It’s Character That Matters

SuccessA new American book by Paul Tough How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character is turning the education world upside down by arguing that the endless pursuit of better test scores for children is in fact a false God.  Across the US it has been noticed that many students who have good test scores and get a university place don’t actually finish their degree.  They drop out.  In fact drop out rates make the US the second worst performer within the OECD, just ahead of Italy.

So what is going on?  The backdrop to all of this is a changing view of poverty and how to deal with it.  Capitalist nations vary with regards to income inequalities and the extent of poverty within their societies.  The National Centre for Children in Poverty estimates:

‘ Nearly 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $22,350 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 44% of children live in low-income families.’

In recent years in the US and other OECD countries there has been a shift away from remediation of influences of poverty via income redistribution towards a view that where children achieve good exam results they appear to do better in terms of life chances.  It had been noticed that some schools had achieved high test scores with poor children. So, the logic went, if the whole school system could be transformed in terms of test scores, then the effects of poverty could be eliminated. All those people who had been poor would go on and get decent jobs and make their contributions as citizens.  Hence the new political mantra of all parties in the West that poverty is not an inhibitor of social mobility.

If only things were so simple.  New research paints a more complex picture.  Poor children with good test scores do not go on and do especially well.  Only twelve per cent of KIPP* schools’ graduates actually completed their degree courses.  Most dropped out and took rather mundane jobs.  This suggests that there is something else that is crucial to long term success.  It is best described as character.

Non cognitive skills are critical for doing well both academically and intellectually.  These are best  described as self control, empathy, and the ability to stick at things despite adversity.  This has been variously described as work ethic or, more recently by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, as ‘grit.’  Riding on the back of these ideas are concepts like emotional intelligence and  resilience.  The problem for children from poor families is that their ability to develop these character traits has often been impaired by Adverse Childhood Experiences.   The situation of being the child in a poor family likely increases stress levels for all family members.  However the effect on children can be catastrophic and this has been described at the neurological level through the workings of the HPA Axis.

HPA stands for Hypothalamus, Pituitary,  and Adrenal.  During stressful situations the hypothalamus triggers hormonal responses from the pituitary and adrenal glands to prime the body for ‘fight’ or ‘flight’.  The evolution of this response was well suited to our species when we had to run for our lives from wild animals intent on eating us, but is far less effective today when the level of challenge is less threatening.   The continuous production of glucocorticoids can have  a devastating  impact on the  developing pre frontal cortex – that part of the brain responsible for self control  and higher order functions.  Children from these contexts may never develop the necessary skills for life and learning unless they are taught.  Such children suffer from what has been termed,  high Allostatic load where their brains are continuously subjected to the chemical impact of acute stress.  From this we learn that poor behaviour is a product of neuro chemistry that has gone awry.  Good parenting during the first year of childhood that de stresses children is critical for future development.

So what can educators do?  First, pay attention to non cognitive skills and think about ways that these can be strengthened.  If you tell children that their skills can improve – both cognitive and non cognitive – they actually do.  This is a point made by Carol Dweck at Stanford University – just telling people they can improve makes it so.  However we need to encourage teachers to see their students as possibilities not as already pre moulded indivduals.

Second, there are now tests that can identify which children suffer most from ACE (adverse childhood experiences).  So we can identify these children in our schools and build additional programmes around them.  Such programmes might focus on self control and children working in groups or teams.

New scientific research now leads us to understand that character skills are critical and that schools really can make a difference in this area.


Chris Gerry

November 2012

*KIPP – Knowledge is Power Schools.  American independent ‘charter’ schools that cater for poor urban children and achieve very high test scores with such children.

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