Will Teaching Our Kids About Character Equal Academic Success?


Scientists are rethinking the notion that IQ and test scores are the best predictor of a child's success.

That's what Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed,” told npr.com. Tough explained that the character education movement mainly focuses on developing characteristics unrelated to the classroom, although these principles do have academic implications. "I think there's lots of evidence out there now that says that these other strengths, these character qualities, these non-cognitive skills, are at least as important in a child's success and quite possibly more important," he said.

While this school of thought maintains that character education enhances all areas of student lives, it doesn't ignore the importance of the three Rs. On the contrary, students who embrace character education are more likely to overcome academic hurdles, work hard at school and score well on tests, proponents say.

Humility is a Virtue

Supporters of character education believe that students who succeed usually have high self-esteem, so focusing on high self-esteem will lead to success. Not everybody is on board, however – according to Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, not only is this thought process ineffective, it's actually harmful. Students with inflated egos hear messages like, "You're so smart" and "You can do anything" before achieving anything tangible. Dweck believes this creates a fixed mindset which values being perceived as smart as more valuable than learning, and that students who are taught intelligence is a product of effort and experience will cultivate growth mindsets.

Dweck believes that parents who want to praise their children should focus on effort rather than ability. If a student brings home high advanced placement scores, noting "You must have worked really hard on this" promotes a growth mindset. The end result of this type of encouragement is a humble scholar who works hard, no matter the result.

Work (on) Ethics

If hard work is the defining characteristic of success, why don't more schools teach students how and why to exert themselves? Rather than piling on assignments and leaving students to sink or swim, administrators, parents and teachers would be better off empowering students with the discipline needed to succeed. No matter how gifted a student is, the choice to put off doing homework in favor time in front of the TV or computer will affect his performance. "Good character" is one agreed-upon, desirable trait; someone of good character does what is right even if it is the less convenient option. Until students embrace the idea that character is important, academic success will depend on how convenient school feels.

A Platform for Learning

For students, school is more than a place to consume information. It's also the place where they develop friendships, social skills, romantic interests and personality traits. Academics is one of the many tides pulling students in opposite directions, and it's easy to let others take control. One example is bullying. A student who is being bullied will probably have a hard time focusing on school, while the bully is probably too caught up with personal appearance to take studying seriously. A school that stresses high character limits the chance of distractions getting in the way of students' learning. Performing schools start with a foundation of character and go from there.

Brad Thomas is a guest blogger for The Children's Workshop.  He is a high school science teacher, who started his career tutoring children who face the challenges of having learning disabilities and coming from low income households. Brad is a freelance writer who focuses on sharing his knowledge of the educational system and how teachers and parents can work together to improve how children are taught.