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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Are the Five Formative Success Skills Every Student Needs?

By Thomas R. Hoerr — March 09, 2017 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Thomas R. Hoerr, retired principal of the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri.

Has there ever been a time when it is more important to embrace children as people rather than simply looking at them as percentile scores? The purpose of school has changed. Yes, students must learn the 3 R’s but that is not enough. We need to prepare students to succeed in life, not just in school.

When you identify individuals who are successful, regardless of your criteria and whether they are friends, co-workers, family members or famous people, there are certain success skills that they have in common: empathy, self-control, integrity, embracing diversity, and grit. I call these The Formative Five.

If we want to prepare students to succeed in life, to be good and productive people at age 25, 45, and 65, we need to focus on these skills in school. By teaching the Formative Five, we can help develop and improve these skills. That doesn’t mean that every child will excel in every area, but it does mean that each child will improve because of our focus.

While each of the Formative Five is important, I begin with empathy because its absence seems all too apparent these days. We need to create learning opportunities and teach in a way so that students begin to see things from others’ perspectives. Taking the time to delve into context in literature, looking at competing motives in history, and listening to disparate voices in our communities can cause students to truly understand others’ perspectives and to feel empathy for them.

Self-control is a habit that can be developed with intent and effort. While it has always been important, perhaps this is even more needed today when we carry a reservoir of distractions in our phones. We need to help our students reflect on their present habits, determine which ones (which realistic ones) they wish to develop, and then plan the practices that will cause them to internalize behaviors. Too often we fail to anticipate the obstacles and, thus, don’t plan accordingly.

Appropriately, honesty is esteemed in every school ― but it is not enough to teach and reward honesty. We must also develop a sense of integrity in our students. Integrity is a step beyond honesty; it is acting on a principle or belief in a public manner. Honesty is doing the right thing and being true to our word, whereas integrity is stepping out and standing up in a way that becomes a statement to others. The people we admire ― e.g., Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Robert F. Kennedy ― tilted history because of their integrity. They visibly followed their beliefs.

I preface diversity with “embracing” because it is not enough to understand and accept those who are different from us. Beyond understanding and accepting, we must embrace others who represent different backgrounds, hues, orientations, and beliefs. This isn’t about being politically correct; it is about the fact that an inability to understand and embrace others will be a handicap in tomorrow’s variegated and interactive world.

Soon today’s virtual meetings, people interacting with live postage-stamp visions of others around the world, will be replaced by hologram meetings. We won’t know if the individual sitting beside us is real or a technological apparition until we try to shake hands. Collaborating across countries and through cultures will become the norm and those who are able to embrace others who are different will have an advantage.

Grit has always been a factor in achieving success regardless of what we called it. “Hanging in, not becoming discouraged, and refusing to give up” characterizes successful athletes, leaders, and sellers of Girl Scout Cookies. People who come out on top don’t choose the easy road, they are willing to try and learn from their mistakes, and they recognize the role of effort in their success.

Just as some students are better at mathematics and others are stronger in art or writing, surely in every classroom there will be a range of skills in the Formative Five. But just as we know that every student can benefit from our instruction in mathematics or art or writing, every child will also gain when we focus on empathy, self-control, integrity, diversity, and grit.

By finding opportunities to incorporate these areas into our curriculum, by using the halls and walls to celebrate what is important, and by focusing our professional development efforts so that every person in the building gains in the Formative Five, we are preparing our students and ourselves for a future in which the only constant will be change.

You can listen to Tom discuss more about the importance of the Formative Five skills on this episode of ASCD Learn Teach Lead Radio.

Thomas Hoerr was the principal of the New City School for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis. Hoerr has written four books and more than 100 articles, including the monthly “The Principal Connection” column in Educational Leadership magazine. His latest book is The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy, and Other Success Skills Every Student Needs (ASCD).

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.