Schools must develop character and ‘grit’ in their pupils according to charismatic New York School Head

Influence of Seligman and Peterson key


Dominic Randolph, a Brit, is the Headmaster at Riverdale Country School  one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools,   which sits atop  a steep hill in the richest part of the Bronx. A charismatic, innovative mould- breaker, Randolph is a Head who very much stands out from the crowd.  He told the New York Times recently that he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign.  He believes too that the standardized tests that Riverdale and other private schools require for admission to kindergarten and to middle school are “a patently unfair system” because they evaluate students almost entirely by I.Q. “This push on tests,” he told NYT, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”  Anthony Seldon, here in the UK, is another Headmaster who shares many of Randolph’s views as well as  his admiration for  Professor Martin Seligman’s  work on well -being and  its application in schools.  Seldon argues, as he reiterated in the Guardian recently, that schools of all kinds have become too much like exam factories, concentrating their energies on securing passes at A to C at GCSE level, and have given too little attention to the overall development of the child and their character (the scramble for results has also been at the cost of genuine learning and creative teaching). He says that the government should embrace character-building and all-round education not as an alternative to academic attainment but as an essential adjunct of it. The opportunities open to those of independent education for wider enrichment should be available to all, regardless of school.  Seldon’s views are shared by others .The proper purpose of education the argument goes  surely is to equip young people for a fulfilling life, personally and as citizens of the world. Not simply to learn how to pass tests.  Joseph Raz, the lawyer and philosopher- proposed getting pupils wholeheartedly engaged in worthwhile activities and relationships. These, he argues, can be practical and aesthetic as well  as being  focused on the  pursuit of knowledge and  truth. Professor Ken Robinson too argues that creativity and divergent or lateral thinking are educated out of children early on in state education   and there is no proper emphasis on co-operative learning,  but instead we have  production line teaching to the test  in schools.

According to Randolph the most critical missing ingredient in many schools is a focus on character. In other words those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England (Wellington College as it happens) and that also have deep roots in American history. ( moral courage determination, resilience, stamina etc).  In the winter of 2005, Randolph read “Learned Optimism,” a book by Martin Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who helped establish the Positive Psychology movement (well -being etc). Randolph found the book intriguing, and he arranged a meeting with the author. Seligman had scheduled a separate meeting with David Levin, the co-founder of the KIPP network of charter schools and the superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City, so decided to combine the two meetings .Levin had also spent many years trying work out how to provide lessons in character to his students, who were almost all black or Latino and from low-income families.  Seligman referred them  both to a book, which he and Christopher Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, who also ended up  joining  the meeting.  Peterson had just finished:“Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification,”  It was intended, according to the authors, as a “manual of the sanities,” an attempt to inaugurate what they described as a “science of good character.”  Levin had been struck by the results of the first cohort of KIPP students. Although they succeeded academically, many didn’t seem to have any staying power or resilience, meaning that they dropped out along the way. As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed that the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were, in fact, the ones with exceptional character strengths, like ‘optimism and persistence and social intelligence’. They were the ones who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time. In short, character seems at least as important as intellect in those pupils who succeed.  Research from Professor Angela Duckworth’s showed that measures of self-control can be a more reliable predictor of students’ grade-point averages than their I.Q.’s. But while self-control seemed to be a critical ingredient in attaining basic success, Duckworth came to feel it wasn’t as relevant when it came to outstanding achievement. People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word “grit.” She has even developed a system for measuring this ‘grit’.  I.Q. it turned out was the better predictor of scores on statewide achievement tests, but measures of self-control were more reliable indicators of report-card grades. Duckworth’s research convinced Levin and Randolph that they should try to foster self-control and grit in their students.. So they asked Peterson if he could narrow the  original list of 24 character strengths  down to a more manageable handful, and he identified a set of strengths that were, according to his research, especially likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement. After a few small adjustments (Levin and Randolph opted to drop love in favour of curiosity), they settled on a final list: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. For Levin, the next step was clear. Students could graduate from school with not only a G.P.A. but also a C.P.A., for character-point average? If you were a college-admissions director or a corporate human-resources manager selecting entry-level employees, wouldn’t you like to know which ones scored highest in grit or optimism or zest? And if you were a parent of a KIPP student, wouldn’t you want to know how your son or daughter stacked up next to the rest of the class in character as well as in reading ability? As soon as he got the final list of indicators from Duckworth and Peterson, Levin started working to turn it into a specific, concise assessment that he could hand out to students and parents at KIPP’s New York City schools twice a year:  in effect it was the first-ever character report card.

Randolph was not so sure of this approach for his school.  Still, he did think that the inventory Duckworth and Peterson developed could be a useful tool in communicating with students about character. And so he has been taking what one Riverdale teacher described as a “viral approach” to spreading the idea of this new method of assessing character throughout the Riverdale community.  Messages about behaviour and values  now permeate the school day, but those messages  apparently are focused primarily on  the moral dimension.  It’s an interesting approach placing character and intellect side by side and regarding them as mutually supportive but also in saying that character can be taught in schools.

We know from Pisa (OECD) research that around 30% of pupils from poor backgrounds who are identified as resilient can overcome their socio-economic disadvantage and thrive at school. And Resilience seems to equate to character, or ‘grit’. Food for thought?


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