Getting It Right- Outcomes vs Character

In the world of education, we often debate what is important to teach children and how best to teach them.  We banter back and forth in the realm of assessment between evaluating learning outcomes demonstrated and whether our assessments are devaluing character.  For example, a child is expected to submit an assignment for science class that explains the process of cell division.  Our assessment is to reflect the child’s understanding of this outcome.  However, on the day that the teacher collects this assignment, the child does not have it completed.  Herein lies the great debate amongst educators.  Do we respond by assessing the outcomes when the student does submit (whether one week or one month down the road), since the assessment is to reflect understanding of the learning outcome by the end of a course and not the work habit (not meeting deadlines)?  Or, by doing so, are we sending the message that following through, meeting deadlines, managing time, being organized, or being resourceful are not important?

What we do know, is that every child is different and the circumstances leading up to a child not meeting the learning outcomes by a certain date are diverse.  We know that our evaluation of a student in a course must reflect the learning outcomes met by the end of a course.  The rationale for this is that every child learns in different ways and at different rates.  If we are to adhere to this learning principle, then our assessment should reflect this.  That said, it still creates some concern for educators who are wondering whether our evaluations are implicitly telling students that character is no longer as important as curriculum outcomes. 

Several of our staff are currently reading, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiousity, and the Hidden Power of Character”, by Paul Tough.

The author talks about the predictors of success for children in school and later in life.  Interestingly, IQ is not one of those indicators and neither are letter grades in courses.  However, the following seven strengths are identified as predictors of success:

  • Grit
  • Self-Control
  • Zest
  • Social Intelligence
  • Gratitude
  • Optimism
  • Curiousity

If these seven strengths are predictors of success, why is it that we don’t provide feedback to parents and students on these?  Why are our conversations with students and parents often revolving around learning outcomes, percentages, and that quest of one more mark?

The author talks about the things we do as adults that shield our children from experiences that typically develop character.  He says,  “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering.  They don’t have a threshold for it.  They’re protected against it quite a bit.”  It’s often the challenges we face that precipitate the greatest learning, even when it is uncomfortable.  The author goes on to say that as adults, “We have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small.  And yet we know- on some level, at least- that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.”  As the author suggests, “the best way for a young person to build character is to attempt something where there is a real and serious possibility of failure.”

So, herein lies a further dilemma.  How do we teach children to deal with failure if their mistakes result in high stake costs?  What if the failure means that they don’t make it into a post secondary school, or their failure leads to physical or emotional harm that has lifelong ramifications?  It seems that this is where the line gets blurred because each of us have a differing opinion about when to step in and intervene.

At Riverside, we are looking to revamp our report card format, particularly for interim reports.  Since the amount of data we have on those first reports make it difficult to issue a mark that accurately reflects a child’s progress, we are considering providing parents and students with feedback that more accurately reflects the character attributes that would indicate if a child is more likely to be successful in their course.  That is not to say that we will not or cannot provide any information on learning outcomes.  It just seems to me that if we are to value character strengths, then we must reflect this in our feedback to students and parents.  My hope is that the conversations between staff, parents, and students move from how to get another mark on an assignment or test to discussions about how a child’s character attributes can be further developed.  Can we keep our conversations more focused on students, asking them what character attribute might result in them showing improvement in school and what actions would support their growth with that particular attribute?  In other words, it’s not about the mark, but about the actions and attitudes behind that mark.  If staff, parents, and students make a conscious effort to develop these character attributes in and out of the classroom, would we inevitably see increased student achievement in our courses?  Helping students understand what these attributes are, why they’re important, and how to develop them brings a level of awareness and action to ensure they get the attention they deserve.  If we are just as concerned about future success as we are with present success, then perhaps Paul Tough has a point. 

Feel free to share your thoughts. 

Are you gritty?  Take this 12 Item Grit Scale!


About aciolfitto

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