CHARACTER-what it actually means

“Character is a skill, not a trait. At any age, character skills are stable across different tasks, but skills can change over the life cycle. Character is shaped by families, schools, and social environments.”
Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success” (2014)
‘Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.’                                                                Albert Einstein

‘Knowledge will give you power, but character respect.’                   Bruce Lee


Even before I began teaching in the early seventies I had heard the term ‘character’ used, usually referring, explaining or justifying why someone behaved in a certain way. However, as a teacher experimenting and researching with pupil’s behaviour, I tried to understand it more thoroughly.
The English word “character” is derived from the Greek ‘charaktêr’, which was originally used of a mark impressed upon a coin. Later and more generally, “character” came to mean a distinctive mark by which one thing was distinguished from others, and then primarily to mean the assemblage of skills that determines the way they think, feel and behave, distinguishing one individual from another.
As I carried out my experimenting and research I was delighted to discover that basically Aristotle’s view was similar to mine in that virtually everyone is capable of becoming better, i.e. developing these skills. Furthermore, the subtitle to one of my favourite books, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Stephen R. Covey is ‘Restoring the Character Ethic’ and in essence focuses upon developing the skills to improve character and become a more effective person.

Character Strengths and Virtues                                                                             The 2004 publication Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification by Christopher Peterson & Martin E. P. Seligman provides some excellent support for my research into discovering the answer to ‘What do we really need to learn to achieve a successful, healthy, happy life?’ It provides the following 24 character strengths and virtues, which I would call ‘skills’ as they can be learnt or developed and clearly overlap a great deal with the 8 skills.
Strengths of Wisdom and Knowledge: Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and use of knowledge
1. Creativity
2. Curiosity
3. Open-mindedness
4. Love of learning:
5. Perspective [wisdom]:
Strengths of Courage: Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external and internal
6. Bravery [valor]:
7. Persistence
8. Integrity [honesty]:
9. Vitality [zest, enthusiasm]
Strengths of Humanity: interpersonal strengths that involve tending and befriending others
10. Love
11. Kindness
12. Social intelligence
Strengths of Justice: civic strengths that underlie healthy community life
13. Citizenship [social responsibility, teamwork]:
14. Fairness.
15. Leadership
Strengths of Temperance: strengths that protect against excess
16. Forgiveness and mercy
17. Humility / Modesty
18. Prudence
19. Self-regulation [self-control]
Strengths of Transcendence: strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide meaning
20. Appreciation of beauty and excellence.
21. Gratitude
22. Hope [optimism]:
23. Humour
24. Spirituality [ purpose]
Since the start of this century there seem to have been a plethora of researchers who have published books or articles supporting the importance of developing the 8 skills, using a wide variety of terms.
The following extract from the introduction to ‘Promise and Paradox: Measuring Students’ Non-cognitive Skills and the Impact of Schooling’ (2014) attempts explain why “Non-cognitive skills” has become a popular term.
“Non-cognitive, therefore, has become a catchall term for traits or skills not captured by assessments of cognitive ability and knowledge. Many educators prefer the umbrella terms “social and emotional learning” (Durlak et al. 2011) or “21st Century skills” (National Research Council, 2012), while some psychologists and economists embrace the moral connotations of “virtue” and “character” (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Heckman & Kautz, 2013).”

James J. Heckman
A very important supporter of the 8 skills and my research, though he does not know it, since the start of this century, is James J. Heckman, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, and Nobel Memorial Prize winner in economics (2000) and an expert in the economics of human development. His research with various economists, developmental psychologists, sociologists, statisticians and neuroscientists has shown clearly that development of skills in early childhood heavily influences health, economic and social outcomes for individuals and society at large.
“An important lesson to draw from the entire literature on successful early interventions is that it is the social skills and motivation of the child that are more easily altered—not IQ. These social and emotional skills affect performance in school and in the workplace. We too often have a bias toward believing that only cognitive skills are of fundamental importance to success in life.”
James J. Heckman, PhD Nobel Laureate in Economic Sciences 2000
In his 2001 article The Importance of Noncognitive Skills: Lessons from the GED Testing Program with Yoma Rubinstein, they state.
“Much of the neglect of noncognitive skills in analyses of earnings, schooling, and other lifetime outcomes is due to the lack of any reliable measure of them.”

