This is the first of two posts responding to an online course graciously taught by the inimitable Dave Levin through Coursera. It has been a good experience and has served to both refresh some of what I knew and push some of what I thought I knew. In this post, I'll put some of my philosophical thoughts out there; in the next post, which will serve as my final project, I'll describe a "macro-structure" for character development.
In the spirit of embracing the 'and', I want to highlight some issues I see with this approach to character education and why I believe it's the way to go. I hope your mental soundtrack is playing the last movement of 'Rodeo' by American composer Aaron Copland, because I'm going to start with the beef:
I see two primary issues with the approach this character education I've learned about here and elsewhere:
1. Using data from indicators of character strengths to inform decisions about what to work on often leads to a change in the indicators but at the cost of a distortion of the character strength it was designed to indicate, per the Campbell effect (see below.) So if we try to build, say, grit, by working on how well we keep working when we feel like giving up, maybe we actually just get better at looking like we're working for a longer period of time, or over-reporting how often we felt like giving up, or any number of things.
"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."
Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change, Donald T. Campbell, December 1976
(from this talk by Uri Treisman on equity and the opportunity to learn in mathematics education)
2. Any discussion of how strengthening one's character provides a better shot at success should include a healthy dose of acknowledging the reality of our world: We do not live in a merit-based world, and we do our kids a disservice if we point to low college persistence numbers and fault a lack of grit before financial stress, structural racism, alienation, social pressures, or any of the other very real causes that are often acknowledged outside of the front page. I know of many great teachers who walk this line effectively, and I want to make sure that teachers who are exploring character for the first time grapple with these issues before making the mistake of going in front of a group of kids and telling them that if they would only show more grit, the world would treat them more fairly. KIPP teacher extraordinaire and fellow graduate of the esteemed Rice linguistics department, Lelac Almagor, says this far better than I ever could here.
I fully believe what I've written above, AND I concurrently believe that an intentional emphasis on character education is the only way to go.
As a parent, I can't let my fear of being oppressive or controlling (nor my fear of distorting and corrupting our family processes) keep me from looking out for my children's best interest, or from talking to my kids about the choices they're making, or from helping them to learn the value of hard work, honesty, attention to detail, playfulness, or any of the other things that make life more wonderful. I hope their teachers feel the same way, so that if Barbara works hard she feels like she's becoming a more hardworking person. If Sebastian says something unkind to another kid, I hope the teacher would highlight for him that this is not the way to live one's life.
And, having been a kid myself (OMG, you too? No way), I can now look back on the cumulative effect of a lot of these small moments that, in retrospect, have had a huge hand in shaping the person I am today. What if my teachers had decided that they didn't want to emphasize character for fear of being paternalistic? Would I have learned the lessons I learned from countless hours spent studying for Academic Decathlon, or from avoiding my 3rd grade journal project, or from any of the number of things I initially thought were hilarious - only to learn later that they were hurtful to others? I'm glad they spoke up, and I'm glad they did so in a way that assumed I would learn from each experience, rather than assuming I was showing the signs of some immutable trait.
If you're still interested in reading about a small way to teach character that I hope will lead to some good things, read on...