Why should we teach both character and knowledge?


sad and stressed


I believe that we can agree that the teachers who impacted us the most were the ones that served their students with love and served them with principled discipline.   During a road trip with my wife, we listened to a thoughtful podcast from NPR’s “This American Life.”      The piece entitled “Back to school” shared insights from Paul Tough.   In Paul’s book “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character”, he underscores the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.   How should our educational system reach parents and students who are trying to break the cycle of poverty?   How helpful is standardized testing with regard to this problem?   This program suggests that we can promote student success by nurturing loving and caring families and arming students with character building habits. (a.k.a. non-congitive skills)

This program was especially meaningful to my wife Sarah who teaches Biology at a state college in Georgia.    “For me, I see the results of a child whose life has been spent in poverty.  A lot of the students that I work with come from disadvantaged backgrounds.   You can’t even worry about the cognitive skills yet because they haven’t figured out how to learn.   This is why this program hit home with me.”     After reflection on this program, she felt a greater conviction to serve her students well and being aware of their backgrounds. It also gave us a great appreciation for the work that Sarah’s sister does at a non-profit out in Montana that helps to arm parents with the right tools from the start- teaching them parenting skills and building relationships with their children (www.allthrive.org).

I strongly encourage everyone to listen to this program.   In this post, I wanted to share  a few insights that I felt were important:

  1. 87% of students in Chicago public schools come from low income families:  This number was shocking to me.    Poverty is bad enough.   Mr. Tough makes the observation that we can often correlate poverty with forms of domestic emotional trauma.    In May 2012, Sandy Doyle outlines data suggesting that domestic violence is on the rise due to our job crisis.
  2. How much can a teacher help a student who has lived with a high degree of home trauma?  For children who have lived with a high degree of emotional home trauma, what can teacher’s do?   Some of these kids have experienced horrible life events: murder, domestic violence, abuse, and theft.     Common sense would suggest that children who live with high degrees of home trauma will be highly distracted from learning in schools.   What can we do?
  3. James Heckman suggests that we may be putting too much emphasis on standardized testing:   As a numbers guy, I respect the desire to have goals and to measure team against those goals.   James Heckman, a nobel prize winning economist, has spent a large part of his career trying to understand what makes students successful in life.   Consider the GED, a test of cognitive skills that can serve as an alternative to the traditional high-school diploma.   From his study of the GED test data, one can observe that GED students are more likely to have positive life outcomes than those who did not take the test.    GED students, however, are more likely to “drop out” of marriages and college than students who finished 4 years of high school.    If students should be learning more than cognitive skills like those taught by the GED, what other skills should they be learning?
  4. What is the value of teaching non-cognitive skills or character building habits?   Mr. Tough suggests that educators should find ways to teach non-cognitive skills in addition to cognitive thinking.   These are the “don’t give up” sorts of life knowledge.    These skills can include soft skills, character, social skills, grit,  and perseverance.   The 7 habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey may outline a list of practical “non-cognitive” skills.
  5. Trauma from a bad home life prevents your brain from learning cognitive skills: Kids living with domestic home trauma often live with a mindset of “fight or flight.”     When any animal is being threatened in a fight or flight situation, the rational center of their brain is turned off.   The program suggests that it’s biologically intractable to teach young people who live with domestic home trauma and high home stress.



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