Social Studies Opinion

The Character Education We Need

By Dave Powell — June 10, 2016 7 min read
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I should probably stop short of saying this will be the last thing I have to say about grit—never say never—but I think this will be the last thing I have to say about grit. Maybe.

In response to my last post, a commenter, “thespecialeducator,” presented a scenario. In it, a student says he doesn’t want to write an assigned essay about George Washington because writing essays is “hard” and because old G.W. is “boring.” The teacher offers to walk him through it, even suggesting that they have lunch together. The student says no, he’d rather eat lunch with his friends (can we blame him? with every minute of every school day already programmed, those precious twenty minutes of “free time” at lunch can be golden), and, also, does he have to still do the essay? The teacher pivots. He explains to the student that everyone else has to write the essay, so this student does too. He gives the student an out: explain to me why you shouldn’t have to write the essay everyone else has to write. “Persuade me,” he says.

The student responds that he just doesn’t want to. Turns out the student is captain of the lacrosse team and has a tournament this weekend. Can he please, please not write the essay? The teacher says: “Your essay is due on Friday. Have a nice day.”

Sound familiar?

The details might be different in different circumstances, but I think this scenario gets it mostly right; this rings true to me. I don’t have this experience as often as I used to when I was a high school teacher, but I do remember well the cascading excuses students would give when I asked them to do something they didn’t want to do. I remember them well, I think, mostly because I do still have this experience on a regular basis—only it’s not my students complaining about the work I assign, it’s my kids. Change the assignment from writing an essay about George Washington to doing the dishes or taking out the trash and this is a scenario not only every teacher could relate to but every parent could too.

And that’s an important point. What does writing an essay about George Washington have in common with emptying the dishwasher? Nothing and everything, of course. And are there any lessons here for teachers who want their students to work hard (no, more than that—they want their students to want to work hard), and who also want to instill positive character traits in them as well?

Let’s see if we can break this down. First, the work: the assignment here is to write “another essay on George Washington’s legacy.” Another one. What the teacher says he wishes would happen is that his bored student would respond by saying: “Hey man, listen. I know you want us to write another essay on George Washington’s legacy. But I’m not into the dude. Here’s what I propose instead. I’d like to delve deeper into the Stamp Act and how it led to rebellion. I can still incorporate the skills you want me to. Can I do it, please?”

So here’s my first question: why isn’t that the assignment to begin with? If a teacher can anticipate a more interesting assignment than the one he or she assigned, why not make the more interesting assignment the assignment in the first place? I know, I know: there are the state standards and common core and district guidelines, our hands are tied, etc. etc.—but none of these things, not one of them, ever have to prevent a teacher from teaching well. If you can’t think of an interesting reason to do an assignment yourself, then you need a new one. You’ll never be able to convince a kid to do it. Give the best, most interesting work you can think to give, and if you know your students aren’t responding well to the work you have assigned, start looking for help. You probably have creative colleagues who doing interesting things. Borrow from them.

But that’s only part of the issue here. Very much to his credit, the teacher in this scenraio wants to give his student some choice in the matter: he wants, as he says, to have “democracy in action” in his classroom. How can a teacher do that? The first step is to understand what democracy really is. That requires a longer explanation than I have space for here, but suffice it to say that democracy is not letting everybody do what they want to do. Democracy is about responsibility and deliberation and doing things for the common good. Everybody doing what they want to do is something more like libertarianism, if we’re using political definitions, not democracy.

In a democracy there are still leaders—but they are leaders not because of their “natural” position in a social hierarchy, but because they have the best ideas for solving problems. In a classroom, it stands to reason that the teacher would most often have some of the best ideas for solving problems in a classroom because the teacher is the person with the most extensive life experience. As teachers we have seen and done things our students haven’t, and we have education they don’t have. Of course we need to respect their experiences too—our students have done and seen things we haven’t—but our job is to guide them and create the conditions that lead students to ask the kinds of questions we want them to ask. Does writing (another) essay about George Washington’s legacy help us do that?

We’re still not there yet, though. What this teacher is really getting at is the idea that students don’t often say that they want to do something more interesting—let alone come up with their own ideas for what to do. There’s an assumption in this scenario that students should already know how to do this, but asking good questions is a skill that has to be taught. What do we need to do to help students come up with their own ideas?

And that brings us back to the question of character. My problem with grit as a centerpiece of character education is that it encouarges the development of character traits that might be preferred if we want students to do a certain kind of work (like study hard to pass standardized tests or master a narrow set of skills) but not another kind (like become thoughtful, engaged citizens and people caapble of asking good questions). Grit encourages perseverance in the face of obstacles, not thoughtfulness. It encourages sisyphean persistence—keep pushing that rock up the hill—but not reflection on why we ought to be pushing the rock up the hill in the first place. If you don’t know the story of Sisyphus, you should: in Greek mythology, Sisyphus was punished for self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll a giant boulder up a hill for eternity, only to watch it roll back down every time. If that doesn’t sound like school I must be missing something. You, kid, spend more time trying to get out of work than you do actually doing work. Go roll this boulder up that hill. Get back to me when you have some grit.

Needless to say, I’d encourage a different approach. It would start with a firm sense of what we want to accomplish in school. It might help to remember that “student achievement,” as we usually think of it, is simply a means to an end: we want students to achieve high test scores, presumably, because that will lead to success later in life. But what if we focused more precisely on the end instead? What if our goal was to get students to a place not only where they ask questions but where they ask the right questions? How important would “grit” be then?

Armed with a commitment to those ideas, teachers could proceed to plan learning activities that encourage persistence, yes, but also thoughtfulness, mindfulness, reflection, and all kinds of other important traits. The funny thing about grit is that kids show it all the time when they’re doing something they enjoy doing. You don’t have to teach grit to the kid who loves Minecraft or can’t spend enough time playing baseball or goes to bed every night wishing J.K. Rowling would write about ten more Harry Potter books. The funny thing about grit is that we only seem to need to teach it to kids when we’re wasting their time—or when we haven’t done enough to convince them that what we want them to do should matter to them, too.

In short, the character education we need is one that turns outward, not inward. We should aim to give kids space to pursue things they’re interested in, not things we’re interested in. We should make sure they understand that the reason to pursue a passion (to use an overused word I hate) is not only to enrich your life but to make someone else’s life better and richer too. Real character comes from putting others ahead of yourself. When you think of the traits we associate with good character—responsibility, caring, reliability, sincerity, trustworthiness, charitability, fairness—they all speak to the way we treat others. The only argument for grit as a service to others is that it makes teachers and parents feel good about the “investment” they made in a kid. If that’s not the worst reason for doing something in an educational setting I don’t know what is.

In the end are we putting our students’ interests first or our own? That’s the fundamental question of education. If you don’t answer it correctly you’re bound to face a lot of frustration as a teacher.

The opinions expressed in The K-12 Contrarian 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.