On Campus, Failure Is on the Syllabus

The New York Times

A Smith College initiative called “Failing Well” is one of a crop of university programs that aim to help high achievers cope with basic setbacks.

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — Last year, during fall orientation at Smith College, and then again recently at final-exam time, students who wandered into the campus hub were faced with an unfamiliar situation: the worst failures of their peers projected onto a large screen.

“I failed my first college writing exam,” one student revealed.

“I came out to my mom, and she asked, ‘Is this until graduation?’” another said.

The faculty, too, contributed stories of screwing up.

“I failed out of college,” a popular English professor wrote. “Sophomore year. Flat-out, whole semester of F’s on the transcript, bombed out, washed out, flunked out.”

“I drafted a poem entitled ‘Chocolate Caramels,’ ” said a literature and American studies scholar, who noted that it “has been rejected by 21 journals … so far.”

Photo

Arabia Simeon: “I’m coming from a low income, predominantly African American community where there just aren’t resources. So there was this added pressure of needing to do well.”CreditLauren Lancaster for The New York Times

This was not a hazing ritual, but part of a formalized program at the women’s college in which participants more accustomed to high test scores and perhaps a varsity letter consent to having their worst setbacks put on wide display.

“It was almost jarring,” said Carrie Lee Lancaster, 20, a rising junior. “On our campus, everything can feel like such a competition, I think we get caught up in this idea of presenting an image of perfection. So to see these failures being talked about openly, for me I sort of felt like, ‘O.K., this is O.K., everyone struggles.’”

The presentation is part of a new initiative at Smith, “Failing Well,” that aims to “destigmatize failure.” With workshops on impostor syndrome, discussions on perfectionism, as well as a campaign to remind students that 64 percent of their peers will get (gasp) a B-minus or lower, the program is part of a campuswide effort to foster student “resilience,” to use a buzzword of the moment.

“What we’re trying to teach is that failure is not a bug of learning, it’s the feature,” said Rachel Simmons, a leadership development specialist in Smith’s Wurtele Center for Work and Life and a kind of unofficial “failure czar” on campus. “It’s not something that should be locked out of the learning experience. For many of our students — those who have had to be almost perfect to get accepted into a school like Smith — failure can be an unfamiliar experience. So when it happens, it can be crippling.”

Ms. Simmons would know. She hid her own failure (dropping out of a prestigious scholarship program in her early 20s; told by her college president that she had embarrassed her school) for close to a decade. “For years, I thought it would ruin me,” she said.

Which is why, when students enroll in her program, they receive a certificate of failure upon entry, a kind of permission slip to fail. It reads: “You are hereby authorized to screw up, bomb or fail at one or more relationships, hookups, friendships, texts, exams, extracurriculars or any other choices associated with college … and still be a totally worthy, utterly excellent human.”

A number of students proudly hang it from their dormitory walls.

Preoccupied in the 1980s with success at any cost (think Gordon Gekko), the American business world now fetishizes failure, thanks to technology experimentalist heroes like Steve Jobs. But while the idea of “failing upward” has become a badge of honor in the start-up world — with blog posts, TED talks, even industry conferences — students are still focused on conventional metrics of achievement, campus administrators say.

Nearly perfect on paper, with résumés packed full of extracurricular activities, they seemed increasingly unable to cope with basic setbacks that come with college life: not getting a room assignment they wanted, getting wait-listed for a class or being rejected by clubs.

Photo

Nadia Aman: “My biggest fear was failing my family. Being the first in my family to go to college I didn’t think I was ready to leave home and push myself to a place where I wouldn’t be comfortable.”CreditLauren Lancaster for The New York Times

“We’re not talking about flunking out of pre-med or getting kicked out of college,” Ms. Simmons said. “We’re talking about students showing up in residential life offices distraught and inconsolable when they score less than an A-minus. Ending up in the counseling center after being rejected from a club. Students who are unable to ask for help when they need it, or so fearful of failing that they will avoid taking risks at all.”

Almost a decade ago, faculty at Stanford and Harvard coined the term “failure deprived” to describe what they were observing: the idea that, even as they were ever more outstanding on paper, students seemed unable to cope with simple struggles. “Many of our students just seemed stuck,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former dean of freshmen at Stanford and the author of “How to Raise an Adult.”

They soon began connecting the dots: between what they were seeing anecdotally — the lack of coping skills — and what mental health data had shown for some time, including, according to the American College Health Association, an increase in depression and anxietyoverwhelming rates of stress and more demand for counseling servicesthan campuses can keep up with.

It was Cornell that, in 2010 after a wave of student suicides, declared that it would be an “obligation of the university” to help students learn life skills. Not long after, Stanford started an initiative called the Resilience Project, in which prominent alumni recounted academic setbacks, recording them on video. “It was an attempt to normalize struggle,” Ms. Lythcott-Haims said.

Photo

Haven Sandoval: “Not having the money to pay for school supplies is something that constantly worries me. I arrived at Smith with a simple HP laptop that was really only good for writing papers and searching the internet.” CreditLauren Lancaster for The New York Times

consortium of academics soon formed to share resources, and programs have quietly proliferated since then: the Success-Failure Project at Harvard, which features stories of rejection; the Princeton Perspective Project, encouraging conversation about setbacks and struggles; Penn Faces at the University of Pennsylvania, a play on the term used by students to describe those who have mastered the art of appearing happy even when struggling.

“There is this kind of expectation on students at a lot of these schools to be succeeding on every level: academically, socially, romantically, in our family lives, in our friendships,” said Emily Hoeven, a recent graduate who helped start the project in her junior year. “And also sleep eight hours a night, look great, work out and post about it all on social media. We wanted to show that life is not that perfect.”

At the University of Texas, Austin, there is now a free iPhone app, Thrive, that helps students “manage the ups and downs of campus life” through short videos and inspirational quotes. The University of California, Los Angeles has what it calls a head of student resilience on staff. While at Davidson College, a liberal arts school in North Carolina, there is a so-called failure fund, a series of $150 to $1,000 grants for students who want to pursue a creative endeavor, with no requirements that the idea be viable or work. “We encourage students to learn from their mistakes and lean into their failure,” the program’s news release states.

“For a long time, I think we assumed that this was the stuff that was automatically learned in childhood: that everyone struck out at the baseball diamond or lost the student council race,” said Donna Lisker, Smith’s dean of the college and vice president for student life. “The idea that an 18-year-old doesn’t know how to fail on the one hand sounds preposterous. But I think in many ways we’ve pulled kids away from those natural learning experiences.”

And so, universities are engaging in a kind of remedial education that involves talking, a lot, about what it means to fail.

“I think colleges are revamping what they believe it means to be well educated — that it’s not about your ability to write a thesis statement, but to bounce back when you’re told it doesn’t measure up,” said Ms. Simmons, the author of two books on girls’ self-esteem who is publishing a third, “Enough as She Is,” next year. “Especially now, with the current economy, students need tools to pivot between jobs, between careers, to work on short-term projects, to be self-employed. These are crucial life skills.”

If it all feels a bit like a “Portlandia” sketch, that’s because it actually was one: in which Fred and Carrie decide to hire a bully to teach grit to students, one who uses padded gym mats to make sure the children don’t actually get hurt.

Add “teaching failure” to nap pods (yes, those exist) and campus petting zoos (also common), and you’ve got to wonder, as a cover story in Psychology Today questioned last year: At what point do colleges end up more like mental health wards than institutions of higher learning?

Photo

Shayla Bezjak: “I wasn’t used to having to ask for help and I like to think I can do things on my own.”CreditLauren Lancaster for The New York Times

“Look, I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with trying to create experiences that are calming,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Penn. “But I’d like to spend a bit more time figuring out what’s causing those stresses.”

