Earlier this month, we mentioned 10-year-old Damian, who’s spent chunks of his summer at the Hilltop YMCA honing his animation skills and learning about Hummingbird. By the time the new school year rolls around, Damian will have a solid grasp of basic programming and coding skills, whereas other kids around the city have been experimenting with roller coasters and tinkering with electronics.
But spending time in afterschool and summer programs has value in addition to those specific STEM skills kids are picking up. This unstructured time can instill perseverance, curiosity, collaboration, and many other positive habits of mind. Heading into a school year filled with Scantrons and math homework, it’s important to remember how critical character traits like these are for shaping kids’ futures as well—and how robust learning networks can help kids strengthen these skills.
As David Brooks recently wrote in the New York Times, research has consistently shown that these habits of mind formed in childhood have a big effect on success into adulthood. “Character development,” he wrote, is “an idiosyncratic, mysterious process.” However, Brooks claimed ignoring character development altogether in programs and policies doesn’t consider people as complex humans affected by more than only economic structures.
Brooks pointed to Walter Mischel’s well-known marshmallow experiment that demonstrated “delayed gratification skills learned by age 4 produce important benefits into adulthood.” He also mentioned Carol Dweck’s seminal research that examined how people who think intelligence is a fixed, innate trait are more prone to giving up because of setbacks. Meanwhile, people with a “growth mindset,” or those who believe ability is something they can gain through effort and education, are more likely to persevere.
And we’ve talked about Angela Duckworth’s research before, which explored how grit and self-control can predict success much more than talent or ability can. Duckworth defined grit as the “tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals,” and her work has found self-discipline predicts academic performance more accurately than IQ does.
Journalist Paul Tough dove into the subject of character in his 2012 book, “How Children Succeed.” He argued that our society tends to believe that cognitive abilities—the kinds measured in IQ tests—largely determine success. But an evolving body of education research continues to find that’s not really the whole story.
“What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help [students] develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence,” he wrote. “Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.”
Tough explained that although affluent kids are often overprotected from adversity, kids from low-income families face the opposite: more pressing problems, innumerable obstacles, and no safety net. For these kids, the stakes for developing these traits early are particularly high. In his book, Tough spoke to Jeff Nelson, cofounder of OneGoal, a three-year college persistence program in Chicago and Houston that focuses on noncognitive skills in the context of a rigorous college prep curriculum.
“Noncognitive skills like resilience and resourcefulness and grit are highly predictive of success in college,” Nelson told Tough. “And they can help our students compensate for some of the inequality they have faced in the education system.”
There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the “grit narrative” or the discussion of character development in general. Too often, the discussion suggests that disadvantaged kids need only more determination to overcome the enormously unequal obstacles in our education system. However, focusing on character shouldn’t be a distraction from efforts to fix an unequal system that requires low-income kids to have more grit to unlock the same opportunities their affluent peers have. But it seems persistence is a key ingredient to any success story, and teaching kids from all backgrounds that their abilities can change with hard work is still a valuable goal for both schools and learning networks.
Pittsburgh’s Cities of Learning network includes character as an important aspect of its badge system rolled out this year. This summer, each participating organization offered a disposition badge along with a skill and knowledge badge. For example, TechShop Pittsburgh offered a “Maker Mindset” badge that youth earn, in part, by describing an instance when they learned from a mistake. Meanwhile, youth earned “Passionate Perseverance” badges from The Ellis School by demonstrating a willingness iterate and solve setbacks in design challenges.
Remake Learning will keep working to promote badges that recognize dispositions. Of course, specific skills like robotics or digital filmmaking open up opportunities for kids down the line. But matched with strong, determined character traits, kids are more likely to be fully equipped to use the “hard” skills to their full potential.