Academics aren’t enough
How can we teach character traits?
By Zachary Hodges, Duncan Klussmann, Steve Rosencranz, special to the Houston Chronicle
December 1, 2014 Updated: December 1, 2014 6:00am
Read Boles, the president of Southwest Shipyard, on the Houston ship channel, is challenged to find shipyard workers who can perform exacting barge repair tasks. He’s not finding workers with hard skills like welding and pipefitting; but even more importantly, he’s not seeing enough applicants he can count on to show up on time, to work well with others, to embrace new tasks, and want to get ahead through dogged determination and hard work.
Boles is just one of many Houston employers with the same dilemma — there just aren’t the trained workers to fill today’s jobs, much less tomorrow’s jobs. So how do we ensure that workers who have what it takes to make it– both the hard and soft skills — are available and ready to go?
Understanding which kids will make it in the world of work and which ones will struggle in school and the workforce is a hot topic today. School districts like Spring Branch ISD are tackling this challenge head-on, with the goal of doubling the number of students completing a technical certificate, military training, two-year degree or four-year degree.
Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, has found that grit, the ability to persevere to achieve long-term goals, is key in separating those who make it from those who don’t. She has found that grit is not yoked to talent: Just because we’re talented or can pass the test, doesn’t mean we have what it takes to succeed in life. Duckworth’s research demonstrates the importance of grit not only in academic outcomes for our students, but also in outcomes later on in life (performance and excellence in their careers).
Grit, perseverance, tenacity, zest for life, curiosity, self-discipline, problem-solving skills and other positive behaviors are being shown as better predictors of success than IQ or passing the test. That leads to the question: How do our schools, especially in today’s environment of test-frenzy, teach these skills and behaviors that are as important as the academic side?
We come at this topic from different backgrounds: Two of us lifetime educators and one an entrepreneur now heading a non-profit. We agree that failure to pass the test is a significant barrier to ultimate life success, but we can’t say that passing the test leads to success. We can say that passing the test and being gritty and tenacious and having a zest for life means our students will have a higher likelihood of becoming strong members of the workforce and more productive human beings. We don’t, however, see developing these life skills as a focus in today’s education system.
So how should our schools measure grit, zest, perseverance, problem solving, and all the other soft skills that are so important? More importantly, how should they teach these things? Many educators will throw up their hands and say these skills are very challenging to teach in a classroom setting, and they’re right. But that doesn’t mean we should stand still and say it can’t be done. It must be done!
We must challenge educators to be embrace programs that develop these skills. One group that is going down the path of encouraging these behaviors is the KIPP public school network. While KIPP is asking its educators to help students build grit, tenacity, zest, and curiosity, it is also working hard to define how to accomplish the task in a classroom setting. KIPP’s progress in this area is encouraging and is something Spring Branch and others are learning from: Before we can solve a problem, we need to identify it, honor it, and then set out to determine the solution.
Project-based learning works. Debate, science fairs, robotics competitions, school newspapers and other activities that require teamwork, productivity, and strong coaching and mentorship are examples of project-based learning.
Wilderness education is another solution. By taking students out of their home environment, we can create in them a sense of wonder, a desire to embrace new ideas and new situations, and the recognition that there is a far wider world than their home turf on which they can perform. At The Woods Project, we do this by taking Houston-area students into unfamiliar environments such as Yosemite National Park, where they are stretched in a positive, affirming way and put in situations which require problem solving, critical thinking, leadership and teamwork to solve. In these situations, creativity is required, and, more importantly, it is possible to measure their success and give them skills and experiences that will resonate with them for their entire lifetime.
Removing students from the four walls of the classroom means that educators develop new relationships with their students, becoming their coaches and encouragers and not just their task masters. Taking the student from the four walls of the classroom takes the shackles off the education experience and allows the whole student to develop. It’s a simple formula for moving students from passive to active learning.
Business leaders must participate in and take ownership of the discussion about developing good workers and not just test-passers. If business doesn’t push the education community to focus on the whole child, Read Boles and others will continue to struggle to find the workers they need to keep our Houston economy moving forward.
Zachary Hodges is acting vice chancellor of academic affairs, Houston Community College.
Duncan Klussmann is the superintendent of Spring Branch Independent School District.
Steve Rosencranz is founder and president of The Woods Project.
Article can be found on the Houston Chronicle website: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/gray-matters/article/Academics-aren-t-enough-5917411.php