Better Habits Build Student Leaders, Authors Argue

By Amy Wickner — December 07, 2012 3 min read
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The big tent of educational leadership is expanding to include not just principals, superintendents, and teacher leaders, but also student leaders. As The Salt Lake Tribune reported recently, schools in Utah’s Jordan School District are placing new emphasis on leadership skills through a program called The Leader in Me. Designed and marketed by Franklin Covey, a Utah-based organizational management and consulting company, The Leader in Me adapts several ideas outlined in the popular business-management title The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People for use in elementary school classrooms. Plans are under way to bring the program into middle schools, too.

The “Seven Habits” as listed in the book are (to paraphrase): being proactive, setting goals, setting priorities, cooperation, communication, collaboration, and lifelong learning. As adapted for elementary schools, the habits encourage students in conflict resolution and academic focus, with several schools reporting reductions in discipline referrals that may have resulted from the program’s influence.

Applying business philosophies to education is not new, as the popularity of recent releases like The Power of Habit attest. In that book, New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg draws parallels—sometimes tenuously—between good business habits and the kind of willpower that helps children survive the now well-known Marshmallow Test. Duhigg explains in accessible language how habit loops work and argues that control over habit loops may be a shared characteristic of successful students, a predictor of their future success, and a teachable skill.

Writers such as Duhigg are not alone in associating self-discipline and leadership abilities with student success—a pair of new releases make similar cases.

Making Civics Count: Citizenship Education for a New Generation (Harvard Education Press), edited by David E. Campbell, Meira Levinson, and Frederick M. Hess, offers 10 essays on the nature of civic education, which the editors define as “the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and experience to prepare someone to be an active, informed participant in democratic life.” Chapter authors attempt to break down the elements of civic engagement, from a continuum of responsible citizenship to an argument for translating Millennials’ digital literacy into active civic participation. While the contributors vary in their research interests, all agree that civics education is necessary to build successful students and lifelong contributors to strong communities.

In Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Toward Success (Harvard Education Press), Scott Seider profiles urban charter schools “that have built powerful and productive cultures atop three very different character foundations.” Seider’s “theoretical framework” distinguishes between “moral character,” “performance character,” and “civic character,” and he illustrates how school cultures can foster each through interpersonal relationships, confidence-building work habits, and social responsibility and awareness. Echoes of The Seven Habits may be found in the chapter on “performance character,” as students at Boston’s Roxbury Prep are encouraged to practice self-advocacy.

Taken together, these titles link character education and student success, emphasizing the cultivation of positive habits like willpower, leadership skills, and the ability to work well with others. Such talk of resilience and willpower can sound a lot like that other big word in K-12: grit. Education Week has published plenty of opinions on grit, many in response to another book: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. Recently, in a Commentary, Joan F. Goodman asked, “What Kind of Success Does ‘Character’ Predict?”

The books profiled here give as much weight to trust, collaboration, and personal integrity as they do to student independence. In particular, the authors argue, student leadership training and character education may offer a counterpoint to what Rules For Engagement blogger Ross Brenneman recently called “the moral ambiguity required for success.” Though lying to authority figures may be on the upswing among Millennials (as Brenneman reports), these new releases suggest ways in which character education can help students negotiate the complexities of life.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.