Researchers say it’s a complicated interplay of child-rearing and culture: years of helicopter-parenting and micromanaging by anxious parents. “This is the generation that everyone gets a trophy,” said Rebecca Shaw, Smith’s director of residence life. College admissions mania, in which many middle- and upper-class students must navigate what Ms. Simmons calls a “‘Hunger Games’-like mentality” where the preparation starts early, the treadmill never stops and the stakes can feel impossibly high.

It is fear about the economy — Is the American dream still a possibility? Will I be able to get a job after graduation? — and added pressure to succeed felt by first-generation and low-income students: of being the first in their families to go to college; of having to send money home; or simply overcoming the worry that, as one engineering student put it, “maybe I was a quota.”

“I’m coming from a low-income, predominantly African-American community where there just aren’t resources,” said Arabia Simeon, 19, a junior at Smith. “So there is this added pressure of needing to do well.”

Photo

Zoleka Mosiah: “I’m not used to the whole ‘summer job’ concept and I found the process quite intimidating. I had to ask for help from my friends and the on-campus resources to work through this.”CreditLauren Lancaster for The New York Times

And there’s the adjustment, for many high-achieving students, of no longer being “the best and brightest” on campus, said Amy Jordan, the associate dean for undergraduate studies in the school of communication at Penn. Or what Smithies call “special snowflake syndrome.”

“We all came from high schools where we were all the exception to the rule — we were kind of special in some way, or people told us that,” said Cai Sherley, 20, seated in the campus cafe. Around her, Zoleka Mosiah, Ms. Simeon and Ms. Lancaster nodded in agreement. “So you get here and of course you want to recreate that,” Ms. Sherley said. “But here, everybody’s special. So nobody is special.”

Social media doesn’t help, because while students may know logically that no one goes through college or, let’s be honest, life without screw-ups, it can be pretty easy to convince yourself, by way of somebody else’s feed, “that everyone but you is a star,” said Jaycee Greeley, 19, a sophomore.

It is also a culture that has glorified being busy — or at the very least conflates those things with status. “There’s this idea that I’m not worthy if I’m not stressed and overwhelmed,” said Stacey Steinbach, a residential life coordinator at Smith. “And in some sense to not be stressed is a failing.”

Photo

Maeve Porter Holliday: “Dewey Hall (pictured) was where I made my first big mistake in college, which was completely missing a deadline of a paper. I missed the deadline by five hours, and had to be okay with my mistake, realizing it wasn’t the end of the world, although it felt like it was.”CreditLauren Lancaster for The New York Times

It’s what Ms. Simmons calls “competitive stress”: the subject of her afternoon workshop on the campus lawn, to which she was luring students with ice cream and bingo.

When students arrived, the sundaes were there. But the bingo cards were a little different — filled with things like “I have 20 pages to write tonight,” “I’m too busy to eat” and “I’m so dead.” It was called “Stress Olympics.”

“It’s basically a play on competitive suffering,” said Casey Hecox, a 20-year-old junior. “It’s when we’re like, ‘I have three tests tomorrow.’ And then someone’s like, ‘I have five tests tomorrow, and all I’ve eaten is 5-hour Energy, and my dog is sick.’”

With only a few weeks before school was to let out, the stress pinwheel over summer internships and jobs — applications, recommendations, networking — was already at a steady buzz. What if they didn’t get one? Or the right one? “I’m not used to the whole ‘summer job’ concept, and I found the process quite intimidating,” said Ms. Mosiah, 21, a sophomore. “I had to ask for help from my friends and the on-campus resources to work through this. I’m not used to asking for help or being rejected this often, so I was really taken aback.”

Ms. Lancaster said, “Sometimes it’s hard not to take each and every rejection letter as a failure, but I’m trying to stay positive.”

Whatever happens, there will be plenty of time to talk about it when students return to campus in the fall.

Correction: July 2, 2017 
An article last Sunday about colleges that offer courses in embracing failure misidentified the position that Amy Jordan holds at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the associate dean for undergraduate studies in the school of communication, not for the entire university.
Advertisements

How ‘Productive Failure’ For Students Can Help Lessons Stick

MindShift

(Amanda Lucier)

Learning from failure has become a popular idea in education recently, partly because it feels like common sense to many people. In a general way, the idea of “picking yourself up after a fall” has long existed in American culture as in many other parts of the world. Teachers are hoping that if they can instill this idea in their students, the small, everyday setbacks inherent to learning new things won’t feel so emotionally charged to students, who might instead see them as part of the path to greater understanding and ultimate success.

But turning the difficult experience of failure into a positive isn’t as easy as telling students to change their mindsets; it takes careful lesson design, a strong classroom culture and an instructor trained in getting results from small failures so his or her students succeed when it matters.
For Kapur, productive failure is not just a maxim about persisting through challenges; it’s an effective teaching strategy that enables students to not only do well on short term measures of knowledge, like tests, but also affords better conceptual understanding, creative thinking, and helps students to transfer learning to novel situations.

Manu Kapur has been studying what he calls “productive failure” for most of his career, attempting to turn the general advice to “learn from mistakes” into a clearly defined, specific pedagogical design process that yields strong learning results. Now a professor of psychological studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, Kapur has conducted both quasi-experimental and randomized controlled trials on howteaching through productive failure measures up to both direct instruction as well as more constructivist problem-solving approaches.

“Learning from failure is a very intuitive and compelling idea that’s been around for ages, but teachers may not know how to use it,” Kapur said. He has run enough experiments both in lab settings and in real classrooms to have a fairly good idea of how to structure lessons that include failure up front, followed by consolidation of understanding through instruction.

The general idea is to develop tasks that students will not be able to solve, but require them to call upon their preexisting knowledge to try to solve the problem. That knowledge can be of the subject itself, as well as the informal insights students bring from their lives. The students will inevitably fail — as the teacher expects them to — but that failure is framed as part of learning and so is not seen as shameful. This process primes students’ brains to learn the new concept from their instructor after the initial failure.

“It is failure-based activation of knowledge to prepare them to learn,” Kapur said.

It might seem like this process would frustrate kids until they stop trying, but Kapur’s studies found that instead of feeling bad about their inability to solve the problem, students’ interest in the concept spiked. “I think that’s a great place to get students to before we teach them something,” Kapur said.

After students experience failure in their own discovery and problem solving process, the teacher facilitates a discussion that highlights various student attempts and teaches the new concept, consolidating students’ understanding of the processes required to complete the task.

PRINCIPLES OF PRODUCTIVE FAILURE LESSON DESIGN

  • Tasks must be challenging enough to engage learners, but not so challenging they give up.
  • Tasks must have multiple ideas, solutions or ways to solve so that students generate a multitude of ideas. It cannot be a closed task with only one path to finding a correct answer.
  • The task must activate prior knowledge, and not just formal learning from a previous lesson. “If you design a task where a student only displays their prior class learning it’s not good because then you aren’t tapping into their intuitive reasoning,” Kapur said. Intuitive reasoning is a big part of how students transfer knowledge to new situations.
  • While the task should activate knowledge, it should be designed so that the knowledge students have is not sufficient to solve the problem. They should hit a roadblock that they can’t get around. “It makes the child aware of what he or she knows, and the limits of what he or she knows, and that creates a motivation to figure out what it is they need to know to solve this problem,” Kapur said.
  • It helps if that task as an “affective draw,” in that it’s related to something students care about or is concerns something with which they identify.

Kapur has tested productive failure teaching strategies with students of varying abilities in Singapore and has found it to work with all students, regardless of ability. “Initial pre-existing conditions between students do not predict how much they learn,” Kapur said. “How they solve the initial problem is what predicts how much they learn.”

