About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Some Cautions about the New Character Education: An excerpt from the 2014 edition of Why School?

Character education is enjoying a resurgence. There is much talk about building perseverance, determination, flexibility, or (the everpresent buzzword) “grit.” Educators of many stripes are interested in character, though a good deal of the attention seems to be focused on low-income children—the hope being that building character might be effective in reducing the achievement gap. Journalist Paul Tough wrote a best-selling book, How Children Succeed, that summarizes the new character education, and University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for her research in this area.

I certainly don’t dispute the importance of qualities like perseverance and flexibility and, as is the case with so many teachers, do my best to foster them, but I am also worried that we, once again, are seeking a miracle cure for the entrenched social problems of poverty and inequality. What follows is a kind of extended cautionary tale.

This is a chapter from the new edition of Why School? that was printed in Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post “Answer Sheet” column on February 6 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/02/06/the-misguided-effort-to-teach-character/). Readers of my blog will recognize sections of it from separate pieces I posted during February of last year.


One of the surest claims one could make about how to lead a successful life, in or out of school, is that qualities such as determination, perseverance, self-control, and a degree of flexibility matter a lot. In American education, these qualities often get labeled as “character,” and there is a rapidly growing interest in how to teach and measure it. Conferences, consultants, and special issues of journals are focusing on character, and in late 2012 journalist Paul Tough wrote a bestselling book, How Children Succeed, that nicely summarizes the various bodies of research and advocates behind the current boom.

            As I watch twenty-first-century character education take off, I worry about two things, my worry born out of decades of watching new ideas—or, often, old wine in new bottles—capture our attention. One concern has to do with the way these qualities of character get defined, the other with the focus of a fair amount of the discussion on the education of low-income children.


            There is some confusion as to what to call qualities like perseverance or self-control. Some refer to them as personality traits, which in psychology refers to a set of relatively stable characteristics. Yet a quality like perseverance might change with setting, age, and task. I am dogged in writing an essay like this but become pretty squirrelly with tax forms or figuring out electronic devices.

            A further, and I think major, problem with terminology and definition has to do with the widespread tendency to refer to these qualities as “noncognitive” traits or skills. To understand the problem here, consider the definition of cognition and the way it’s been distorted in our recent educational history.

Cognition traditionally refers to a wide and rich range of mental processes, from memory and attention, to comprehending and using language, to solving a difficult problem in physics or choreography or sharing an office with someone. But over the last few decades cognition has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, cognition in education policy has increasingly come to be defined by the skills measured by standardized tests of reading and mathematics. And as economists have gotten more involved in education, they’ve needed quantitative measures of cognitive ability and academic achievement for their analytical models, so they’ve used I.Q. or other standardized test scores (like the Armed Forces Qualification Test or AFQT) as a proxy for intelligence or achievement. From the Latin cognoscere, to come to know, or cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, we’ve devolved to a few digits on the AFQT.

            Many of those who advocate character education believe that our nation’s educational focus on cognition has been misguided. Rather than focusing our energies on the academic curriculum—or on academic intervention programs for the poor—we need to turn our attention to the development of qualities of character, for as much or more than cognition, it is these qualities that account for success in school and life.

It is healthy to be reminded about the fuller scope of education in our test- and grade-obsessed culture, but what concerns me is that the advocates for character accept without question the reductive notion of cognition that runs through our education policies, and by accepting it, further affirm it. The problem is exacerbated by the aforementioned way economists carve up and define mental activity. If cognition is represented by scores on ability or achievement tests, then anything not captured in those scores—like the desired qualities of character—is, de facto, noncognitive. We’re now left with a skimpy notion of cognition and a reductive dichotomy to boot. This downplaying of the cognitive and the construction of the cognitive/noncognitive binary will have some troubling implications for education, especially for the education of the children of the poor.

To begin with, the labeling of character qualities as “noncognitive” misrepresents them—particularly if you use the truer, richer notion of cognition. Self-monitoring, for example, has to involve a consideration and analysis of one’s performance and mental state—a profoundly cognitive activity. Flexibility demands a weighing of options and decision making. This is not just a problem of terminology, for if you don’t have an accurate description of something, how can you help people develop it?

Furthermore, these desired qualities are developed over time in settings and relationships that are meaningful to the participants, which most likely means that the settings and relationships will have significant cognitive content. Two of the classic preschool programs that have provided a research base for the character advocates—the Perry Preschool and Abecedarian Projects—were cognitively rich in imaginative play, language use, and activities that required thought and cooperation.

A very different example comes from a study I just completed observing community college occupational programs as varied as fashion and diesel technology. As students developed competence, they also became more committed to doing a job well, were better able to monitor and correct their performance, and improved their ability to communicate what they were doing and help others do it. You could be by inclination the most determined or communicative person in the world, but if you don’t know what you’re doing with a garment or an engine, your tendencies won’t be realized in a meaningful way in the classroom or the workshop.

Also, we have to consider the consequences of this cognitive/non-cognitive binary in light of the history of American educational practice. We have a powerful tendency toward either/or policies—think of old math/new math or phonics/whole language. Given this tendency, we can predict a pendulum swing away from the academic and toward character education. And over the past fifty years attempts at character education as a distinct pursuit have not been particularly successful—in some cases, student behavior is not affected, or changes in beliefs and behaviors don’t last.

