‘we do not know how to teach character’

by Grace

We don’t know how to teach character, and we should be wary of grading students on their character.

Teaching students “grit” and other character traits seems to be all the rage in K-12 education.  New York and other states actually mandate character education in public schools, with sometimes clumsy attempts to weave this instruction into academic content courses.  Education professor Jeffrey Aaron Snyder sees problems with these efforts, a primary one being that “we do not know how to teach character”

There may be an increasingly cogent “science of character,” as Levin says in the introductory video to his online class, but there is no science of teaching character. “Do we even know for sure that you can teach it?” Duckworth asks about grit in the same online video. Her answer: “No, we don’t.” We may discover that the most “desirable” character traits are largely inherited; stubbornly resistant to educational interventions; or both. We already know that grit is strongly correlated with “conscientiousness,” one of the Big Five personality traits that psychologists view as stable and hereditary. A recent report emphasizes that simply “knowing that noncognitive factors matter is not the same as knowing how to develop them in students.” The report concludes that “clear, actionable strategies for classroom practice” are few and far between. Consider the fact that the world’s “grittiest” students, including Chinese students who log some of the longest hours on their homework, have never been exposed to a formal curriculum that teaches perseverance.

How do you grade a student’s character?

Character education becomes an even more problematic issue when a significant component of grading is based on character.  It’s bad enough that there’s “no science of teaching character”, but it gets worse when teachers are giving grades on a such traits as a student’s effort, enthusiasm, curiosity, or gratitude.  Thanks, but no thanks.  Please stick to academic outputs when grading my child in school.


5 Responses to “‘we do not know how to teach character’”

  1. Generally I agree with you, but this statement “Chinese students who log some of the longest hours on their homework, have never been exposed to a formal curriculum that teaches perseverance.” is absolutely not true. Chinese schools have had a formal values curriculum since Mao’s days, and the curriculum stresses patriotism, perseverance and hard work. Signs with slogans pushing hard work and perseverance are all over the schools. Students have to do manual labor as part of school in part to teach the value of work. Look at the first chart on this website – notice the presence of an official course called “Morality and Life” in the primary school curriculum. http://wenr.wes.org/2011/11/wenr-novemberdecember-2011-practical-information-curriculum-reform-in-chinese-secondary-education/

    China is a Confucian country, and Confucian values are woven throughout every aspect of life, including school. I do not think that Chinese students inherit their “grittiness” – I think it is taught.


  2. Do you think this would work in US schools? We seem to be doing some of this, and perhaps moving in the direction to do more.


  3. I think there is a lot we could emulate, but not as a flavor-of-the-year add-on (right-brained thinking! learning styles! think outside of the box! grittiness!). Kids and teachers are pretty hip to those add-ons. But in all seriousness, I think our educational system, from top to bottom, could use a heavy dose of valuing hard work. The Chinese fundamentally believe that academic success, which of course they value, is achieved through hard work, not ability. We believe the opposite. And that is a problem. If you believe that talent is the main driver of success, you are likely to not work as hard (I am so smart, I don’t need to work). It is easier to consign entire populations to bad outcomes (poor people are not as talented so there is nothing we can do to help them achieve). The Chinese view that education is important and hard work will lead to success at it is why even in the poorest Chinese villages, the ones with no indoor plumbing, you will see hordes of neatly dressed kids with full backpacks walking eagerly to school in the morning. It isn’t a panacea – I have taught my share of slow Chinese students – but if you ask a less successful student from China why he or she isn’t doing well, the answer will be “I didn’t study hard enough” whereas an American student will say “I wasn’t smart enough”


  4. “I think our educational system, from top to bottom, could use a heavy dose of valuing hard work.”

    Yes, but it will take more than posters with slogans pushing hard work.



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