Singapore tracks students into ability-based schools after primary school, which makes it easy to conduct research that compares low, middle and high achievers. However, Kapur has also tested productive failure in Indian schools in which students were not grouped by ability. He saw good results there as well. “The task is open enough that kids from different abilities can work together,” Kapur said.

Part of Kapur’s research has been to show that teaching with productive failure doesn’t harm students’ ability to perform on tests, but doesimprove knowledge transfer and conceptual understanding. In the process he’s discovered an interesting element of creative thinking in math that appears to disprove the generally held notion that students need basic content knowledge before they can move on to more creative uses of the information.

“We’ve found that creativity actually suffers if you teach kids something too early,” Kapur said. When students who have been taught with direct instruction are later asked to generate as many ways of solving the problem as they can, many can’t go beyond the method they have already been taught.

“They were locked into that way of thinking,” Kapur said. “When we start with generating or exploring we find that students still learn the material later on, but the knowledge was more flexible.” This finding tells Kapur that creativity is itself a function of how students’ acquire information.

SINGAPORE TAKES IT TO SCALE

Kapur’s research on productive failure has convinced Singapore’s Ministry of Education to use the pedagogical model for the statistical portion of it’s A-level curriculum. Statistics make up about one third of the Cambridge A-level exam, Kapur said. All university-track junior-college students in Singapore are in school to pass that exam (junior-college in Singapore is like high school in the US).

Although Singapore’s education system is very test-based, its Ministry of Education is interested in research-proven pedagogical approaches that lead to lasting learning beyond the test. “There is a very strong policy emphasis on changing how we teach,” Kapur said of Singapore. “Just because there are tests does not mean we can’t teach in ways that lead to very deep learning while doing well on the tests.”

Kapur was able to show that productive failure worked well with students at the least prestigious of Singapore’s 20 junior colleges, which provided a compelling proof of concept to scale up to all students studying for the Cambridge A-levels. Kapur and his team have designed a curriculum of tasks that use productive failure, and are training Singapore’s teachers in the method.

The concept is new to many Singaporean teachers and Kapur says the first part of his training focuses on helping teachers understand the problems with direct instruction. He uses the analogy of watching a film. The average viewer focuses on plot, and perhaps pays some attention to acting ability or cinematography. When a director watches the same film, on the other hand, she is likely noticing nuances of camera placement, shot selection, and much more. That’s the difference between what a novice sees and what an expert sees.

“No matter how engaging, entertaining or logically structured the new information is, the novice by definition is not going to see the same thing as the expert in the presentation,” Kapur said. He works to help teachers understand the flawed assumption that students will understand after a concept has been told to them, explaining that direct instruction doesn’t prime students’ brains to process the new information.

“We won’t make the assumption that you’re prepared to learn yet; what we will do is activate your formal and informal knowledge systems,” Kapur said.

The teacher training program also focuses on improving teachers’ content knowledge. Working with student ideas and misconceptions requires the instructor have a deep understanding of the subject matter. Finally, Kapur helps teachers improve on important pedagogical aspects of this model like facilitating group work and consolidating ideas after students have grappled with a problem and failed.

“Your job as a teacher is to first prepare them, to give them the proverbial eyes to be able to see what is important, and then show them what is important in interesting and engaging ways,” Kapur said.

Singapore’s Ministry of Education has agreed to give Kapur’s team four years to build teachers’ capacity in this new style of teaching before evaluating its effectiveness. Kapur sees this as a huge gift, knowing that the effectiveness of any program lies in its implementation and that it takes time to get people up to speed.

The Hamlin School Embraces No Rescue Policy for Parents to Encourage Resilience in Children

NAIS

“In an effort to promote independence and responsibility, the school encourages a policy based on the premise that choices have natural consequences both positive and negative. Students often learn best when they learn from their mistakes. If a student forgets an item at home or fails to complete an assignment, for example, parents are asked not to bring items to school. If a parent does bring an item for the student, it will be the teacher’s discretion whether or not to allow the student to have it. Allowing girls to work out solutions to their challenges on their own or with a caring adult at school builds confidence and resilience.”
–The No Rescue Policy, as articulated in The Hamlin School Parent-Student Handbook

Raising our children can often feel like groping in the dark, but some simple truths are as clear as the light of a California day: Children forget. Children fail. Children fret. Children fall down. Simply put, children mess up, sometimes in grand style, and it is absolutely painful for parents to watch the consequences unfold. As the mother of two young sons, I can say with certainty that allowing our children to experience disappointment, frustration, and sadness is very hard. Never mind that we have read 100 times that mistakes are the building blocks of learning, that we should use the word “yet” to ensure a growth mindset, and that acknowledging strong effort is far more important than praising outcomes. (Thank you, Carol Dweck.) Never mind that we have the “The Lesson of the Butterfly” pinned on our bulletin boards and bookmarked on our computers to remind us that the butterfly’s struggle to squeeze out of the tiny hole was nature’s way of strengthening its wings. (Thank you, Paulo Coelho.) Even though we know progress isn’t possible without struggle (thank you, Frederick Douglass), we quickly don our firefighter gear, grab a pick-ax and a hose, and run to the rescue as soon as we smell the smoke of impending failure.
Moreover, as the mother of sons and the head of a school for girls, I have a strong sense that we tend to rush in and save our girls far more quickly than our boys, thereby reinforcing the stereotypical image of the helpless girl who is unable to use her wits and grit to save herself. (Thank you, fairy tales and Saturday morning cartoons.) If her soccer cleats are left at home, we’ll carry them to practice later. If her lunch bag is still in the backseat of the car after morning drop-off, we’ll re-enter the carpool line and get it to her. Is the math homework still on the kitchen table? No problem we’ll ask a loving caregiver to bring it to school. Is rescuing our children from distress getting in the way of raising them to be responsible adults? At The Hamlin School (California), we think so. Thus, in order to create clear boundaries for parents and to help build confidence and resilience in our girls, Hamlin has had a long-standing No Rescue Policy, which we work diligently to enforce each day. It’s not easy to tell parents that they cannot get their own children out of a bind, but we need to draw the line somewhere.
In a perfect world, the No Rescue Policy would be unnecessary. Rather than schools devising rules and regulations to guide parental behavior, it would be best if adults were better able to govern themselves. When it comes to our children, how can we increase our pain tolerance, breathe deeply, and allow them to stumble on the very brick that we could have cleared from the path? I humbly offer three key messages to all parents, myself included, with an eye toward reclaiming our role as responsible adults, altering the habits that do not serve our girls and boys well, and controlling our natural instinct to protect our lion cubs.
  1. Detach your identity from your child’s. If my son forgets his piano music for the third time, I worry that his teacher will think that I am a disorganized mom, not that he is a disorganized student. I resist the urge to pack my son’s backpack with the necessary sheet music by reminding myself that his work habits are not a reflection of mine. Though we share a last name and certain physical features, I am not my children. I love them dearly and take pride in their accomplishments, but their successes and failures are theirs — not mine.

    As Kahlil Gibran writes in On Children: “They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.”

