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THE ASPEN INSTITUTE
ASPEN IDEAS FESTIVAL 2012
CAN CHARACTER BE TAUGHT?
Doerr-Hosier CenterAspen Meadows Campus
Sunday, July 1, 2012
LIST OF PARTICIPANTS
ANDREA MITCHELL Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent for NBC News Host of MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports
DOMINIC RANDOLPH Sixth Head of the Riverdale Country School Former Assistant Headmaster at the Lawrenceville School
PAUL TOUGH Author of How Children Succeed: Rethinking Character and Intelligence, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America, Editor at The New York Times Magazine and Harper's Magazine, Reporter and Producer for the Public-Radio Program This American Life.
RUSSELL SHAW Head of Georgetown Day School Former Legislative Assistant to Congressman Henry Waxman, Former Outward Bound Instructor
* * * * *
P R O C E E D I N G S
MS. MITCHELL: I am so happy to be here and so
excited to read -- first of all, having read the article
by Paul Tough and excited about reading his book, Can
Character Be Taught. A lot of new thinking on this; Paul
is on the cutting edge of what's being done in this arena.
And we at NBC are partnering this year with Aspen, with
the Ideas Festival, for our Education Nation panels,
leading in our case to a summit in New York City in the
fall for Education Nation; you'll see these on your seats.
So we're looking forward to continuing this
conversation and in fact, I think you've sat down already
with Brain Williams and been talking about some of these
issues with him as well for Rock Center. Can character be
taught? Can schools teach character, should they? What
do we mean by character anyway?
Paul Tough, for those who didn't see the New
York Times piece, is a journalist and author of Whatever
It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and
America as well as this new book coming out as we say in
September, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the
Hidden Power of Character. His work has appeared in the
New York Times, the magazine cover story entitled What if
the Secret to Success is Failure?
Dominic Randolph is the head of school at
Riverdale Country School, a pre-K through twelfth grade
independent school, about 1,100 students, located in New
York City. Dominic began thinking about character
education when he moved to the United States. He was
educated at British boarding schools where there was as
much focus on teaching character as there was on teaching
And Russell Shaw, known to many of you, I think,
in this audience from the Washington area is the head of
school at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown Day incorporates character
education in its day instruction and a belief that school
curriculum is as important -- that the character
curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum.
So let's talk about what we mean by character.
In this case, we're not talking about what you would think
of character, honesty, truth, judgment. We're thinking
about something else when I throw out the words to you,
conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance,
optimism, resourcefulness, professionalism, integrity,
self control, willpower, zest, gratitude, curiosity,
social intelligence. As we go through this discussion,
we'll see that those words have a particular significance
when we talk about teaching character in education.
Paul, what does your research show and how did
you come to this? And largely, we want to also talk about
the work that Dave Levin has done with KIPP, because he
was key to this, in bringing this into the KIPP schools
and in going to the research done by Martin Seligman at
the University of Pennsylvania.
MR. TOUGH: So when I started working on this
book, I was starting from this idea that there were skills
out there that seemed to matter in kids' success that
didn't have to do with IQ. It didn't have to do with
scores on straight cognitive tests. But there aren't a
lot of good words for those skills. And so I start -- my
first inroads into this idea was through economics and
economists called these noncognitive skills.
So for a while I thought I was writing a book
about noncognitive skills. The problem with the
phrase "noncognitive skills," one is that it puts
everybody right to sleep and the other is that when you
talk to psychologists who are also very involved in this,
they point out that some of these so-called noncognitive
skills are, in fact, cognitive so that noncognitive skills
is a really, really bad word for it.
And then I met Dave Levin of KIPP and Dominic
Randolph of Riverdale and I found that they were embarked
on this project to try to teach some of these noncognitive
skills and they had a different word for it and that
phrase was character strengths. But the character
strengths that they were talking about were very similar
to the noncognitive skills that these economists were
talking about, things like perseverance, grit, gratitude,
curiosity, self control, things that we've learned through
the scientific method can actually predict how well kids
do in school.
So that was the word I started using; character
instead of noncognitive skills. The problem with
character is that it is a word that most of us think of as
something fixed, that character is something you get at
birth and never really changes, and they are talking about
a very different definition of character as something that
is very malleable, something you can learn, something you
can teach, something that parents absolutely instill in
their kids but that teachers can teach as well.
And so the more time that I spent with them, the
more I came to believe that what they're doing is exactly
what these economists were looking for, ways to instill
exactly the skills that kids need to succeed in all sorts
MS. MITCHELL: And Dominic, you were working
with Dave Levin.
MR. RANDOLPH: Right.
MS. MITCHELL: And you were searching for a way
to teach this?
MR. RANDOLPH: Yeah.
MS. MITCHELL: And you found that there as
actually an academic bible of this, Seligman's work and
then Angela Duckworth, his student and now a professor as
MR. RANDOLPH: Right.
MS. MITCHELL: So tell me a little bit about the
practical application at Riverdale.
MR. RANDOLPH: Right.
MS. MITCHELL: And as you have had experience
through your own students and through working with Dave at
the KIPP Schools.
MR. RANDOLPH: Right. So let me -- I'll tell
you just a bit about the process whereby we -- the sort of
sheet that was handed out of character, the sort of
character growth card. That's actually what we developed
with Angela, Marty Seligman, Chris Peterson, you know,
mainly Upenn out of the Positive Psychology Center.
And it looks like a very simple list, but it
actually really took us about 2 to 3 years of discussion
and trying out how to take some of Marty Seligman's ideas
in positive psychology, which really do annunciate along
with Chris Peterson a set of 24 strengths that sort of
supposedly encompasses all of human endeavor, lots of
different belief systems, lots of different philosophies.
And so we tried to see if we could -- how we'd
extrapolate, how we get into discussion to see how we take
that and move that into a school in a real way and it took
us some time to figure that out. We were interested. We
didn't feel that we could actually work at KIPP and
Riverdale, two very different schools with some overlap in
populations with kids. You know, I've got kids on
financial aid who are coming from KIPP to Riverdale.
How could we bring a common set of strengths
that we were going to focus in on in two very different
schools? So we spent a long time trying to hash out if we
could knock it down from 24 to some manageable list and
basically got down to this, the list that you have in
front of you that's got ones like optimism, curiosity.
We were very interested, as sort of Paul was
saying and Andrea was talking about, of moving away from
the sort of moral character of honesty and, you know,
integrity that seemed very, very vague and trying to make
it much more concrete. And so even though that looks
really simple, the way that we actually got the indicators
and I'd really point you to look on that sort of right-
hand side of the sheet of the student behaviors was, let's
say for optimism, we asked kids, faculty, parents, what is
it like when you're optimistic.
And we got lists of over 200 to 300 behaviors,
then basically we -- the Upenn group, statisticians have
knocked it down to about 50 nonredundant behaviors and
then we went through ano