What Kind of Success Does 'Character' Predict?
IQ, the time-honored predictor of school success, has a new rival: “character.” As described by Paul Tough, who initially popularized these ideas in a New York Times Magazine article last year, character consists of a set of traits: self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity, and, most especially, grit. If teachers devote themselves to enhancing these qualities, Tough writes in more detail in his new book, How Children Succeed, Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character , students will have an improved shot at success.
As an example, he illustrates how the cultivation of character through intensive chess instruction turned a group of inner-city students into master players. The thesis seems to have legs: One flagship charter-management organization, KIPP (the Knowledge Is Power Program), has embraced it; others will undoubtedly follow. While the benefits of such qualities as self-control and grit are not to be dismissed, three cautionary concerns should be factored into any serious consideration of this new movement.
First, it may not be good policy to try to make students gritty, for grittiness is probably situational, not a pervasive characteristic. While it seems intuitive to view people as possessing character traits (Sam is hard-working—when problems arise, he perseveres; Samantha is lazy—she loses concentration when faced with difficulties), in fact, a long history of research has failed to validate the possession of such traits. That is, a child’s responses are not predictable across varying circumstances. Whether Sam will actually cheat on a test depends on whether he perceives it to be fair, desires to do well, is adequately prepared, and has available opportunities, as well as whether others cheat, the state of class and group morale, and so on. Even while we assign traits to students, we also know intuitively that general dispositions are not reliably manifested. One may be conscientious and self-controlled when preparing for a test in the English class one cares about, yet do the bare minimum for an art class that one...
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