Finally, the focus of the current character education movement is on low-income children, and the cold, hard fact is that many poor kids are already getting terrible educations in the cognitive domain. There’s a stirring moment in Paul Tough’s book where a remarkable chess teacher decides she’s going to try to prepare one of her star pupils for an admissions test for New York’s selective high schools. What she found was that this stunningly bright boy had learned pitifully little academic knowledge during his eight years in school. It would be tragic to downplay a strong academic education for children like him.

This example brings to the fore my second concern about the current championing of character education. When the emphasis on character is focused on the individual attributes of poor children as the reason for their subpar academic performance, it can remove broader policies to address poverty and educational inequality from public discussion.


One of the powerful strands in the current discussion of character education is that it might succeed where academic interventions have failed in reducing the achievement gap. Perhaps psychological and educational interventions that focus on developing perseverance, self-control, and the like will help poor children succeed in school. Such qualities are indisputably key to a successful life, and they’ve been part of our folk wisdom about success well before Dale Carnegie made millions by promoting the power of positive thinking. But they’ve gained luster via economic modeling, psychological studies, and the technological advances of neuroscience. Because brain imaging allows us to see the frontal lobes light up when someone weighs a decision, these claims about character seem cutting edge. It is this aura of the new that contributes to a belief that we might have found a potent treatment for the achievement gap.

A diverse group of players is involved in this rediscovery and championing of character. Nobel Laureate in economics James Heckman advocates early childhood intervention programs for poor kids. Some charter schools, KIPP among them, infuse character education throughout the school day. And a whole range of smaller extracurricular and after-school programs—from Chicago’s OneGoal to a chess club in a public school in Brooklyn—focus their efforts in helping the children of the poor develop a range of mental strategies and shifts in perception aimed toward academic achievement.  I have worked with economically and educationally disadvantaged children and adults for forty years and know the importance of special programs and interventions. They need to be funded and expanded, for poor kids carry a heavy load and have absurdly limited access to any kind of school-related enrichment, especially as inequality widens.

            But we have to be very careful, given the political tenor of our time, not to assume that we have the long-awaited key to helping the poor overcome the assaults of poverty. My worry is that we will embrace these essentially individual and technocratic fixes—mental conditioning for the poor—and abandon broader social policy aimed at poverty itself.

            We have a long-standing shameful tendency in America to attribute all sorts of pathologies to the poor. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, the authors of a report from the Boston School Committee bemoaned the “undisciplined, uninstructed…inveterate forwardness and obstinacy” of their working-class and immigrant students. There was much talk in the Boston Report and elsewhere about teaching the poor “self-control,” “discipline,” “earnestness” and “planning for the future.” This language is way too familiar. 

            Some poor families are devastated by violence, uprooting, and substance abuse, and children are terribly affected. But some families hold together with iron-willed determination and instill values and habits of mind that middle-class families strive for. There’s as much variability among the poor as in any group, and we have to keep that fact squarely in our sights, for we easily slip into one-dimensional generalities about them.

            Given a political climate that is antagonistic toward the welfare state and has further shredded our already compromised safety net, psychosocial intervention may be the only viable political response to poverty available. But can you imagine the outcry if, let’s say, an old toxic dump were discovered near Scarsdale or Beverly Hills and the National Institutes of Health undertook a program to teach kids strategies to lessen the effects of the toxins but didn’t do anything to address the dump itself?

            We seem willing to accept remedies for the poor that we are not willing to accept for anyone else. We should use our science to figure out why that is so—and then develop the character and courage to fully address poverty when it is an unpopular cause.

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  1. Mike, This may be the most thought provoking of your blog posts to date. At least it prompted me to comment. I have been working with special needs children in a poor rural county for the past 11 years. I have worked in suburban, urban and rural settings for over 40 years. I have become aware that character in children is most effectively displayed during play. One of the most basic aspects of character is honesty. I did not see a reference to honesty. Character also includes compassion and the social skills to effectively communicate and get along with others. Character is built by self-reflection and learning when you take action and the world responds to you. Character may well be built upon meta-cognition. It is most certainly related to cognition. In my 40+ years I have seen fewer opportunities for children to engage in meaningful play or for them to initiate independent thought and action. In the early 1980s we saw a strong movement for teaching critical thinking disappear almost overnight. Now, there is nothing we need more at all income levels of our society than critical thinking.
    I have learned something profoundly valuable during the past decade, the poor do not necessarily aspire to the "values and habits of mind that middle class families strive for." I believe that the poor prefer the authenticity of their own experience, however humble and meager it may be, to the political correctness, material gains and mental illusions that many of the middle class strive for. At least I do.
    Thank you for this thoughtful and stimulating blog post. I agree with you and hope that you continue to question the latest fad in education.

  2. mike your blog is really good nice articles related to education...Thanks for sharing.

  3. Wow I really enjoy reading your blog. I hope you can also write something about new way of learning in the near future, and how technology effects the education.

  4. Rachelle Benveniste here. I am a creative writing instructor (15 years through UCLA's Writers' Program and founder of Writing in the Light I'm also widely published, national award winning writer and poet and also a nonfiction writer whose articles have appeared inn such publications as Whole Life Times. Education is of great interest to me. Congratulations, Mike, on your bountiful success with your books and awards! I look forward to your reading your blog. In Joy, Rachelle Benveniste