  2. Remember that parental love should be more about doing things with your children rather than doing things for your children. As busy parents, we often assuage our guilt by searching for evidence in our daily lives that proves that we are active and attentive parents. Creating a mental list of all the tasks we have completed for our children makes us feel at peace, needed, and “on the job.” Rescuing them from chores and hard work and checking things off of their to-do lists feel good, even if we don’t readily acknowledge the endorphin rush. The problem with this kind of “parental productivity” is that we are doing tasks that our children are able to do independently. Sadly, we rob our children of a sense of efficacy and affirmation because we need it for ourselves.
  3. Slow down. I am far more likely to rescue my children and fix problems for them if I am in a rush. It’s far more efficient for a parent to tie a first grader’s sneakers rather than wait for the endless trial and error that comes with learning to loop the laces. You will certainly move faster throughout the day (and the airport, too) if you zip the jackets, pull the roller suitcases, and pass all four boarding passes to the agent. However, what will your child do when he or she is traveling solo? We never want to send our children the message that they are incapable of living without us.
If we want to lead schools of excellence and guide children into lives of purpose, we must build a close and mutually respectful partnership with parents. It is one thing to create policies and procedures and publish them in handbooks; it is quite another thing to empathize, link arms, and offer strategies and tools. Parenting is not for the faint of heart, and we must do our unpaid job with great intention and skill. As Gibran concludes in On Children, “We are the bows from which our children as living arrows are sent forth.” I’m ditching my firefighter gear, picking up my bow, and shooting for the stars.

Suggested Reading

How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims
Permission to Parent by Robin Berman
The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey

15-1124-WandaHollandGreene-sm.jpgWanda M. Holland Greene is head of school at The Hamlin School (California), serving 400 girls in grades K8. She is also a member of the NAIS board of trustees.

– See more at: http://www.nais.org/Independent-Ideas/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=495&_cldee=b2xzb25kQGNzaGN0Lm9yZw%3d%3d#sthash.H1SroWcR.dpuf

Teachers Nurture Growth Mindsets in Math

EdWeek

A blend of family attitudes, cultural ideas, and frustration often lead students to believe that math ability is a fixed trait like eye color, teachers say. They believe they are either born with the skills necessary to succeed in math class or they’re not.

Those pervasive ideas and the way math has traditionally been taught can make it exceptionally difficult for math teachers to nurture growth mindsets in their students, they say.

“There’s a cultural mystique in mathematics and sort of salient, counterproductive conceptions about what it is, that it’s somehow harder than art, which of course is crazy,” said Philip Uri Treisman, a mathematics professor and director of the University of Texas’ Charles A. Dana Center, which focuses on math and science education.

“It has sort of cultural baggage with it that is not helpful to the field,” he said.

The concept of growth mindsets has gained a foothold in many schools, where teachers emphasize that the brain can grow and change and that students don’t enter school with a set of unchangeable strengths and weaknesses. In general, that means praising effort over personal traits and encouraging students to learn from mistakes by developing new strategies to approach problems.

As more schools buy into the research that shows that student mindsets and persistence are linked to academic success, researchers are working to develop more specific strategies for nurturing positive learning attitudes in areas like mathematics.

The key, they say, is changing both the student’s ideas about learning and the way teachers approach math content.

Open Math Problems

Traditional math problems often encourage students to quickly work toward one solution, but “open tasks” can teach the same content while giving students more opportunities to struggle and interact with math concepts on a deeper level. This encourages students to develop a growth mindset, or a recognition that math can be a learned skill, rather than a fixed trait, researchers say.

The Dana Center’s Academic Youth Development program, for example, blends mindsets research with math concepts through both professional development for teachers and summer programs for students as they prepare to enter 9th grade, which is often the year students take Algebra 1. Researchers are studying the effects of the program, which is being used in 1,250 middle and high schools around the country.

‘My Favorite No’

Some teachers are also making efforts on their own to learn about the mindset concept. Stanford University’s Project for Education Research That Scales, or PERTS, released a series of online courses about mindsets for parents and teachers last month. It included just one subject-specific course: a series of videos, exercises, and sample lesson plans tailored for math teachers.

That course includes guidance on how to “normalize failure” by encouraging students to ask questions that they may be afraid to ask and to share incorrect answers with their peers.

“Sometimes it’s important to simply tell students that you love mistakes because that’s how students learn,” one sample discussion plan says. “Start the class with a lesson on why you like mistakes and what students can learn from them.”

Classroom teachers say many of their students approach math with the expectation that they have failed if they can’t quickly solve a problem using a prescribed algorithm.

With a mindset approach, teachers help students focus on learning from that failure and trying the problem from a different angle so that students can understand the underlying concepts.

The Stanford course includes a video of a teacher doing a daily exercise called “my favorite no.” At the beginning of class, she has every student solve a problem on an index card, sorting the resulting answers into a pile of correct and incorrect answers. She then copies an incorrect answer onto the board and asks students to identify all of the correct elements before honing in on what part of their classmate’s solution led them to an incorrect answer.

These sorts of exercises allow even the students who initially solved the problem correctly to learn from their peer’s errors, said Mari Montoy-Wilson, who teachers 3rd grade at a charter school in East Palo Alto, Calif., a small city that is mostly Latino and much less affluent than neighboring communities in the surrounding Silicon Valley.

“People aren’t equipped with this idea that if something feels hard, that’s your sweet spot and you need to persevere and unpack that,” she said.

Merely challenging students to change their mindsets without also changing the way math is taught can be “dangerous,” Treisman said. Without a grasp on math skills and opportunities to apply those skills and develop strategies, students will receive the message that even effort can’t help them improve, he said.

That’s why math teachers who emphasize mindsets advocate for teaching through “open problems,” which challenge students to explain a concept rather than quickly identify one solution. This gives them a chance to explore strategies for solving a problem and recognize there is often more than one way to make sense of it rather than judging their own math skills by whether or not they get the initial answer correct.

Stanford University math education professor Jo Boaler explains the concept in a video included in the course: In a traditional problem, a teacher may give students the dimensions of a rectangle and ask them to find its perimeter. In an open problem, a teacher may ask students to draw three rectangles with a certain perimeter and explain their work.

Exploring Concepts

Mariel Triggs, who teaches math at a private high school in San Francisco, said her students unpack open math problems step-by-step to explore a concept.

For example, she will ask them how many baseballs it would take to fill a room, and then allow them to determine all of the information they need to solve the problem. After they arrive at the answer, she will ask them how the problem would change if they expanded the dimensions of the imaginary room.

“I get these students and they will say, ‘I am not good at math,’ and I began to realize that what they were really saying was, ‘I don’t know how to do the problem in front of me,’ ” she said. “I frame it like a fun puzzle.”

Teachers said those strategies dovetail nicely with the Common Core State Standards’ emphasis on sense-making, abstract reasoning, developing strategies to use math concepts, and critiquing the reasoning of others.

And open problems allow students to understand how math concepts relate to each other, rather than merely understanding how to use an algorithm the teacher prescribes, they said. It’s not that getting the correct answer doesn’t matter, Montoy-Wilson said. But open problems emphasize that the process of arriving at the answer matters too, she said.

“It’s pretty scary in terms of what we want for our future to think of kids who only know the algorithm and not why it works,” Montoy-Wilson said. “When you just focus on getting to the answer, you really rob kids of grappling and working on that sweet spot. You don’t want to scaffold or carry the load too heavily for your kids.”

Across subjects, researchers have found that a teacher’s own orientation to learning can affect whether their students have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset about their own abilities.

Views on Math

But a teacher’s views on math also matter, said Kathy Liu Sun, an assistant professor at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., and a former public high school math teacher.

Sun used surveys to gauge the mindsets of about 3,400 students and 40 teachers. She also assessed teachers’ approaches to math, whether they valued speed and memorization or “multi-dimensional” problems that allow for multiple strategies and sense making.

Through post surveys and classroom observations, Sun determined that teachers with a “multi-dimensional” view of math were more likely to have students with a growth mindset at the end of a course.

“I think that teaching is really really important,” she said. “It’s not just about changing kids’ beliefs, it’s about giving them opportunities to experience it.”

Sun also identified strategies that can help boost students’ confidence in the math classroom.

