Saturday, April 27, 2013

Building Student Character in the Classroom

Originally published at

The Importance of “Performance Character”

Anyone who has spent time in a classroom knows that schooling involves far more than academic lessons. Many things contribute to a student’s learning and success—and just as many things can detract from it.  One can argue to what extent teachers and school districts should hold themselves responsible for factors such as adequate sleep, balanced nutrition, and safe places to sleep at night. But other elements that affect student performance are closely tied to the academic work of the classroom and can be cultivated and developed by the teacher. In fact, studies have shown that attention to certain character traits can greatly affect a student’s ability to succeed in school and in life.

When we speak of character development in education, we often think of traditional moral values—issues of ethics and interpersonal behavior. But the high-yield character traits that researchers are beginning to focus on in school settings speak more to academic behavior than interpersonal issues. The focus is less on how a student interacts with other students, and more on how a student interacts with the work. 

Often called “habits of mind,” and defined and categorized variously by authors and researchers over the years, these academic performance character values, as author Paul Tough calls them in How Children Succeed, can be transmitted and learned implicitly and almost thoughtlessly as part of family culture or economic class; in many families and communities they are modeled and extolled by adults and expected of children from very early ages. Some students, however, grow up without these kinds of expectations, outside of communities or families that embody and demand performance-oriented values, or in homes where overstressed and overworked parents have trouble providing sufficient attention to these values.  As research is beginning to show us, teachers can make a profound difference here. Schools that serve low-income or struggling students are finding that the explicit teaching and cultivation of these habits of mind can prove to be important keys to student success.

Performance Character Values

There are many ways to define and categorize the skills and habits of mind that help students learn and succeed in school and life, and many different skills and habits that contribute to success. At my  company, Catapult Learning, we have selected six performance-related character values to focus upon and support as we develop new programs and revise our current offerings. They are:

·         Persisting towards solutions

·         Working with precision

·         Asking questions

·         Working with others

·         Making connections

·         Monitoring progress and embracing learning

Some of these values will look familiar to those of you who have been working to learn and implement the Common Core State Standards; several come straight from the Standards for Mathematical Practice. Others are values highlighted by organizations such as the Partnership for 21st Century Learning. Values like “making connections” speak to the need to help students transfer their discrete learning into a variety of new and unpredictable contexts both in and beyond school. And others, like “monitoring progress” and “asking questions,” are things that we’ve always tried to focus on and encourage in our classrooms.

In the next few blog posts over the next few months, as we work our way towards the new school year, I'll spend some time talking about each of these performance character values and how I think teachers can use them to help students engage more successfully in their academic work.