Student Well-Being Commentary

What Kind of Success Does ‘Character’ Predict?

By Joan F. Goodman — November 27, 2012 6 min read

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 dislikes (or the reverse).

Similarly, gratitude is selective: One offers it to a teacher perceived as conscientious and withholds it from a teacher perceived as indifferent. Students are not pervasively grateful (or ungrateful). Again, this is not to say character traits or tendencies are nonexistent. Some people undoubtedly cheat more than others, but dispositions to act in certain ways are easily silenced or liberated depending on the situation. It may be inadvisable, therefore, to target them.

Second, assuming for the moment that I’ve exaggerated trait instability, there remains the problem of framing character as those traits that produce success—that help students do well on tests, finish high school and college, and get a good job. This makes character a purely self-enhancing construct. Inattentiveness signals weak character, attentiveness strong character, because the attentive child will be a better learner and have more opportunities in life. Character is like a car tune-up: It makes the engine run better. This omits its moral dimension. Attentiveness and grit are not good in isolation, but become good when furthering morally worthy goals. Is showing grit in following the demands of a gang leader a worthy trait? Do we ignore judgments on the ends pursued in judging character? Doesn’t grit take on moral valence only when coupled with worthy ends?

Attentiveness and grit are not good in isolation, but become good when furthering morally worthy goals."

The word “character” refers to our essential identity, our distinctiveness (literally, that which marks us). It includes what we stand for, what we pursue and why, the reasons for the choices we make. Character, like morality more broadly, is often displayed when self-interest is put in jeopardy. Consider the child who won’t cheat or gossip when others do because it is wrong, though it may mean a lower grade or social ostracism. Character means, when integrity demands it, going against the social norms. It is not necessarily a means to an end, but an end in itself. Redefining the moral meaning of character, as that which promotes success, places it in direct conflict with the understanding of character as that which transcends success.

Third, under the umbrella of character, we may be cultivating merely submission and obedience. Students should work hard, be persistent, display self-control. Never mind the task, its tediousness, remoteness to one’s interests, or difficulty. John Dewey, writing on self-discipline, noted more than a century ago: “We do not want discipline for the sake of itself, we want discipline for the sake of something else.”

An instructor, to the extent possible, should make that something else interesting to the child and the child perceive it as worthy. When a student becomes attached to an objective, self-control comes more easily. Of course, matching educational demands with the burgeoning interests of students is often daunting; more daunting is the cultivation of interests that are educationally relevant. Perhaps we focus on self-control, rather than on motivating interests, because doing so is easier.

Traits like self-control and perseverance are not free-floating, but are hooked to ends. By exaggerating their independence and their stability, we fail to understand the fluctuations in children’s behavior. Consider again Tough’s illustration of an inner-city school whose champion chess team defeated a long roster of select public and private schools. He attributes its success to a coach who teaches her students metacognitive strategies—the higher-order ability to note and systematically analyze what you are doing and take responsibility for mistakes. Yet, the most outstanding chess player on the team, James, who displayed remarkable metacognition in his chess game, did not apply the same skills to standardized tests on which he had consistently received below-average scores (at age 12, functioning at a 2nd or 3rd grade level). Is it possible that this contrast in behavior had to do with interest? Was James’ grit a result of his attractions to chess: the beauty of the game, its physicality, the competition, the joy of winning, the respect of others? This chess team did not generalize conscientiousness, grit, curiosity, zest, and optimism; they possessed it for a game they loved playing.

When we fail to appreciate the role of interest and motivation, adults will direct remediation to a child’s inadequate character: James has to study harder, be more persevering. Instead, to help a child generalize from chess to test preparation, teachers may have to focus more on the context than, or in addition to, the person. This requires inhibiting the inclination to blame internal dispositions (he is lazy), which can be a tough shift given the human tendency to infer them. The likelihood that a trait expressed in one learning situation will transfer to another may depend on the similarity of the two situations. For James, this means making high-stakes test preparation more like chess-match preparation (competitive, team involvement, action-based, clear outcome) and the outcome of the test preparation as worthwhile as winning a chess match.

In sum, we must be careful not to divorce grit (or other traits) from its purpose and behavior from its context; to remember that self-discipline should serve an end, not be an end. If we do not align trait and purpose, the cultivation of grit by itself may have unfortunate outcomes. It can, as in the case of James, lead to failure out of lack of interest, or be applied to poor ends, as in the gritty adolescent who leads his gang into criminal activities.

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2012 edition of Education Week


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