Teachers should encourage multiple attempts at problem solving, they shouldn’t offer unsolicited help to students, and they should provide opportunities for students to resubmit their work, she said.

Some mathematicians have said professional development for math teachers should prioritize content knowledge over pedagogy. Treisman said many math teachers have the math knowledge to teach in a more open format that encourages growth mindsets, and they just need to strengthen the skills necessary to do so.

Many of today’s math teachers were taught in very traditional classrooms, and many have not explored the subject in this way on their own, he said.

That’s why teachers need to practice their own sense-making and model it for their students, Treisman said. If math were music, mastering the basic concepts would be like learning scales and leading students through discussions of open problems would be like playing songs, he said.

“Teachers love the idea of mindsets as almost a panacea,” Treisman said, “but they themselves have very fixed ideas of their own learning.

Vol. 35, Issue 03, Pages 1,10-11

What If The Secret to Success is Failure?

Tape Installation by Stephen Doyle. Photograph by Stephen Wilkes for The New York Times.

Riverdale Country School in the Bronx.

<nyt_byline>

By PAUL TOUGH
Published: September 14, 2011

Dominic Randolph can seem a little out of place at Riverdale Country School — which is odd, because he’s the headmaster. Riverdale is one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, with a 104-year-old campus that looks down grandly on Van Cortlandt Park from the top of a steep hill in the richest part of the Bronx. On the discussion boards of UrbanBaby.com, worked-up moms from the Upper East Side argue over whether Riverdale sends enough seniors to Harvard, Yale and Princeton to be considered truly “TT” (top-tier, in UrbanBabyese), or whether it is more accurately labeled “2T” (second-tier), but it is, certainly, part of the city’s private-school elite, a place members of the establishment send their kids to learn to be members of the establishment. Tuition starts at $38,500 a year, and that’s for prekindergarten.

SchoolBook

Schoolbook logo

Q. and A.: Can You Teach Character?

Take a look at theKIPP “character report card” and ask questionsfor the superintendent of KIPP and the headmaster of Riverdale.

Multimedia
THE LEARNING NETWORK

What Is “Character”?

Invite your students to discuss this story online through the new Learning Network Reading Club.Go to The Learning Network »

Tape Installation by Stephen Doyle. Photograph by Stephen Wilkes for The New York Times.

KIPP Infinity middle school in Manhattan.

Tape Installation by Stephen Doyle. Photograph by Stephen Wilkes for The New York Times.

KIPP Infinity middle school.

Readers’ Comments

Readers shared their thoughts on this article.

Randolph, by contrast, comes across as an iconoclast, a disrupter, even a bit of an eccentric. He dresses for work every day in a black suit with a narrow tie, and the outfit, plus his cool demeanor and sweep of graying hair, makes you wonder, when you first meet him, if he might have played sax in a ska band in the ’80s. (The English accent helps.) He is a big thinker, always chasing new ideas, and a conversation with him can feel like a one-man TED conference, dotted with references to the latest work by behavioral psychologists and management gurus and design theorists. When he became headmaster in 2007, he swapped offices with his secretary, giving her the reclusive inner sanctum where previous headmasters sat and remodeling the small outer reception area into his own open-concept work space, its walls covered with whiteboard paint on which he sketches ideas and slogans. One day when I visited, one wall was bare except for a white sheet of paper. On it was printed a single black question mark.

For the headmaster of an intensely competitive school, Randolph, who is 49, is surprisingly skeptical about many of the basic elements of a contemporary high-stakes American education. He did away with Advanced Placement classes in the high school soon after he arrived at Riverdale; he encourages his teachers to limit the homework they assign; and he says 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 me, “is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”

The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Randolph has been pondering throughout his 23-year career as an educator the question of whether and how schools should impart good character. It has often felt like a lonely quest, but it has led him in some interesting directions. 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. Randolph found the book intriguing, and he arranged a meeting with the author. As it happened, on the morning that Randolph made the trip to Philadelphia, Seligman had scheduled a separate meeting with David Levin, the co-founder of theKIPP network of charter schools and the superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City. Seligman decided he might as well combine the two meetings, and he invited Christopher Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, who was also visiting Penn that day, to join him and Randolph and Levin in his office for a freewheeling discussion of psychology and schooling.

Levin had also spent many years trying to figure out how to provide lessons in character to his students, who were almost all black or Latino and from low-income families. At the first KIPP school, in Houston, he and his co-founder, Michael Feinberg, filled the walls with slogans like “Work Hard” and “Be Nice” and “There Are No Shortcuts,” and they developed a system of rewards and demerits designed to train their students not only in fractions and algebra but also in perseverance and empathy. Like Randolph, Levin went to Seligman’s office expecting to talk about optimism. But Seligman surprised them both by pulling out a new and very different book, which he and Peterson had just finished:“Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification,” a scholarly, 800-page tome that weighed in at three and a half pounds. 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.”

It was, in other words, exactly what Randolph and Levin had been looking for, separately, even if neither of them had quite known it. Seligman and Peterson consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters, and they settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras. The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, gratitude.

In most societies, Seligman and Peterson wrote, these strengths were considered to have a moral valence, and in many cases they overlapped with religious laws and strictures. But their true importance did not come from their relationship to any system of ethics or moral laws but from their practical benefit: cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to “the good life,” a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.

Six years after that first meeting, Levin and Randolph are trying to put this conception of character into action in their schools. In the process, they have found themselves wrestling with questions that have long confounded not just educators but anyone trying to nurture a thriving child or simply live a good life. What is good character? Is it really something that can be taught in a formal way, in the classroom, or is it the responsibility of the family, something that is inculcated gradually over years of experience? Which qualities matter most for a child trying to negotiate his way to a successful and autonomous adulthood? And are the answers to those questions the same in Harlem and in Riverdale?

Levin had believed in the importance of character since KIPP’s inception. But on the day of his trip to see Seligman, he was feeling a new urgency about the subject. Six years earlier, in 1999, the first group of students to enter KIPP Academy middle school, which Levin founded and ran in the South Bronx, triumphed on the eighth-grade citywide achievement test, graduating with the highest scores in the Bronx and the fifth-highest in all of New York City. Every morning of middle school they passed a giant sign in the stairwell reminding them of their mission: “Climb the Mountain to College.” And as they left KIPP for high school, they seemed poised to do just that: not only did they have outstanding academic results, but most of them also won admission to highly selective private and Catholic schools, often with full scholarships.

But as Levin told me when we spoke last fall, for many students in that first cohort, things didn’t go as planned. “We thought, O.K., our first class was the fifth-highest-performing class in all of New York City,” Levin said. “We got 90 percent into private and parochial schools. It’s all going to be solved. But it wasn’t.” Almost every member of the cohort did make it through high school, and more than 80 percent of them enrolled in college. But then the mountain grew steeper, and every few weeks, it seemed, Levin got word of another student who decided to drop out. According to a report that KIPP issued last spring, only 33 percent of students who graduated from a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago have graduated from a four-year college. That rate is considerably better than the 8 percent of children from low-income families who currently complete college nationwide, and it even beats the average national rate of college completion for all income groups, which is 31 percent. But it still falls well short of KIPP’s stated goal: that 75 percent of KIPP alumni will graduate from a four-year college, and 100 percent will be prepared for a stable career.

As Levin watched the progress of those KIPP alumni, he noticed something curious: the students who persisted in college were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically at KIPP; they were 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; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class. Those skills weren’t enough on their own to earn students a B.A., Levin knew. But for young people without the benefit of a lot of family resources, without the kind of safety net that their wealthier peers enjoyed, they seemed an indispensable part of making it to graduation day.

