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Character Strengths — Beyond the Common Core

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Though the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are, in my opinion, a common sense approach to preparing students for the worlds of college and careers, they intentionally leave out any mention of non-academic skills needed for post-secondary flourishing.

And frankly, that's what schools are for: to promote long-term, widespread human flourishing.

So what are those non-academic skills that so often make people of average intelligence end up more successful in life than people of above-average intelligence?

There's a lot of coordinated and focused work being done around this question right now, ranging from a Nobel Prize-winning economist to everyday teachers like you and me. James Heckman (the Nobel winner) calls these success-yielding factors “soft skills” or “non-cognitive skills” or “learnable personality traits.” But when I first came across them, it was under the label “character strengths” via KIPP schools in New York City.

“Highly predictive” character strengths

Through collaborations with Dr. Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania), Dr. Chris Peterson (University of Michigan — Go Blue!), and Dr. Angela Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania), KIPP has developed a focused list of seven character strengths that are highly predictive of lives that are “engaged, meaningful, and purposeful”:


This is an amazing list of strengths, and the research supporting them is equally cool. For example, Dr. Duckworth gave a simple, 10-question survey about grit — perseverance, essentially — to incoming freshman cadets at West Point. After a period of time, Duckworth's simple survey ended up being more predictive of success than the highly sophisticated measurement tools West Point has traditionally used.

At one point in an awesome TED talk that Duckworth gave, she mentions a study in which a researcher read the biographies of over 300 geniuses from throughout world history. The common traits found throughout these “geniuses” were, surprisingly, not really talent.

We need to infuse our Common Core literacy with common sense character strengths.

For this reason and many more, myself and a few colleagues have been implementing the seven character strengths in our classes since last spring. Though it's been a slow start, we are starting to get qualitative feedback that points to the effectiveness of having a shared vocabulary with students for speaking about success-yielding, non-cognitive skills.

Although this is a post, I've also created a permanent “Character Strengths” page in the resources section of Teaching the Core.

Going deeper:

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