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How do you measure character? by stories…

July 31, 2011

I love the start of the school year, partially because it’s a time to step back and focus on big ideas. It’s tradition at most independent schools for the head of school to welcome faculty back with an opening letter describing his/her challenges and goals for the upcoming year. This year, I found my head of school’s letter particularly profound, so I asked his permission to share it here.

At the same time, I am concerned that we tend to get so caught in the forest of detail, tasks, and yes, overload that we find it difficult to keep a focus on the grand purpose of our calling as teachers—that which inspires and energizes each of us. This summer I found time to read many things I had set aside, namely the compelling issue (May 2011) of Phi Delta Kappan magazine. In particular, the article by David Light Shields, associate teaching professor in the Division of Teaching and Learning, University of Missouri-St. Louis, entitled, “Character as the Aim of Education,” contributes appropriate relevance to our collective conversation. I share, then, a few excerpts from the article:

The most important question that educators and policy makers should be addressing is this: What goals should guide teachers and education leaders as they develop practices and policies to improve the quality of education in our schools?

We propose CHARACTER as the aim of education. That is to say, developing beneficial and pro-social dispositions should be prioritized over acquiring more and more facts and formulas. To elaborate, we suggest that distinct, yet overlapping goals for education can be derived from considering the multiple dimensions of character. Education should develop intellectual character, moral character, civic character, and performance character, along with the collective character of the school. Together, the four forms of personal character define what it means to be a competent, ethical, engaged, and effective adult member of society. Isn’t that what we want from our education system?

The goal of education is not acquiring knowledge alone, but developing the dispositions to seek and use knowledge in effective and ethical ways.

Few people remember most of what they learned in school, but the school experience, for better or worse, nonetheless developed patterns of thinking, styles of interaction, and modes of engagement that carry forward. What endures are personal qualities that shape how a person interacts with ideas, people, social organizations, and institutions. Unfortunately, we have too often equated excellence with the quantity of the content learned, rather than with the quality of character the person develops.

Of course, character and content aren’t in an either/or relationship. Educators can promote both content and character. Still, one will tend to take center stage. When character takes center stage, the learning of content becomes infused with both social and existential significance. Knowledge becomes enacted knowledge. By contrast, when we focus more narrowly on knowledge transmission, on teaching content, the reason to learn becomes opaque to the learner, resulting in isolated knowledge and superficial understanding.

Intellectual character is what we need to develop, not so much knowledge acquisition.

A person of strong intellectual character is curious, open-minded, reflective, strategic, skeptical, and truth-seeking.

…knowing how to solve quadratic formulas (and hundreds of similar examples) may help her (my daughter) score better on the next big hi-stakes test, but it’s unlikely to help her make better decisions, advance in a good career, raise her children, or enrich her adult life in any other meaningful way.

When teaching is focused on transmitting facts, training in discrete skills, and preparing for tests, students are implicitly taught that the content itself is most important. When the content is taught in a more inductive, open, exploratory manner, when the teacher models and encourages inquiry, open-mindedness, critical thinking, and curiosity, then intellectual character can be developed along with content knowledge.

Please forgive the long stream of quotes, but I do believe we, as educators, need to engage ceaselessly in the consideration of the BIG question of the purpose that drives the heart of our efforts. The presentations at the international forum I attended in New York in July, hosted by New York University, Yale, the College Board, and distinguished secondary schools from around the world—at home and abroad—were all asking the same question as we see our roles of interdependence and mutual responsibility in a shrinking and fragile world.

I find this letter profound because my school is a school that has won about every tangible trophy and award you can imagine in the state. Our students win championships, earn 5’s on AP Tests and scholarships with an astounding regularity that I have never before seen. Our culture of winning is so pervasive that I think it can be possible for some students and even faculty to occasionally think that the trophy, score or admission letter is the goal, despite tremendous efforts made by the administration and faculty to focus on character education and the value of learning for its own sake.

So while I do think we do a good job of educating the character of our students, I’m haunted by the question—how do I know? There isn’t really a national award for character, or even a test to measure it. How would I know that character is taking center stage at my school over achievement? How can we measure this?

It seems to me that my previous discussion of mentoring might be one way to begin to assess the quality of character education at a school, but I’m not sure this measure carries the same weight for every community member as hallway of trophies or a pile of acceptance letters do. And if it ever comes to be that character education is somehow in conflict with achievement (I personally don’t think they are in conflict), so that in order to reach the next level of character education, we had to make sacrifices in achievement—perhaps we’d win a few less championships, or AP scores might slip a fraction, I wonder if everyone in our community will be willing to make that sacrifice, and if not, what can be done to lead them to do so?

One part of me thinks we need to search for more tangible measures of character that are every bit as tangible as trophies and acceptance letters. But then I think think of the words of W. Edwards Deming, the famous statistician who helped Japan develop a manufacturing system focused on product quality and efficiency.

The most important things cannot be measured.

And I agree. If schools are to make the leap toward putting character and other intangible qualities first among their priorities, it won’t be data that compels this change. It will be the stories.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 1, 2011 9:26 pm

    I just finished writing my master thesis. My professor enlightened me so much on my definition of data. The stories are the data. You need to write them. I need to write them. Students need to write them. May be tag them all #character. The reflection will even add a whole new level to the education.

  2. August 2, 2011 8:58 am

    Thank for sharing this letter, John. Students at my school are from low income and many definitely do not have the opportunity to gain awards and many 5s on AP test. Teachers at my school need a letter like the one you received from your principal to focus on the big ideas of character instead of compliance and the minutiae of repetition. I wish I had received a letter like this from my principal encouraging teachers into another year of influencing students’ lives, rather than a letter simply announcing the start of yet another busy school year and, oh yeah, don’t forget our first meeting this Wednesday at 8am. Thanks again for sharing.

  3. August 30, 2011 3:07 am

    Our school definitely isn’t kicked off with a letter like this, but our performance isn’t like your school’s either. Our focus does seem to be more test/standards oriented. Makes me wonder… is it *because* your school performs so well that it allows you the “luxury” of focusing on big-picture things?… or is it *because* you tend to focus on big-picture things that your school performs so well? I like to believe in the latter. Otherwise there’s no hope for me in teaching.:\
    As for important things not being able to be measured, I disagree. I’m going to side with Wiggins on this one… . Although I’m still in middle of reading the book he recommends. I read very slowly.

    • September 1, 2011 11:20 pm

      You ask such an interesting question as to what is the cause of my schools’s success. I think one thing I should point out is that we are a private school, with significant parent involvement and a fairly large endowment, and I think these put a pretty strong focus on achievement and give us the resources to reach it.

      Thanks for the pointer to Wiggins’s blog—that’s a great read, and I agree, but I still think that for those focused on hard data like championships and AP scores, these softer measures won’t carry as much weight, unless we can also tell compelling stories at the same time.

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