What appealed to Levin about the list of character strengths that Seligman and Peterson compiled was that it was presented not as a finger-wagging guilt trip about good values and appropriate behavior but as a recipe for a successful and happy life. He was wary of the idea that KIPP’s aim was to instill in its students “middle-class values,” as though well-off kids had some depth of character that low-income students lacked. “The thing that I think is great about the character-strength approach,” he told me, “is it is fundamentally devoid of value judgment.”

Still, neither Levin nor Dominic Randolph had a clear vision of how to turn an 800-page psychology text into a practical program. After that first meeting in Seligman’s office, Levin and Randolph kept in touch, calling and e-mailing, swapping articles and Web links, and they soon discovered that they shared a lot of ideas and interests, despite the very different school environments in which they worked. They decided to join forces, to try to tackle the mysteries of character together, and they turned for help to Angela Duckworth, who at the time was a graduate student in Seligman’s department (she is now an assistant professor). Duckworth came to Penn in 2002 at the age of 32, after working for a decade as a teacher and a charter-school consultant. When she applied to the Ph.D. program at Penn, she wrote in her application essay that her experiences in schools had given her “a distinctly different view of school reform” than the one she started out with in her 20s. “The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves,” she wrote. “Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”

Duckworth’s early research 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 developed a test to measure grit, which she called the Grit Scale. It is a deceptively simple test, in that it requires you to rate yourself on just 12 questions, from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” It takes about three minutes to complete, and it relies entirely on self-report — and yet when Duckworth took it out into the field, she found it was remarkably predictive of success. At Penn, high grit ratings allowed students with relatively low college-board scores to nonetheless achieve high G.P.A.’s. Duckworth and her collaborators gave their grit test to more than 1,200 freshman cadets as they entered West Point and embarked on the grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks. The military has developed its own complex evaluation, called the Whole Candidate Score, to judge incoming cadets and predict which of them will survive the demands of West Point; it includes academic grades, a gauge of physical fitness and a Leadership Potential Score. But at the end of Beast Barracks, the more accurate predictor of which cadets persisted and which ones dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s 12-item grit questionnaire.

Levin and Randolph asked Duckworth to use the new methods and tools she was developing to help them investigate the question of character at KIPP and Riverdale, and she and a handful of Penn graduate students began making regular treks from Philadelphia to New York. The first question Duckworth addressed, again, was the relative importance of I.Q. and self-control. She and her team of researchers gave middle-school students at Riverdale and KIPP a variety of psychological and I.Q. tests. They found that at both schools, I.Q. 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. Yet those didn’t seem like the only character strengths that mattered. The full list of 24, on the other hand, felt too unwieldy. So they asked Peterson if he could narrow the list 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 favor of curiosity), they settled on a final list: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

Over the course of the next year and a half, Duckworth worked with Levin and Randolph to turn the list of seven strengths into a two-page evaluation, a questionnaire that could be completed by teachers or parents, or by students themselves. For each strength, teachers suggested a variety of “indicators,” much like the questions Duckworth asked people to respond to on her grit questionnaire, and she road-tested several dozen of them at Riverdale and KIPP. She eventually settled on the 24 most statistically reliable ones, from “This student is eager to explore new things” (an indicator of curiosity) to “This student believes that effort will improve his or her future” (optimism).

For Levin, the next step was clear. Wouldn’t it be cool, he mused, if each student graduated 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: the first-ever character report card.

Back at Riverdale, though, the idea of a character report card made Randolph nervous. “I have a philosophical issue with quantifying character,” he explained to me one afternoon. “With my school’s specific population, at least, as soon as you set up something like a report card, you’re going to have a bunch of people doing test prep for it. I don’t want to come up with a metric around character that could then be gamed. I would hate it if that’s where we ended up.”

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. He talks about character at parent nights, asks pointed questions in staff meetings, connects like-minded members of his faculty and instructs them to come up with new programs. Last winter, Riverdale students in the fifth and sixth grades took the 24-indicator survey, and their teachers rated them as well. The results were discussed by teachers and administrators, but they weren’t shared with students or parents, and they certainly weren’t labeled a “report card.”

As I spent time at Riverdale last year, it became apparent to me that the debate over character at the school wasn’t just about how best to evaluate and improve students’ character. It went deeper, to the question of what “character” really meant. When Randolph arrived at Riverdale, the school already had in place a character-education program, of a sort. Called CARE, for Children Aware of Riverdale Ethics, the program was adopted in 1989 in the lower school, which at Riverdale means prekindergarten through fifth grade. It is a blueprint for niceness, mandating that students “Treat everyone with respect” and “Be aware of other people’s feelings and find ways to help those whose feelings have been hurt.” Posters in the hallway remind students of the virtues related to CARE (“Practice Good Manners . . . Avoid Gossiping . . . Help Others”). In the lower school, many teachers describe it as a proud and essential part of what makes Riverdale the school that it is.

When I asked Randolph last winter about CARE, he was diplomatic. “I see the character strengths as CARE 2.0,” he explained. “I’d basically like to take all of this new character language and say that we’re in the next generation of CARE.”

In fact, though, the character-strength approach of Seligman and Peterson isn’t an expansion of programs like CARE; if anything, it is a repudiation of them. In 2008, a national organization called the Character Education Partnership published a paper that divided character education into two categories: programs that develop “moral character,” which embodies ethical values like fairness, generosity and integrity; and those that address “performance character,” which includes values like effort, diligence and perseverance. The CARE program falls firmly on the “moral character” side of the divide, while the seven strengths that Randolph and Levin have chosen for their schools lean much more heavily toward performance character: while they do have a moral component, strengths like zest, optimism, social intelligence and curiosity aren’t particularly heroic; they make you think of Steve Jobs or Bill Clinton more than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi.

The two teachers Randolph has chosen to oversee the school’s character initiative are K.C. Cohen, the guidance counselor for the middle and upper schools, and Karen Fierst, a learning specialist in the lower school. Cohen is friendly and thoughtful, in her mid-30s, a graduate of Fieldston, the private school just down the road from Riverdale. She is intensely interested in character development, and like Randolph, she is worried about the character of Riverdale students. But she is not yet entirely convinced by the seven character strengths that Riverdale has ostensibly chosen. “When I think of good character, I think: Are you fair? Are you honest in dealings with other people? Are you a cheater?” she told me. “I don’t think so much about: Are you tenacious? Are you a hard worker? I think, Are you a good person?”

Cohen’s vision of character is much closer to “moral character” than “performance character,” and so far, that vision remains the dominant one at Riverdale. When I spent a day at the school in March, sitting in on a variety of classes and meetings, messages about behavior and values permeated the day, but those messages stayed almost entirely in the moral dimension. It was a hectic day at the middle school — it was pajama day, plus there was a morning assembly, and then on top of that, the kids in French class who were going on the two-week trip to Bordeaux for spring break had to leave early in order to make their overnight flight to Paris. The topic for the assembly was heroes, and a half-dozen students stood up in front of their classmates — about 350 kids, in all — and each made a brief presentation about a particular hero he or she had chosen: Ruby Nell Bridges, the African-American girl who was part of the first group to integrate the schools in New Orleans in 1960; Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation helped spark the recent revolt in that country; the actor and activist Paul Robeson.

In the assembly, in classes and in conversations with different students, I heard a lot of talk about values and ethics, and the values that were emphasized tended to be social values: inclusion, tolerance, diversity. (I heard a lot more about black history at Riverdale than I did at the KIPP schools I visited.) One eighth-grade girl I asked about character said that for her and her friends, the biggest issue was inclusion — who was invited to whose bat mitzvah; who was being shunned on Facebook. Character, as far as I could tell, was being defined at Riverdale mostly in terms of helping other people — or at least not hurting their feelings.

