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Apodaca: Trying to find the balance between academic learning and building character

September 22, 2012|By Patrice Apodaca

Trends in education come and go, and sometimes come back again.

Straight from the everything-old-becomes-new-again department comes a theme that's generating attention at the moment. It's a bit squiggly to grasp — think: eating Jell-O with a fork — but it loosely involves a set of core qualities known as character, resilience and grit.

This line of thinking argues that, instead of focusing so intently on traditional measures of intelligence, we should gear our efforts toward building these real-world traits.

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Books and articles have touched on this theme in recent years. One that's fueling discussion is Paul Tough's "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character."

Tough's well-researched book cites many studies and statistics, and includes anecdotes from the author's observations at the most challenged, impoverished school settings to the most elite. From this vast and sometimes meandering mix of information he draws the general conclusion that success follows from tenacity and determination, not from high SAT scores.

Well heck, I could've told you that.

I'm picturing a young, penniless Benjamin Franklin, full of pluck and blessed with a sharp wit, but little formal education, arriving on the streets of Philadelphia in search of his fortune.

I'm also reminded of my middle-school history teacher, Mr. Powers, who was famous for his entertaining rants. One of his favorite lines, delivered with great gusto: "Give me a solid 'C' student who worked hard for that grade over someone who gets an 'A' without trying any day." (Note that this was back in the day when a 'C' wasn't considered a near failure.)

It seems simply common sense to suggest that certain character traits engender success and accomplishment. But what makes Tough's book, and many others with similar themes, so interesting is not this conclusion. It's the depth of new understanding on why this is the case, and how we can better use this information, that makes the renewed focus on character so compelling.

For example, Tough cites intriguing research into the true damage done to children from disadvantaged upbringings, including findings that show that those hardships create not only psychological, but real physical responses that make it nearly impossible for those kids to learn.

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