Dominic Randolph is the headmaster of Riverdale, one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools. In a recent New York Times article
, Randolph labels standardized tests as a “patently unfair system” due to the fact that they evaluate students merely based on IQ and in effect, miss out on several crucial elements which when compiled, often make up a successful human being. He believes the essential missing element in education is the cultivation of character, an aspect which so many schools fail to build upon because they are so concerned with GPA and standardized modes of evaluation. After collaborating with psychologist, Martin Seligman and David Levin, the co-founder of the KIPP network of charter schools
, Randolph settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras such as bravery, citizenship, fairness, humor, zest, social intelligence, gratitude. Strengths which have been commonly proved to provide a reliable path toward a life that is not only happy but also fulfilling.Neither Levin nor Dominic Randolph had any idea of how to transform these psychological ideas into a practical program. They called upon Angela Duckworth, a graduate student in Positive Psychology at UPenn. Duckworth’s research found that the individuals who were most accomplished often combined a passion for a single goal with a strong commitment to achieve that goal. She calls this distinct quality, “grit.” She developed the ‘Grit Scale’ along with a test to measure levels of grit, where individuals rate themselves on 12 questions ranging from “I finish whatever I begin” to “I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.” When tested in the real world, Duckworth found that it was highly predictive of success.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.
Levin and Randolph are now implementing these methods and tools to help promote character building in their schools. Their original list was eventually narrowed down to: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. From these traits, Levin and Randolph decided that students should not only receive a GPA but also a CPA, character point average.
What is occurring in character conversations and lessons are more about therapy than academic instruction or discipline. Specifically, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which involves using the conscious mind to understand and overcome unconscious fears and self-destructive habits. As the article states, “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.” Randolph explains how the problem with most Riverdale students is that they are immersed in an upper-middle class environment where they have a steady support system and will never really learn how to fail. He explains that, “the idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure…and in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”
When I read this article, I was struck with how progressive the idea of a CPA sounded and wondered why more schools don’t implement similar programs. Standardized tests measure a very singular portion of human intelligence and disregard the other multiple forms of intelligence which humans can encompass (interpersonal intelligence, musical intelligence, spatial intelligence etc.) Introducing character building programs into school curricula along with other academic subjects would provide a more balanced and well-rounded education. Plus, if Duckworth’s research proves correct, this type of character-building model will also result in more successful and virtuous students.
Surely, the KIPP character strategy still has some skeptics who wonder whether their methods are legitimate and raise questions such as, how does one define good character and wonder whether these traits can be taught in a classroom setting at all. Some parents may also take the CPA as a direct insult on their parenting styles.
My guess is that there are some universal human qualities which can in fact be translated into a classroom setting and reinforced to children, who will in turn gradually learn to value these traits and hopefully internalize these values and incorporate them into their own lives. This brings to mind Vygotsky’s notion of the ‘zone of proximal development’ and the influence of collaborative learning on one’s potential growth. It also echoes John Dewey’s conception of experience as resulting from an active process of trial and error. Most pertinent to our discussion on DIY educational practices, the character building program offers a unique and beneficial model for education, focusing not only on good grades but also on raising good people.
For more info and to see a copy of the KIPP Character Report Card, see here.