Randolph told me that he had concerns about a character program that comprised only those kind of nice-guy values. “The danger with character is if you just revert to these general terms — respect, honesty, tolerance — it seems really vague,” he said. “If I stand in front of the kids and just say, ‘It’s really important for you to respect each other,’ I think they glaze over. But if you say, ‘Well, actually you need to exhibit self-control,’ or you explain the value of social intelligence — this will help you collaborate more effectively — then it seems a bit more tangible.”

When I spoke to Karen Fierst, the teacher who was overseeing the character project for the Riverdale lower school, she said she was worried that it would be a challenge to convince the students and their parents that there was anything in the 24 character strengths that might actually benefit them. For KIPP kids, she said, the notion that character could help them get through college was a powerful lure, one that would motivate them to take the strengths seriously. For kids at Riverdale, though, there was little doubt that they would graduate from college. “It will just happen,” Fierst explained. “It happened to every generation in their family before them. And so it’s harder to get them to invest in this idea. For KIPP students, learning these strengths is partly about trying to demystify what makes other people successful — kind of like, ‘We’re letting you in on the secret of what successful people are like.’ But kids here already live in a successful community. They’re not depending on their teachers to give them the information on how to be successful.”

At KIPP Infinity middle school, which occupies one floor of a school on West 133rd Street, across from the M.T.A.’s giant Manhattanville bus depot, report-card night last winter fell on a cold Thursday at the beginning of February. Report-card night is always a big deal at KIPP schools — parents are strongly urged to attend, and at Infinity, almost all of them do — but this particular evening carried an extra level of anxiety for both the administrators and the parents, because students were receiving their very first character report cards, and no one knew quite what to expect.

Logistically, the character report card had been a challenge to pull off. Teachers at all four KIPP middle schools in New York City had to grade every one of their students, on a scale of 1 to 5, on every one of the 24 character indicators, and more than a few of them found the process a little daunting. And now that report-card night had arrived, they had an even bigger challenge: explaining to parents just how those precise figures, rounded to the second decimal place, summed up their children’s character. I sat for a while with Mike Witter, a 31-year-old eighth-grade English teacher, as he talked through the character report card with Faith Flemister and her son Juaquin Bennett, a tall, hefty eighth grader in a gray hooded sweatshirt.

“For the past few years we’ve been working on a project to create a clearer picture for parents about the character of your child,” Witter explained to Flemister. “The categories that we ended up putting together represent qualities that have been studied and determined to be indicators of success. They mean you’re more likely to go to college. More likely to find a good job. Even surprising things, like they mean you’re more likely to get married, or more likely to have a family. So we think these are really important.”

Flemister nodded, and Witter began to work his way down the scores on Juaquin’s character report card, starting with the good news: every teacher had scored him as a perfect 5 on “Is polite to adults and peers,” and he did almost as well on “Keeps temper in check.” They were both indicators for interpersonal self-control.

“I can tell this is a real strength for you,” Witter said, turning to Juaquin. “This kind of self-control is something you’ve developed incredibly well. So that makes me think we need to start looking at: What’s something we can target? And the first thing that jumps out at me is this.” Witter pulled out a green felt-tip marker and circled one indicator on Juaquin’s report card. “ ‘Pays attention and resists distraction,’ ” Witter read aloud, an indicator for academic self-control. “That’s a little lower than some of the other numbers. Why do you think that is?”

“I talk too much in class,” Juaquin said, a little sheepishly, looking down at his black sneakers. “I sometimes stare off into space and don’t pay attention.”

The three of them talked over a few strategies to help Juaquin focus more in class, and by the end of the 15-minute conversation, Flemister seemed convinced by the new approach. “The strong points are not a surprise,” she said to Witter as he got up to talk to another family. “That’s just the type of person Juaquin is. But it’s good how you pinpoint what he can do to make things easier on himself. Then maybe his grades will pick up.”

A month later, I returned to KIPP to visit Witter’s classroom. By that point in the school year, character language had permeated Infinity. Kids wore T-shirts with the slogan “Infinite Character” and Seligman’s 24 character strengths listed on the back. The walls were covered with signs that read “Got self-control?” and “I actively participate!” (one indicator for zest). There was a bulletin board in the hallway topped with the words “Character Counts,” where students filled out and posted “Spotted!” cards when they saw a fellow student performing actions that demonstrate character. (Jasmine R. cited William N. for zest: “William was in math class and he raised his hand for every problem.”)

I came to Witter’s class to observe something that Levin was calling “dual-purpose instruction,” the practice of deliberately working explicit talk about character strengths into every lesson. Levin wanted math teachers to use the strengths in word problems; he explained that history teachers could use them to orient a class discussion about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. And when I arrived in Witter’s class at 7:45 on a Thursday morning in March, he was leading a discussion about Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart.” Above Witter’s head, at the front of the class, the seven character strengths were stenciled in four-inch-high letters, white on blue, from optimism to social intelligence. He asked his students to rank Okonkwo, the protagonist, on his various character strengths. There was a lot of back and forth, but in the end, most students agreed that Okonkwo rated highest on grit and lowest on self-control. Then a student named Yantzee raised his hand. “Can’t a trait backfire at you?” he asked.

“Sure, a trait can backfire,” Witter said. “Too much grit, like Okonkwo, you start to lose your ability to have empathy for other people. If you’re so gritty that you don’t understand why everyone’s complaining about how hard things are, because nothing’s hard for you, because you’re Mr. Grit, then you’re going to have a hard time being kind. Even love — being too loving might make you the kind of person who can get played.” There was a ripple of knowing laughter from the students. “So, yes, character is something you have to be careful about. Character strengths can become character weaknesses.”

Though the seven character strengths aren’t included in every lesson at KIPP, they do make it into most conversations about discipline. One day last winter, I was speaking with Sayuri Stabrowski, a 30-year-old seventh-and-eighth-grade reading teacher at KIPP Infinity, and she mentioned that she caught a girl chewing gum in her class earlier that day. “She denied it,” Stabrowski told me. “She said, ‘No, I’m not, I’m chewing my tongue.’ ” Stabrowski rolled her eyes as she told me the story. “I said, ‘O.K. fine.’ Then later in the class, I saw her chewing again, and I said: ‘You’re chewing gum! I see you.’ She said, ‘No, I’m not, see?’ and she moved the gum over in her mouth in this really obvious way, and we all saw what she was doing. Now, a couple of years ago, I probably would have blown my top and screamed. But this time, I was able to say: ‘Gosh, not only were you chewing gum, which is kind of minor, but you lied to me twice. That’s a real disappointment. What does that say about your character?’ And she was just devastated.”