It is such a relief and so refreshing to see a Nobel prizewinner and eminent researcher reflect my own research and reach use almost the same words as I. Throughout the years since then he has continued to provide excellent research evidence emphasising the need for societies to focus on developing and measuring these noncognitive skills. The following extract is part of the summary from Schools, Skills, and Synapses James J. Heckman May 2008

• America has a growing skills problem.
• One consequence of this skills problem is rising inequality and polarization of society. A greater fraction of young Americans is graduating from college. At the same time, a greater fraction is dropping out of high school.
• Another consequence of the skills problem is the slowdown in growth of the productivity of the workplace.
• Current social policy directed toward children focuses on improving cognition. Yet more than smarts is required for success in life.
• Gaps in both cognitive and noncognitive skills between the advantaged and the disadvantaged emerge early and can be traced in part to adverse early environments. A greater percentage of U.S. children is being born into adverse environments.
• Recent research shows how cognitive and personality skills are affected by parental investments and life experiences

With James Heckman being such an important researcher he has had an increasing range of associates. In 2014 with several other researchers he produced the working paper “Fostering and Measuring Skills: Improving Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills to Promote Lifetime Success” (2014) Tim Kautz, James J. Heckman, Ron Diris, Bas ter Weel, Lex Borghans that reviews the recent literature on measuring and boosting cognitive and noncognitive skills.
• The literature establishes that achievement tests do not adequately capture character skills, personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains.
• Their predictive power rivals that of cognitive skills.
• Reliable measures of character have been developed.
• All measures of character and cognition are measures of performance on some task.
• In order to reliably estimate skills from tasks, it is necessary to standardize for incentives, effort, and other skills when measuring any particular skill.
• Character is a skill, not a trait. At any age, character skills are stable across different tasks, but skills can change over the life cycle.
• Character is shaped by families, schools, and social environments.
• Skill development is a dynamic process, in which the early years lay the foundation for successful investment in later years.
• High-quality early childhood and elementary school programs improve character skills in a lasting and cost-effective way.
• Many of them beneficially affect later-life outcomes without improving cognition.

The influence of these important researchers probably helped to influence the increased establishment of the use of the term Character Skills as reflected in this extract from the UK newspaper, The Guardian 20th May 2011
“Why character skills are crucial in early years education”
James Heckman’s research into the benefits of concentrating on character over cognitive skills can help tackle inequality.
The character skills that are crucial are summed up in Heckman’s acronym “Ocean”: openness (curiosity, willing to learn); consciousness (staying on task); extroversion (outgoing, friendly); agreeableness (helpful); neuroticism (attention to detail, persistence). These are the skills that enable children to learn; without them even the best teachers can do little. These are the skills that are predictive of outcomes such as educational achievement, obesity, offender rates, employment and smoking. The single biggest predictor of longevity and school achievement is conscientiousness – which is effectively a form of self-control.

In 2012, Paul Tough’s excellent book “How Children Succeed; Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” was published and became a bestseller, helping to publicise James Heckman’s research and Character Skills a great deal. The following review gives an outline of it.

In this book the author reverses three decades of thinking about what creates successful children, solving the mysteries of why some succeed and others fail, and of how to move individual children toward their full potential for success.
The story we usually tell about childhood and success is the one about intelligence: success comes to those who score highest on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs. But in this book the author argues that the qualities that matter most have more to do with character: skills like perserverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control. He uncovers the surprising ways in which parents do, and do not, prepare their children for adulthood.
And he provides us with new insights into how to help children growing up in poverty. Early adversity, scientists have come to understand, can not only affect the conditions of children’s lives, it can alter the physical development of their brains as well. But now educators and doctors around the country are using that knowledge to develop innovative interventions that allow children to overcome the constraints of poverty. And with the help of these new strategies, children who grow up in the most painful circumstances can go on to achieve amazing things.
This book has the potential to change how we raise our children, how we run our schools, how we construct our social safety net, and also how to change our understanding of childhood itself.

The last sentence in this review could easily be a summary of my own objectives or mission, except that the 8 skills will also include the skills of effective learning, cognition and communication.
There does not yet appear to be a consensus to the character skills, the following being common examples:
Openness (curiosity, willing to learn); Consciousness (staying on task); Extroversion (outgoing, friendly); Agreeableness (helpful); Neuroticism (attention to detail, persistence); Perseverance; Curiosity; Optimism; Self Control.
The Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) nationwide network of schools found throughout the United States are extensively referred to in Paul Tough’s book that has a Character Report Card. The character skills are described as Zest; Grit; Self-control; Optimism; Gratitude; Social Intelligence; Curiosity.


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