Listens Well and Follows Directions

Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed, recently put the spotlight on character development in education. He examines education, psychology and neuroscience in an effort to provide evidence for what what we know intuitively: that character is as important as intelligence in producing productive members of society, and though intelligence level is relatively fixed, character can be learned.

In a recent interview on Minnesota Public Radio News, the author discusses the importance of failure and adversity in creating character. He observes the socially accepted role of failure for entrepreneurs and athletes, noting that we actively omit this dimension from our educational system.

To our detriment we have become a culture that stigmatizes mistakes during the learning process, when it’s critical to embrace them as teachable moments. The fact that we have institutionalized communication and problem-solving skills as “soft skills” illustrates their secondary consideration.

Tough himself dropped out of Columbia University at 18, and says he quickly began building character by “learning how to be wrong in ways [he] wasn’t taught in school.” The author argues for a transformational shift in the way we view failure and adversity, echoing a message from a popular 2007 TED Talk.

In Do Schools Kill Creativity? Sir Ken Robinson explains

“Being wrong is not the same thing as being creative. If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

(Robinson’s 2012 followup, Bring on the Learning Revolution!, is also worth a watch.)

Preparation for failure is a fascinating concept that depends as much on economics as access to education does, and serves as further evidence that the most critical barrier to success is money — and it’s not just a disadvantage to the poor.

We know academic inflation means lower income households have less access to the level of education necessary for success, while the more affluent have ready access to higher quality education. But there’s a flip-side to this situation that’s only been acknowledged more recently with conversations lead by people like Tough and Robinson.

Failure and adversity are scarce for those educated in high-achieving (read: wealthy) academic environments, which means they aren’t cultivating innovative problem-solving skills. By contrast, the poor have disproportionately high adversity, which results in chronic stress that inhibits academic performance but necessitates the development of problem-solving and coping skills.

The good news for the better-educated is that character can be learned, so they’re able figure how to cope if adversity strikes. The good news for the poor is that, if nurtured, the character they develop can make them successful despite their education.