Stabrowski was worried that the girl, who often struggled with her behavior, might have a mini-meltdown — a “baby attack,” in KIPP jargon — in the middle of the class, but in fact, the girl spit out her gum and sat through the rest of the class and then afterward came up to her teacher with tears in her eyes. “We had a long conversation,” Stabrowski told me. “She said: ‘I’m trying so hard to just grow up. But nothing ever changes!’ And I said: ‘Do you know what does change? You didn’t have a baby attack in front of the other kids, and two weeks ago, you would have.’ ”

To Tom Brunzell, who as the dean of students at KIPP Infinity oversaw the implementation of the character report card, what is going on in character conversations like that one isn’t academic instruction at all, or even discipline; it’s therapy. Specifically, it’s a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy, the very practical, nuts-and-bolts psychological technique that provides the theoretical underpinning for the whole positive psychology field. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or C.B.T., involves using the conscious mind to understand and overcome unconscious fears and self-destructive habits, using techniques like “self-talk” — putting an immediate crisis in perspective by reminding yourself of the larger context. “The kids who succeed at KIPP are the ones who can C.B.T. themselves in the moment,” Brunzell told me. Part of the point of the character initiative, as he saw it, was to give their students the tools to do that. “All kids this age are having mini-implosions every day,” he said. “I mean, it’s middle school, the worst years of their lives. But the kids who make it are the ones who can tell themselves: ‘I can rise above this little situation. I’m O.K. Tomorrow is a new day.’ ”

For Randolph, the experience that Brunzell was describing — the struggle to pull yourself through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them — is exactly what is missing for so many students at academically excellent schools like Riverdale. And perhaps surprisingly, it may turn out to be an area where the students at KIPP have a real advantage over Riverdale kids. On the professional development day in February when I visited Riverdale, Randolph had arranged a screening for his entire faculty of “Race to Nowhere,” a movie about the stresses facing mostly privileged American high-school students that has become an underground hit in many wealthy suburbs, where one-time showings at schools, churches and community centers bring out hundreds of concerned parents. The movie paints a grim portrait of contemporary adolescence, rising in an emotional crescendo to the story of an overachieving teenage girl who committed suicide, apparently because of the ever-increasing pressure to succeed that she felt both at school and at home. At Riverdale, the film seemed to have a powerful effect on many of the staff; one teacher who came up to Randolph afterward had tears in her eyes.

“Race to Nowhere” has helped to coalesce a growing movement of psychologists and educators who argue that the systems and methods now in place to raise and educate well-off kids in the United States are in fact devastating them. One central figure in the movie is Madeline Levine, a psychologist in Marin County who is the author of a best-selling book, “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.” In her book, Levine cites studies and surveys to back up her contention that children of affluent parents now exhibit “unexpectedly high rates of emotional problems beginning in junior high school.” This is no accident of demographics, Levine says, but instead is a direct result of the child-raising practices that prevail in well-off American homes; wealthy parents today, she argues, are more likely to be emotionally distant from their children, and at the same time to insist on high levels of achievement, a potentially toxic blend of influences that can create “intense feelings of shame and hopelessness” in affluent children.

Cohen and Fierst told me that they also see many Riverdale parents who, while pushing their children to excel, also inadvertently shield them from exactly the kind of experience that can lead to character growth. As Fierst put it: “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents. We try to talk to parents about having to sort of make it O.K. for there to be challenge, because that’s where learning happens.”

Cohen said that in the middle school, “if a kid is a C student, and their parents think that they’re all-A’s, we do get a lot of pushback: ‘What are you talking about? This is a great paper!’ We have parents calling in and saying, for their kids, ‘Can’t you just give them two more days on this paper?’ Overindulging kids, with the intention of giving them everything and being loving, but at the expense of their character — that’s huge in our population. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have at Riverdale.”

This is a problem, of course, for all parents, not just affluent ones. It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can. As a parent, you struggle with these thorny questions every day, and if you make the right call even half the time, you’re lucky. But it’s one thing to acknowledge this dilemma in the privacy of your own home; it’s quite another to have it addressed in public, at a school where you send your kids at great expense.

And it’s that problem that Randolph is up against as he tries to push forward this new kind of conversation about character at Riverdale. When you work at a public school, whether it’s a charter or a traditional public school, you’re paid by the state, responsible, on some level, to your fellow citizens for the job you do preparing your students to join the adult world. When you work at a private school like Riverdale, though, even one with a long waiting list, you are always conscious that you’re working for the parents who pay the tuition fees. Which makes a campaign like the one that Randolph is trying to embark on all the more complicated. If your premise is that your students are lacking in deep traits like grit and gratitude and self-control, you’re implicitly criticizing the parenting they’ve received — which means you’re implicitly criticizing your employers.

When I asked Randolph to explain just what he thought Riverdale students were missing out on, he told me the story of his own scholastic career. He did well in boarding school and was admitted to Harvard, but when he got to college, he felt lost, out of step with the power-tie careerism of the Reagan ’80s. After two years at Harvard, Randolph left for a year to work in a low-paying manual job, as a carpenter’s helper, trying to find himself. After college, he moved for a couple of years to Italy, where he worked odd jobs and studied opera. It was an uncertain and unsettled time in his life, filled with plenty of failed experiments and setbacks and struggles. Looking back on his life, though, Randolph says that the character strengths that enabled him to achieve the success that he has were not built in his years at Harvard or at the boarding schools he attended; they came out of those years of trial and error, of taking chances and living without a safety net. And it is precisely those kinds of experiences that he worries that his students aren’t having.

“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”

Most Riverdale students can see before them a clear path to a certain type of success. They’ll go to college, they’ll graduate, they’ll get well-paying jobs — and if they fall along the way, their families will almost certainly catch them, often well into their 20s or even 30s, if necessary. But despite their many advantages, Randolph isn’t yet convinced that the education they currently receive at Riverdale, or the support they receive at home, will provide them with the skills to negotiate the path toward the deeper success that Seligman and Peterson hold up as the ultimate product of good character: a happy, meaningful, productive life. Randolph wants his students to succeed, of course — it’s just that he believes that in order to do so, they first need to learn how to fail.

Paul Tough (inquiries@paultough.com), a contributing writer, is the author of “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.” His book “The Success Equation” will be published next year.

“Using Math Class to Teach Character Development”

From: http://elevatedmath.com/blog/

Using Math Class to Teach Character Development

§ May 1st, 2012

Thomas Edison – “too stupid to learn anything”

Math is hard. Of course it can be fun and gratifying, but at times it can also be discouraging. Can a teacher teach students how to properly respond to failure?

Finding the right answer is sometimes not as important as learning to approach a problem correctly, having the willingness to study a mathematic question from different angles and resisting the urge to give up. This is best taught in middle school. In grades 6 – 8 if a student fails a test or gets a “D” or “F” in class, it has no effect on his or her college admission records. But this failure can become a valuable life lesson and, in fact, if approached properly a teacher can help students prepare themselves for high school, for college and even find good jobs. Here is what is needed:

First, become conscious that you, as a teacher, have a dual role – to teach math concepts AND to teach character development.

Next, share as many examples as you can of people who faced failure but didn’t give up. Johannes Kepler, the German mathematician, filled 10,000 folio pages with calculations before discovering that the planets circled the sun in an ellipse. Teachers told Thomas Edison that he was “too stupid to learn anything.” And he failed almost a thousand times before he designed a light bulb that worked. Here are another 49 famous people who failed at first before they succeeded.

Finally, build a culture in your class or home where it’s okay to make mistakes. We learn from mistakes. And if your students fail, find out why. It could very well be that they need to study more, or study more effectively. Empower them to dig deeper into the problem by showing them the opportunities they have. Assure them that they have the capability to work a little more, a little harder.

If you can teach both math and character development in your class, you’ll go from being a good teacher to a great one. You won’t just help the students learn math skills, but you will teach them to handle the uncertainties in life. Leonardo Da Vinci called it sfumato (literally, “up in smoke”). He thought it was important that people become comfortable with life’s ambiguities: joy and sorrow, beauty and ugliness, success and failure. Life will feel more balanced. Character becomes stronger.

Studies have shown that students who succeed in college are not necessarily the ones who do well academically in high school; instead they have exceptional character strengths, like optimism and persistence and social intelligence. They are the ones who are able to recover from a bad test and quickly decide to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their friends; to resist spending time with their friends and study instead.

By helping your students to develop strong characters, you might help them avoid some of the bad habits that people develop because of an inability to handle doubts and fears of the uncertainty of life. These habits include obsessive fantasies, talking excessively, smoking, drinking, taking drugs.

I bet you didn’t think being a math teacher was so important!