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What if the secret to success is character education?

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Riverdale Country School was featured a few weeks ago in the lengthy New York Times article, "What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?" An established, elite private school in New York earned this attention because of its exceptional determination to teach character.


It's not hard to find schools and school systems that talk about teaching character education. It's also not hard to find schools that take steps to teach it. It is hard finding schools that put character education alongside academics in importance. To be fair, it's just not what schools have been designed to do. 

What If the Secret to Success Is Character Education?

Many people argue that character education belongs at home, and that schools need to focus on what they are designed to deliver — academic skills.

Riverdale identified the character traits that they believed mattered most for success in life. Having started with a list of 24, they narrowed the list to seven. One that takes a particularly prominent place is grit — the trait that includes the resilience and persistence needed to make your way in an unpredictable world. Aligning all they do to the development of those seven traits, even when that meant doing things other schools didn't do (like limiting homework and not offering Advanced Placement Courses), they are going against the grain of conventional schooling. Predictably, going against the grain has prompted a push back.

In response to the article, many people argued that character education belongs at home, and that schools need to focus on what they are designed to deliver — academic skills. Of course, schools need to deliver on academics, and character unquestionably starts and is nurtured in the home. However, whether intended to or not, character plays out for five to nine hours a day, five days a week, 200 days a year for 14 of the most formative years of one's life, at school. Learning comes from authentic practice. It comes from challenge. It comes from trial and error. It comes from the application of what you know in a wide variety of contexts. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, learning specific skills takes 10,000 hours. That happens in large measure at school.

Characters are developing at school whether we intend them to or not. With due attention, students can develop the traits that unequivocally matter for—success in the 21st century. With inattention,—an opportunity that matters is missed.

No one argues that character doesn't matter. That's a good thing. Putting character education alongside the conventional curriculum, and aligning all practice so both character and curriculum are as strong as they can be, are worth arguing for.

Even if it means going against the grain, isn't that a sign of strong character?

—Andrea Fanjoy

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