Have you ever experienced a community where character growth was expected and effectively supported? If how, what do you do—or could you do—to promote such an environment in communities that you are part of?
This philosophy of living addresses individuals, not social systems. It harmonizes with a phrase from the Confucian classic, The Great Learning: If there is righteousness in the heart, there will be beauty in the character. If there is beauty in the character, there will be harmony in the home. If there is harmony in the home, the nation will be well governed. I the nation is well-governed, there will be peace in the world.
In other words, the individual is the ultimate key to the flourishing of the social system at any level. Of course the Confucian generalization needs qualifications: The individual that grows up in a harmonious home has a better chance to develop a beautiful character. If the nation is badly governed or the world is not at peace, individuals suffer.
Last spring I had been feeling proud of what I had been able to do in stimulating the growth of individuals. In my classes, I asked students to design projects by adapting the ideas set forth in the last seven units. They would modify the ideas I proposed until they fit what they felt good about applying in their lives. Then they would creatively apply the ideas on the growth frontier of their choice. I suggested that if it was psychologically reasonable to do so, they might want to choose their front-burner issue—the challenge frontier with greatest leverage for their growth. The idea is that if they could make major progress on this one, it would open up lots of other things for them. I used this experiential, project-centered approach to education in meaning and value for more than fifteen years; and in each class, a majority of the students made potentially life-changing breakthroughs.
I call these student breakthroughs “potentially life-changing” because, doing two projects per semester, we didn’t stay with any one project long enough to establish a habit. A breakthrough is very different from establishing a pattern of behavior as part of one’s character. Confucius would have understood.
So imagine my surprise when I and three other adults walked into a school in Cleveland, Ohio, with the mission of speaking briefly to three classes of eighth-graders who were about to graduate and transition to high school; we were there to speak about their transition and to encourage them to take seriously their long-range development in high school and college. Except for one white student, every one of the approximately 75 students we spoke to were African American.
These classes of students paid better attention to me than any of my classes at Kent State. These students responded to my questions with more eagerness than any college class I ever saw. They had learned hand-signals to communicate positive response to what I was saying. It was clear that these students had learned habits—virtues. I saw them able to interact in a natural, fun, and noisy way, and then instantly—once the signal was given—be quiet with all eyes on their teacher. The performance was phenomenal because it wasn’t a performance: I was observing learned habits of social behavior.
I was amazed at these results and wondered how the teachers could bring this about. The answer was that it was not the work of a solitary, charismatic, dedicated teachers; it was the entire school system: from the top level administration to the individual teacher, the adult mentors, the staff—they all cooperated in making high standards effective. Students acquire habits of excellent character through programs in kindergarten through middle school in Cleveland, Ohio’s Breakthrough Schools. Ironically, in terms of this discussion, these schools achieve more than breakthroughs; they cultivate habits, virtues, strengths. These free, non-profit, public charter schools combine external discipline with vigorous support in an atmosphere cultivates a cluster of virtues. In a middle school, students rate themselves twice a year on a scale of 1 (very unlike me) to 5 (very like me) on a cluster of virtues: zest, self-control in schoolwork, self-control in interpersonal behavior, gratitude, curiosity, optimism, grit, and social intelligence. The virtues are defined in ways that express behavior patterns and rules or principles. For example, zest is defined by three behavior patterns: “actively participates,” “shows enthusiasm,” and “approaches new situations with excitement and energy.” Gratitude includes “notices when others need help” and “does something nice for someone else as a means of saying thank you.” Optimism includes “believes that effort will improve the future,” “when bad things happen, thinks about what could make it better next time,” “stays motivated even when things don’t go well,” and “believes you can improve on things you’re not good at.”
Interestingly, at E Prep Academy, the Breakthrough School that I first visited, these statements of character strengths are not posted on the walls, repeated often, or turned into the focus of the program. They are an occasional component used in reflection. In 2013, their students—more than 84% low income and 96% minority—significantly outperformed Ohio public school students (urban and suburban) on average on every single test at every single grade level.
Does it mean that every student who went on to high school always stayed on the path of these virtues? No. But many of these students gained admission to the best high schools in Cleveland and continued their education with a bright future ahead. There is always room for improvement; but compared to some of the alternatives that I have heard about from persons who have taught in other kinds of schools. I celebrate this progress and am grateful to have become a reading mentor.
The Breakthrough Alumni Character Strengths and Character Growth Card is adapted from the KIPP Character Report Card. On N0vember 19, 2014, I did a search on Google for KIPP Character Report Card and found some interesting objections to the KIPP program. I lack the empirical knowledge to say much about the objections, but there was an interesting concern about evidence that external rewards (such as a literal report card) can subvert the internal motivation which is the genuine source of character strength. There was another interesting objection that could be addressed by pointing out the complementarity of moral principle and character strengths. In his Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals Immanuel Kant powerfully emphasized his overarching moral principle, the categorical imperative. Twelve years later, in The Metaphysics of Morals a wiser Kant had much to say about emotions and virtues that he had omitted earlier. The moral principle approach and the virtue ethics approach are complementary.
Photo credit (organized team practice develops skills):