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Counting Character

December 24, 2013

Saye Kakata

About ten days ago I made my first trip back to the States.  I had just three goals: hug my mom, take the GMAT, and buy a lot of books.  Now that I’ve done the first two, I’ve focused in on the third.  Since October I’ve been trolling Amazon and refining the list of books I hope will fit in my return luggage—books for my students, books for my colleagues, and, most difficult to narrow down, books for myself.

A lot of Peace Corps Volunteers talk about missing food.  I just missed books.  I know of exactly two real bookstores in Liberia and they sell exclusively textbooks.  Longman bookstore is new and exciting and I love it, but the truth is most book sales happen out of wheelbarrows on sidewalks and in markets.  As a result, it is easier to find books about the dangers of late marriage than about current trends in educational theory and policy.

So I loaded up my ‘wheel’ on Amazon and boxes started trickling in last week.  The first book I picked up and devoured was How Children Succeed by Paul Tough.  While the stories and research are not necessarily surprising, Tough validates a lot of what I’ve experienced personally and professionally.  See, it turns out, character counts.

Now this is where I should pause and thank my mother, give her an apology, and probably give her at least one more hug.  She let me try anything I wanted to when I was growing up.  Then when I failed (which happened a lot) she consoled me, told me I was building character—which she claimed was more valuable—and sent me back out.  At the time I hated these ‘loser speeches’ and yelled on at least one occasion that I had enough character and I just wanted to win.

Research across neuroscience, psychology, and education is increasingly showing, however, that she was exactly right.  Failing repeatedly but having the persistence and grit to keep trying are turning out to be some of the most valuable traits we can instill in children.  In fact, surprising or not, students who exhibit these character traits dramatically outpace peers with higher test scores in just about every indicator of success you measure.  They’re happier.  They’re physically healthier.  They make more money.

Of course, all of this makes me think of my students in Liberia.  They are the most gritty, persistent, and resilient people I have ever met.  Yet on paper their stats and scores couldn’t be more dismal.  Even the best students fail at least one class during high school, score the equivalent of a B- average, and barely pass the national exam, if they pass at all on the first try.   (Read The Opportunity Gap to see how I feel about the WAEC.)  So why have I bothered to help them complete more than 100 scholarship applications over the past three years?

Because character counts.

The students aren’t bad—the education they’re (not) receiving is bad.  There has always been something about Liberian students that inspires and confuses me.  In art history it’s the kind of thing we’d call the sublime, something wonderful and awe inspiring but wholly unexplainable and unquantifiable.  According to Tough, that’s what educators call character in students.  It’s the crazy thing that makes them go to school everyday even though the teacher doesn’t.  It makes them save and sacrifice to graduate even though they haven’t seen a diploma help anyone else they know.  Tough says that even if the diploma they end up with isn’t as sparkly and their test scores aren’t as high, they graduate with something their more ‘successful’ peers lack—the more important knowledge that they “climbed the mountain.”

Working with my students it is frustrating how often scholarships focus so much on the numbers that they miss the mountain.  Last year Ashesi University decided to award no scholarships to Liberia (even though they had ten) because none of the applicants earned the desired score on the national exam.  My student George missed it by two points.  He’s currently a primary school teacher and, while I know he’s a damn good one, I know that isn’t why he climbed the mountain.  So, just like my mother, I dusted him off and sent him back out to try again.  In a few months we’ll know if the mountain made it into the picture this time.

It will be a long time before Liberia is known for academic excellence and high test scores.  But in the meantime, I firmly believe Liberian students can succeed anyway.  The system isn’t teaching much math or English, but it is developing persistence, self-reliance, and an enviable amount of grit that, if given the opportunity, will carry them to the top of any mountain.

The wonderful and exciting thing about character is that it can be shaped and developed.  The debate continues on how malleable IQ is, but there is no question that character can be shaped long into middle and high school.  The even better part?  Strong character is a better indicator of long-term success than any test scores.

So, Peace Corps teachers of Liberia, and teachers everywhere, keep hope.  Even when students are floundering and seem to be failing they might actually be developing the skills they need most.

Character is power.

– Booker T. Washington

One Comment leave one →
  1. Robert Dahl permalink
    December 30, 2013 7:47 pm


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