Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Character strengths

“What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” An article in the New York Times with this title discusses what leads to academic success for privileged children in contrast to underprivileged ones. One of the key factors seems to be character strengths – and failure. This topic is not only relevant for children and their parents.

David Levin founded the KIPP network of charter schools together with Mike Fineberg in 1994. The aim of their “Knowledge Is Power Program” (KIPP) is to prepare children from underprivileged families for high school and college. The KIPP schools were extremely successful in doing so. For example, students from a KIPP school in New York City gained the fifth highest graduation scores in all New York City. A high percentage of these students completed high school successfully and continued to college. However, more of them than expected dropped out of college. Surprisingly, those who did succeed in college were not those who had shown exceptional academic performance in middle school, but those with exceptional character strengths like optimism, persistence and social intelligence.

This is in line with what Angela L. Duckworth found: self-discipline is a better predictor of academic success than IQ. We reported on this study in an earlier post. Another aspect she found to be important for outstanding performance is what she calls grit – passion for a single mission, and total dedication to that mission. There are other character strengths that are important for achievement, such as zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiousity.

Levin thinks that character strengths are crucial for students who do not get a lot of support from their families if they want to have academic success. However, his colleague Dominic Randolph, headmaster of Riverdale Country School, one of the most prestigious private schools in New York City, considers character strengths to be just as important for students from privileged families. In his opinion, these students are not prepared for failure because they have never been exposed to life’s adversity. They are not prepared – unless they have developed character strengths. In his opinion, in order to learn how to succeed, they have to learn how to fail.

The article in the New York Times describes how David Levin and Dominic Randolph tried to implement character strengths programs in their schools.

Character strengths are a subject researchers Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson have done extensive research on. They have published various articles on the topic and also a book (“Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification”). On the Authentic Happiness Page, one can take a questionnaire to assess one’s character strengths. They seem to play a key role for leading a happy, meaningful and productive life. Therefore, we will further investigate some of them in the next blog posts. Stay tuned!

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