professor of psychology.

Kagan's work focused on the longitudinal study of temperament and its effects in later life. His research, which looked at anxiety in babies and then tracked them until they were 15 years old, appeared to show that a person's temperament was apparent in infancy and stayed with them into later life.

For the sceptics and the disciples of Hirsch, of whom there are many in education across the globe, such research demonstrates that teaching character to students is a waste of time compared with teaching knowledge.

Yet teachers such as Morris at Wellington College will not be dissuaded. For them, education is about more than just giving students the facts they will need to go on to the next stage of their lives. It is also about giving them all the necessary tools to succeed beyond the school gates.

"If you have a really good curriculum, [it] covers all the traditional disciplines but also helps kids to develop dispositions that will last them a lifetime," Morris says. "Things like perseverance and persistence. Surely that serves them better than just learning maths or chemistry? After all, we need to find a better way of preparing kids for life outside school."

A school's view: why we teach resilience

We started to deliver a programme teaching resilience in September 2011.

Like many schools, we were increasingly concerned about the rise in mental health issues among young people and wanted to do something to further support their emotional well-being.

We chose to teach resilience as we wanted the students to have the confidence to take control of their feelings, emotions and behaviour.

The skills they learn on the programme - cognitive, coping and problem-solving - help them to recognise and acknowledge areas of their own strengths and vulnerabilities. To us, the UK Resilience Programme (the UK arm of the Penn Resiliency Program) provided the right approach for our students.

We believe that students and their parents benefit from these skills, and that the students have become more proactive in their learning. We have noticed that the 11-year-olds are more able to manage themselves and have made a smoother transition to secondary school.

Feedback from students and parents has been very positive and I knew we were doing the right thing when a sixth-form boy approached me the day after one of my taster sessions to thank me. Being a bit suspicious of this, I raised an eyebrow, and he said: "Miss, you have no idea what is going on at home, but what you talked about in our session yesterday made real sense and made me want to get up and come in to school today."

Jan Stevens is assistant headteacher at Parmiter's School in Hertfordshire, south-east England

Happiness index

Is your school in need of a well-being boost? Follow Wellington College's lead with its classroom resources on the subject, now uploaded to TES Connect. And find out more about the research behind the positive philosophy with online lectures from two academics at the heart of the debate.

Show students how physical health can affect well-being in this unit of work. bit.lyWellingtonPhysical

Build better relationships using this series of tutorials. bit.lyWellingtonRelationships

Help everyone to get a bit of perspective with Wellington's lessons on resilience. bit.lyWellingtonPerspective

These tutorials on increasing engagement will indulge students' curiosity. bit.lyWellingtonEngagement

Try this unit of work to encourage sustainable living. bit.lyWellingtonWorld

Impart some meaning to students' lives by teaching them about purpose. bit.lyWellingtonPurpose

These online lectures by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman should help to shed some light on the science. bit.lyGritDuckworth; bit.lyPositiveSeligman

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