Our goal at Character Lab is to help students learn and flourish by making actionable, research-based character development practices accessible to teachers. Doing that well, in our view, involves three functions: research—determining which practices have the greatest effect on critical outcomes, design—distilling what is truly useful (and weeding out what is not!), and implementation—ensuring that educators are adequately trained and supported as they take action to refine their craft.
All too often—across the world of social impact—the professionals in charge of these functions operate in isolation of each other, despite targeting similar end goals. The final products of those solitary efforts can succeed within their own ecosystems, but regularly fall short of what’s needed to achieve the “ultimate mission” in the wider world.
For this reason, what I most appreciate about “Rethinking How Students Succeed,” through its inclusion of different perspectives, organizations, and sectors, is the spirit of collaborative learning and action its authors bring to defining the latest wave of character development in education. By casting a wide net, they have covered an impressive breadth of activity and surfaced some important and useful priorities for the field to consider.
In thinking about how we might push the conversation one step further, it occurred to me that, as is often the case with new or revisited concepts, it could be useful to include a conversation about what this movement is not to supplement this description of what it is. Some of what’s below directly responds to the article, and some ties to related conversations that seem to be emerging in education.
It’s not all figured out. The authors rightly focus on mechanisms for achieving broad impact, as anyone interested in widespread positive change should do. But that should not imply that the prescription is ready. We know character skills matter, that they could be game changers, and that some programs have taken a crack at developing some of them (with varying evidence of effectiveness). But more research is required to determine which discrete actions lead to which specific outcomes, and for whom. What’s more, we need to be upfront about that so that teachers, families, policy makers, and kids continue to anticipate and engage in (rather than be disenchanted by) the significant work that remains.
This is why intervention research still plays an important role at Character Lab. We match academic researchers with schools that want to be involved in cutting-edge research. And we play a role in facilitating those relationships. Many of the psychology and neuroscience researchers we work with acknowledge they don’t have the resources or infrastructure to take the theories they have developed into the classroom on their own. Similarly, educators do not have the resources to rigorously evaluate researchers’ innovations. We aim to be a bridge that enables these two groups to connect, and we are grateful to the many researcher institutions and schools that have expressed enthusiasm for these partnerships.
It’s not just about poor kids. Helping students become more curious, empathetic, perseverant people is a nationwide opportunity to shift how we think about education, period—even in top-performing schools attended by the most privileged of students. The authors assert that students from low-income urban districts will benefit most from our work, but neither the data, nor my personal experience, support that claim. I also worry that saying as much will lead some to conclude that low-income students need this more, which risks stigmatizing them unjustly.
It’s a unique moment in time when schools, families, and organizations across such a wide spectrum of the population are fired up about the same vision. We should foster that sense of unity in the way we communicate by making it clear that we all have work to do and that we all stand to gain from that work. Graduate schools of business and public leadership talk about character skills because they will prepare our kids to be bright and transformative leaders for tomorrow, rather than framing this work as a solution to the opportunity divide. Perhaps we should take a page from their book in that regard.
It’s not a zero sum game. At Character Lab, we absolutely agree with the authors that integrating character development practices into the daily routine of teaching makes a lot of sense. It is no secret that educators have limited time and resources, and there will always be questions from some about how to make room for more character development. At the same time, it would be wrong to presume that time spent on character must be separately carved out of the school day, or that it necessarily takes away from time spent on academics. For this reason, we are careful not to imply a zero-sum game in our efforts to distinguish character skills from reading, writing, and arithmetic. Instead, we envision a dual-purpose classroom that, for example, leverages self-control strategies to improve performance in dance class or grows social/emotional intelligence and empathy through literature.
Really good teachers are integrating character development in this way already. When our research team asked educators to submit their best character development ideas through our inaugural Teacher Innovation Grant, we were blown away by the variety of dual-purpose concepts suggested by veteran and novice teachers alike, from diverse school types, age bands, subject areas, and communities. Seven winners emerged, endorsed by 20,000 online public votes, and we are now set to help these innovators evaluate the impact of their ideas. While we very much hope to see skill growth as an outcome of these projects, we are equally eager to get down to the mechanics of integration. Time constraints have made traditional character curriculums and whole programs feel impractical to some, but these innovators offer hope that this is not an insurmountable barrier to progress.
Developing practices that are grounded in science, practical to implement, and relevant for a broad array of educational settings is no easy task. It will require collaboration across boundaries and comfort zones to get this done. And of course, as always, iteration, trying and failing, and learning from mistakes—just like what we are asking the kids to do. I’m encouraged by the work of the organizations in “Rethinking How Students Succeed” as well as many that are not mentioned. And I’m confident that working together will bring us closer to success.