Teaching Opinion

Response: An Interview With Paul Tough On Character & Schools

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 03, 2012 8 min read
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(Note: This is Part One of a multi-post series on teaching character in schools)

Last week, I asked:

Should we teach “character” in our schools? If so, what does it look like? If not, why not?

This is similar to a question posed by a reader last year on Social Emotional Learning (see Response: Several Ways To Apply Social-Emotional Learning Strategies In The Classroom)and, in many ways, the answers will be a “Part Two” to that post.

Today, I’m sharing answers to questions I recently asked journalist Paul Tough. His new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, was published today. His first book, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, was published in 2008. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, where he has written extensively about education, child development, and poverty. His journalism has also appeared in the New Yorker and GQ and on the public-radio program This American Life.

Readers might also be particularly interested in two articles Paul wrote that were published in The New York Times Magazine -- “Obama Vs. Poverty” and “What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?”. Though they are not exactly excerpts from his new book, Paul describes them as being drawn from the reporting he did for the book.

Paul is interested in hearing from educators and all readers of his work. He can be contacted at his website.

Here’s our interview:

Why did you choose this topic for a book?

Ever since I started reporting on education, I’ve been fascinated by the questions of which skills help children succeed, and what kind of environments and interventions tend to enhance or deter the development of those skills. As I started doing the early reporting that turned into this book, I came to realize that there’s a ton of important research and experimentation going on out there by people who are trying to answer those questions. But right now, that research is spread out among many disparate fields, like education, neuroscience, developmental psychology, and economics. And the people doing the most interesting work on these questions often aren’t communicating with each other. Many of them are working in a vacuum.

So I thought a book that collected and investigated all of these new ideas would be valuable to parents, teachers, and general readers.

And I also thought it could make for a compelling read. When you’re watching young people wrestle with issues of character, it can be dramatic and engrossing in a way that education reporting doesn’t always get to be.

You distinguish between moral character and performance character. Can you explain how they’re different and why that difference is important?

This is a distinction that was made in a paper by the Character Education Partnership. I found it valuable when I was reporting on the character-education collaboration between the KIPP schools in New York City and the Riverdale Country School, which I wrote about in 2011 in the New York Times Magazine, and which I write about in more depth in “How Children Succeed.”

Briefly, “moral character” refers to traits related to values and ethics: honesty, piety, chastity, generosity. “Performance character” refers to traits related to personal effectiveness: self-control, persistence, grit, optimism. These traits are very similar to what economists like James Heckman refer to as non-cognitive skills.

I think both categories are valuable, but I think they they’re clearly very different. And one big problem with the word character is that it has these two meanings. Which means that when any two people have a conversation about “character education,” they are often talking about two very different things.

When educators who care about character are able to be more specific about which character traits they’re trying to develop in their students, that benefits everyone.

Why do you think schools should explicitly help students develop character?

I’m not sure that schools are the best place for young people to learn moral character, though I think every school should certainly try to teach it. It’s good for the world to have more people in it who behave more ethically, and if schools can help with that, it’s all to the good.

In terms of performance character, I think schools should try to teach those traits for a simple and practical reason: because they help students do better in college and beyond. And that’s really the core mission of our K-12 education system.

What do you think are some of the most effective examples of teachers and schools helping students learn these character qualities?

In my book, I write about a program in Chicago called OneGoal that I think does a very effective job of teaching kids in high-poverty schools the character strengths that they’re going to need to persist in college. It’s early yet, but so far their results are quite impressive.

What I think is so effective about OneGoal’s approach to character is that it is so targeted. Their goal is clear: to have all of their students, who enter the program as high school sophomores, graduate from a four-year college. And so when OneGoal teachers teach character, they aren’t just trying to make their students “better people” in some vague way. They’re specifically teaching the skills that research suggests will be most likely to lead to a B.A. That focus is a critical part of the program’s success - and it’s quite rare in character education.

What have you seen as the biggest challenges that teachers and schools face in emphasizing this kind of character education?

There’s one big challenge: For the most part, we don’t yet really know how best to teach these skills! There are some promising experiments in teaching self-regulation to young children, like the Tools of the Mind pre-K and kindergarten curriculum. And there are some good experiments with character strengths in middle school and high school, including the KIPP/Riverdale project and OneGoal. But they’re all still experiments, and so far at least, no one has been able to come up with a bulletproof method of teaching non-cognitive skills.

I’m a big supporter of helping students develop these kinds of character qualities. A concern that I have, though, is about the idea of “grading” character traits. What are your thoughts on assessing student character development in schools?

In the Times Magazine and in “How Children Succeed,” I wrote about the “character report card” that the KIPP schools in New York City are implementing. I think it’s a useful experiment, but I think the grades are in some ways a red herring. KIPP treats them very differently from academic grades - you can’t be held back a year for being low on zest. To call them “grades” at all is kind of misleading (though that is what KIPP calls them).

But despite that semantic quibble, I still think the character assessments that KIPP does are quite valuable. I went to a report-card night at KIPP Infinity in Harlem when they were piloting the character report card, and as I sat in on discussions between teachers and parents and students, I realized that what KIPP had really done was to create not a character report card but a character conversation piece. It was a way to get students and parents and teachers talking together, in an organized and practical way, about the students’ non-cognitive abilities and traits. That’s quite rare, and it’s quite valuable. And what made it more valuable, in this case, was that it was being done with the explicit belief that those non-cognitive traits are malleable and can be improved with work and practice and help. It didn’t feel at all judgmental or fatalistic. It was all about improvement and the future.

That strikes me as a very good conversation for teachers to be having with parents and students: This child is struggling with his self-control or his social intelligence or his grit. We know he can improve. What can we all do to help him get there?

If it takes a character report card to make that conversation happen, I’m all for it.

What are some other things you learned in the course of researching and writing your book that you think would be helpful for teachers to know?

There’s a lot of research and reporting in the book that I hope will be of interest to teachers. One chapter that I’m particularly interested in hearing teachers’ response to is the chapter on the chess team at IS 318 in Brooklyn. I spent a couple of years watching the school’s chess teacher, Elizabeth Spiegel, at work. She’s accomplishing quite amazing things with her students. And I think it has a lot to do with her teaching style, which is very much oriented toward helping students improve their non-cognitive skills.

I think the methods Elizabeth is using with her students have implications far beyond the chessboard. I’m eager to hear what teachers think about that chapter - and about the book as a whole.

Thanks, Paul!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I’ll be including reader responses in a future post in this series.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.