Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Grit and other character strengths

One of the highlights of my school year was when three of my seniors cried. About my assignment.

The students found me at lunch one day midway through the first semester. “We didn’t know it would be this hard,” one of them said. “We’re thinking about quitting this whole thing ... but we don’t want to quit.”

I asked him to slow down and explain what was happening. My students had just finished reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a dystopian novel where clones are raised like normal children until they’re old enough to have their organs harvested. The assignment had students research human cloning and then debate some of the issues raised. In groups, they campaigned for and against the use of human clones, making posters, spreading their messages on Facebook and Twitter, and presenting their views to the rest of the school during homeroom time. We were planning a school-wide vote on the issue, and both sides wanted to win, until one of the groups hit an unexpected snag.

The teachers are arguing against us,” the student explained. Their group was representing the “yes” side -- governments should allow this kind of cloning program. “We expected to get some questions and arguments from students, but not teachers.”

Yeah, and we want to tell them that it’s only an assignment, that we don’t even agree with the position, but we don’t want to ruin it. But they won’t even let us finish. They just shout at us and tell us how immoral we are,” added another student before bursting into tears.

I broke into a big smile. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m not trying to make you feel bad by laughing, but this actually makes me feel happy.” They looked at me, stunned. “Can’t you see? People are taking this seriously, which means you’re doing a good job. Plus, you’re getting a taste of what it feels like to stand up for an unpopular position. You’re learning!”

They didn’t look so sure, so I promised to send out a staff email, asking teachers not to interfere. My email was a little strong -- “remember this is only an English class assignment” -- but I later realized I really should have thanked my colleagues, especially the ones challenging my students. They were helping my students develop grit.

Grit, according to Angela Duckworth’s TED talk, “is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals.” Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, has found that grit helps people succeed academically and professionally, more so than IQ, social intelligence, or other qualities. She has also discovered that grit is difficult to teach. “What I do know is that talent doesn’t make you gritty,” she said.

I’ve been pondering the importance of grit and other character strengths, especially whenever I hear stories of former star students who do not do well in their studies beyond high school. So when the students cried about the teachers’ reactions to their project but decided to continue presenting, I thought to myself, “Maybe they’re building up their perseverance.”

I recently asked some of my students to take the VIA Youth Survey to see which character strengths are more pronounced in my classroom of Korean students studying in an international school with an American curriculum. After completing the survey, students identified their top five strengths and answered some questions. The results revealed patterns and left me wondering about how my school could address the gaps.

The 24 strengths are arranged in six categories: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. The all-important perseverance falls under courage, along with bravery, honesty, and vitality. It turned out that, of my 48 students, only three listed perseverance as one of their top five strengths; not only that, those three have all had lived overseas at some point in their lives for more than one academic semester. The same numbers were repeated for the strength leadership.

Despite the small sample size of my survey, these statistics raise several questions. First, is it possible that a semester abroad helped my students build up perseverance and leadership? Or are students with these strengths more likely to live and study abroad? More importantly, however, I wonder if my school should do anything with this information. If it is true that perseverance is important and our students lack it, should we work to build it? I have the same question about leadership – like many international schools, my school claims to build “twenty-first century leaders” – can we do anything differently to build this strength?

What my students lack in perseverance they make up in “appreciation of beauty and excellence” – 14 students listed it as one of their top five strengths. Perhaps this points to a potentially large number of artistic students in my school, which leads to more questions: Are artistic students somehow drawn to this school, or does the school do something to build this strength? In either case, if it is true that the school has students with this strength, should we focus on it and build the arts program? Or should we focus more energy on those strengths that appear to be missing?

I recently posed these questions to an administrator who had spent six years at the school. He agreed that the school's student population seems to lack perseverance (“Maybe all high-income students do,” he said) but thought their strengths should be celebrated and developed. “It's important to work on weaknesses, but I feel we overemphasize the importance of that in education,” he said, “and then we just end up pointing out all the problems with our kids, instead of spending more energy and time helping their strengths become even more prominent.”

We discussed the difficulties in teaching grit and laughed about the time some twelfth grade students cried because of my assignment. A situation like that, he said, “allows them to show their grit naturally.”

In fact, the students pushed on with the assignment. Their team lost the school-wide vote but won a moral victory when voters said the pro-clones campaign was more memorable than the anti-clones one. Interestingly, the student who had brought the complaint to me several months ago was one of the very few students at the school to list “leadership” as one of his top five strengths. It's possible, I thought, that the assignment had helped him develop that strength; at the very least, it allowed him to use his leadership skills naturally.

I now have more questions than answers about what to teach and how, but I will continue attempting to create assignments that will raise passions and, perhaps, build some character strengths along the way.