Teaching Opinion

Response: Teaching “Character” In Schools -- Part Two

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 11, 2012 7 min read
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(Note: This is Part Two of a multi-post series on teaching character in schools. You can see Part One here)

I asked:

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

I posted an interview with journalist Paul Tough discussing this issue last week. Today, I’d like to share my response (including links to many helpful resources, which can be found later in this post); a guest response from educator/author Debbie Silver; and comments from readers.

I raised this question of teaching character in schools for several reasons. One, journalist Paul Tough’s new book discusses it and he graciously agreed to answer some of my questions last week. Two, this summer I finished writing a book related to the topic. And, thirdly, because I’ve spent more and more time thinking about The Michigan Fish Test.

Columbia Business School Professor Sheena Iyengar describes The Michigan Fish Test as a famous experiment showing a picture of three large fish in a sea scene. When people from the United States were asked to describe it, they focused on the large fish. When Japanese participants were asked to describe the same picture, they gave a much more holistic description of the picture. Ms. Iyengar suggests that it demonstrates the difference between the typical American individualistic approach versus the more collectivist one found in Asian cultures. She writes:

“The divergent accounts point to differing narratives of what controls what in the world, and how individual people fit into it.”

It seems to me that this “fish test” is also an accurate metaphor for education today. In efforts to improve our schools, the emphasis often can be focused on those three “big fish” -- changing teacher “techniques” to transmit information, moving towards pre-packaged curriculum, and concentrating on “accountability” based on test scores from standardized tests.

But we can often lose sight of the bigger picture -- of why students would want to learn what we’re teaching in the classroom, why they would continue to want to study when they’re not with us, and how “non-cognitive” (self-control, perseverance, a “growth-mindset,” etc) character traits influence academic achievement and what we can do to help students develop them.

To borrow terms developed by political economist Albert O. Hirschman, if we do not re-emphasize strategies to support the development of intrinsic motivation and these non-cognitive character traits in our students, many are more likely to choose the option of “exit” (withdrawal from active engagement) over “voice” (active participation) in academic life.

Nobel Laureate James Heckman is well-known for his studies on the value of early childhood education. He has shown how important it is to help children develop intrinsic motivation at that time for character traits like self-control and perseverance and how that translates into academic and life success. Another one of his findings is less well-known, however -- that there appears to be one other time in a child’s life when they are particularly open to learning and applying these traits, and that time is adolescence.

The root words of “character” mean “an imprint on the soul” and “a defining quality.” To paraphrase education researcher Ken Libby, I suspect that any success we have in helping our students develop “character” might be more memorable to them than higher standardized test scores.

Here are links to resources providing practical ideas on how we might be able to achieve that goal for perseverance, self-control, learning from mistakes, developing intrinsic motivation, and other qualities. In addition, the publisher of my book, Helping Students Motivate Themselves, has made several related lesson plans and student hand-outs available for free (click on “PDF Sample Pages”).

Response From Debbie Silver

Debbie Silver
is popular keynoter and professional development presenter with 30 years of experience in education. Her new book, Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed (Corwin), shares practical strategies to develop children’s ability to overcome setbacks and failure (The publisher has donated a copy of the book as a “giveaway” for readers -- email me by September 15th and I’ll do a drawing for a lucky recipient):

Students need to understand that no matter what their circumstances the two things they can always control are their choices and their efforts, and these two elements are essentially what give them command over their future success. Students who believe they have power over their lives have what Albert Bandura calls self-efficacy, which encompasses persistence, determination, tenacity, resilience, and grit.

Strategies to Help Build Self-efficacy in the Classroom

1.Help students understand that everyone has problems, fears, failures, and self-doubt. Discuss the inevitability of failure when trying something new along with the learning that can come from it.

Students benefit from knowing about the struggles of their heroes as well as the adults they encounter daily. They need to be aware of what skills others use to overcome stumbling blocks and setbacks.

Teachers ought to encourage students to articulate their learning journeys and to rephrase negatives statements such as, “I never could do that,” to “I haven’t learned to do it yet.” Being able to apply the lessons learned from their missteps is a key strategy to lifetime success, and teachers should both model and encourage discussion about overcoming failure.

2.Help learners attribute their success or lack of it to internal rather than external causes and show them they have power over the results.

Research on attribution theory has taught us that praise from teachers should be based on things students can control rather than on innate qualities or inherent talents. When teachers praise natural talent and/or intelligence, we diminish the student’s role in his success. If we allow kids to dismiss their low achievement because of the task difficulty or other external factors, we are complicit in letting them off the hook. Focusing attention on a child’s willingness to take a risk, her chosen strategies, her progress towards a goal, or her perseverance is far more effective than commenting on how smart or talented she is. In order to prevent students from feeling entitled or victimized teachers need to help them realize the connection between their efforts and choices and the consequences.

3.Be aware that the purpose of feedback is to provide instructive knowledge that will enhance the student’s performance. Teachers have tremendous power with students, and our word choices can have an enormous impact on the growth of their performance development.

Educators need to fully focus on the learner and pay special attention to the kind of feedback we use. An essential point to remember is that - “feeding back” information to learners ought to inform them about their progress. It should not judge, label, accuse, excuse, or even praise. Sometimes adults fail to realize that the most effective feedback does not come in the form of statements but rather as questions. Learners appreciate having an attentive, nonjudgmental adult interested in their work. That demonstrated interest is one of the best ways to foster independent committed, successful performers.

Responses From Readers

Dan Greaney:

Not only should we teach character, we can’t avoid it! Character is learned through the experiences of our daily lives. The organization, care, respect, responsibility, and humor that teachers and schools daily exhibit and inculcate are what teach character--right along with those same qualities exhibited at home and through media. Teaching character as a curriculum item is widespread, but it still seems odd to me. However, I remember when my 7th grade literature texts were replaced with collections of vapid stories with all the standards enumerated but without issues that evoked moral inquiry. I kept and used the old texts. Good literature can offer a great venue for moral inquiry--and that is an inquiry we forsake to our detriment.


Kids especially need to know that while this planet faces many challenges, societies have placed certain character traits above others. Responsibility, resourcefulness, persistence are a collection of human truths that help us solve problems and get along with one another.

I’ve used the “Storify” web tool to collect responses from Twitter:

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Debbie and to readers for their contributions.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of seven published by published by Jossey-Bass.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to this blog for free via RSS Reader or email....

And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first year of this blog, you can check them out here.

The third and final installment in this three-part series will be published a little later this month -- a little “out of sequence.” I’ll post a new “question of the week” on Friday.

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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.

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