Why character matters, part 1

So I didn’t have trouble in school growing up. With the exception of a couple years in middle school when I ended up in an exam school-like place, I mostly got straight A’s without much effort. In my AP history class, we had to write a short essay every single week as practice for the exam’s writing prompts. I usually wrote them the morning of, rattling them off while trying not to be late for school. (Which, come to think of it, was probably good preparation for testing conditions.) And this was at a supposedly excellent urban high school.

And then, I got to college, and I floundered a bit. I was able to keep my head above water, because of the naturally-good-at-school part. But my first year transcript had a lot of A-/B+ type of grades on them. And more importantly, I started to notice in classes that were cumulative, like math or French, that I just didn’t know as much as some of the other students. I was not a bad student–I was not struggling to pass the so-called “weeder” introductory classes that are so prevalent at big universities. But I was just…mediocre.

I got better, gradually…I took some hard classes that interested me, and really worked to master the material. I also got my first ever C as a final grade, and that lit something of a fire under me. But for years after, I would be reading a book for a French class, and there would be a word or grammar point that I knew I was already supposed to know, or an integral I should have known how to do, but didn’t. And it was all due to my mediocre, cram-heavy study habits.

In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough talks about what I was missing. The subtitle of the book is Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. The character he references isn’t really about moral values – there’s not much discussion of honesty, or compassion, or anything like that. What there is is a lot of emphasis on noncognitive skills, and in particular, conscientiousness. This is obviously a pretty broad concept, and the book talks about it in some different ways–self-control and what he calls grit, aka the determination to grind something out–being the biggest two. The book talks about the famous marshmallow experiment, where preschoolers’ ability to not eat a marshmallow ended up doing better in life down the road. The book also starts to get into how schools can help students improve these skills, although not to the degree I was hoping.

Which of course leads to the question, should schools be teaching these things? I would argue yes, obviously. I remember talking about study skills and so on in homeroom, which always seemed to involve complicated systems involving highlighters. And there were many ways teachers tried to help us compensate for our lack of self-control, all the way through into college: breaking a big assignment into chunks, mandatory quizzes and homework assignments. What I don’t remember much of was modeling the kind of skills we would actually need: how to break up a big project into steps for ourselves, how to decide when we would study. Which ultimately, is probably the most important piece going forward.

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