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The Attributes of Success

"I have yet to talk to a recent graduate, college teacher, community leader, or business leader who said that not knowing enough academic content was a problem. In my interviews, everyone stressed the importance of critical thinking, communication skills, and collaboration."  —  Tony Wagner

"Character is not developed individually.  It is instilled by communities and transmitted by elders."   — David Brooks

Walk into almost any classroom and you will find a teacher working to help students master well-defined curricular standards.  But the deeper priority should be helping students to become proficient in the skill of learning.  Still deeper must lie the ignition in students of the desire to learn and strive for excellence.  And underneath that lies the cultivation of the whole person.

The character attributes that are essential for success in school and in life include self-directedness, creativity, self-awareness and other metacognitive skills, as well as the ability to work well with others.  The student should integrate the qualities of curiosity and optimism, persistence and fearlessness, self-knowledge and the ability to think and express herself clearly.  She should have integrity, generosity of spirit, an internal sense of responsibility, and a concern for the good of the group.  She should be internally motivated,compassionate, and a good citizen in any group of any scale, from a school club to society at large.

As it happens, these attributes are not separate from intellectual growth, but are intimately interwoven with it.  They support and are often a prerequisite to genuine learning.  And intellectual growth, in turn, reinforces and makes possible further personal growth.

Cultivating these attributes prepares a student for life in a way that merely acquiring knowledge of curriculum does not. How these traits can be cultivated in students is the focus of much of this book.  For now, we need to understand that: 

1)  All these traits can be learned through young adulthood.  Many people believe that personality is “baked in” at an early age, perhaps as early as three years.  But modern research shows that this is simply not true.  A range of character traits including optimism, tenacity, resilience, empathy, and self-awareness can all be learned well into young adulthood. 

2)  These traits cannot be taught as mere content.  They aren’t learned in the way that, say, knowing the causes of the Civil War is learned.  Students can no more learn these skills by being told about them than they might learn to shoot free throws or play Mozart on the piano by hearing these skills described.  These traits require extensive practice.  They require making mistakes and learning from them.  Practicing these skills must therefore be woven into the daily fabric of the learning process, so that students live them in their everyday experiences.

The centrality of character.  The attributes of success are sometimes dismissed as “non-cognitive skills” or “soft learning goals.”  They are sometimes relegated to the category of “student well-being”— a good thing to strive for, but a side issue as far as the real work of school is concerned: the mastery of the curriculum.  This dismissive attitude towards the development of character is deeply shortsighted.  These attributes are essential for success in school and in life, and therefore should stand at the heart of what schools are for.

The problem is not that most teachers and parents don’t want the best for their students; it’s that schools do not have the explicit goal to train students to be creative, self-directed, and tenacious, to be good collaborators and citizens.  If we are going to prepare our children well for life, that has to change.

To be creative, for instance, requires being willing to make mistakes and learn from them, to have the tenacity to keep trying, especially after you fail.  However, most students do not have practice with any of these things in the classroom.  Instead, an academically successful student learns to ask, “What do I need to do to get an A?”  The thought of intentionally attempting work that she will fail at is almost incomprehensible.  Successful students often learn to be risk-averse “Excellent Sheep”, as William Deresiewicz argues in his book of the same name.  Risk aversion results in lives and careers that are less creative.

We have to teach students how to fulfill their potential, to become who they are most fully.  In the process they will learn more, and the learning will be more meaningful to them.  

They may even learn to love school.  Imagine that.

This is an excerpt from "A New Direction", the first chapter of "A Teacher's Handbook".