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Character Strengths

A Note from Dave: Character strengths are a part of the all-day literacy workshop that I've led at schools around the country. Teachers across the content areas consistently say this is one of the best professional development experiences they've had. Want to bring me to your school? Learn more here.

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Literacy is non-negotiable for students on the path to a flourishing life.

Yet it's not everything.

Let's do a quick exercise

Picture a kid you currently work with who you feel is most likely to succeed. You don't need to have a rational reason — just a gut feeling will work.

Got the kid in your head? Good.

Now: why did you pick that kid? Describe what it is about the kid that makes you think she'll succeed. Go ahead. Talk to the computer. I'm listening.

Thank you.

Here's how most people don't answer that question

Most folks don't pick their kid because the kid is smart; they definitely don' t pick the kid because he's good at taking tests.

No. Most folks say things like:

  • eager to learn
  • friendly
  • resilient
  • determined
  • organized
  • self-starting

And so on.

Intelligence is a big deal — but character is too.

I sort of hate Sputnik.

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My problem with Sputnik is that, when the USSR ignited the space race by launching Sputnik into the sky, it provided a fear-based incentive for educational reforms that would improve the United States' academic achievement. Sputnik-inspired reforms aimed mostly at science and technical education, but it wasn't long before “the three R's” landed firmly in US edu-policy crosshairs.

Today, the USA is a country whose schools are firmly betting that academics alone will yield American competitiveness; Paul Tough calls this flawed conventional wisdom the “cognitive theory.”

And yet a growing body of research is showing what we all know to be the case: success isn't solely a function of how good we measure on the state math test or how well we score on the ACT Reading or how high our IQ is. These measures of cognitive ability are not worthless; wise teachers value them for what they are. Yet they are not infallible, either. The great teachers around this country aim at smarts + more.

The promise of the research and the problem with the term

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?

A lot of focused work has been done around this question over the past few years. Nobel Prize-winning economists, MacArther Grant-winning researchers, college-and-career-readiness experts, determined parents, and everyday teachers like you and me are earnestly in search of the most highly predictive character strengths (or, as James Heckman, the Nobel-winner, calls them, “noncognitive skills“; or, as David Conley, the readiness experts, calls them, “success skills”).

The good news is that we now know a lot about what these strengths are.

“Highly predictive” character strengths

A powerful collaboration of Dr. Martin Seligman (University of Pennsylvania), Dr. Chris Peterson (University of Michigan — Go Blue!), Dr. Angela Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania), KIPP co-founder Dave Levin, and CharacterLab board member Dominic Randolph have developed a focused list of seven character strengths that are highly predictive of lives that are “engaged, meaningful, and purposeful.”

You can click on the image above to see what Character Lab has to say about each of the strengths — they have become my go-to resource for all things character strengths.

For the rest of this page, I'm going to keep track of everything I know and have read about character strengths instruction. If you know of something — an article, a study, a video — I've missed, or if you find I've made a mistake somewhere on the page, please contact me here.

he 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.

Getting started with character strengths:

The first step to doing these right in the classroom is understanding both what they are and the research behind them. The best way to do that is through a couple of videos made by leaders in the work.

Angela Duckworth's second TED talk on the topic

Just for the record, I have a hard time being unbiased about Dr. Duckworth. Her ethos/pathos/logos combination zeroes in on my head and my heart, and it's had a shaping effect on my work since I first became acquainted with it back in 2011.

This video is a short and powerful entre into the topic of grit in particular and character strengths in general:

Angela Duckworth's first TED talk on the topic

Duckworth's first TED talk is longer; it provides different anecdotes and studies.

Andrew Sokatch — Director of Research at Character Lab

Andy is an able communicator, a sharp mind, and a great leader. His TED talk is great.

Going deeper: