Should schools teach personality?

Earlier this month, Anna North’s New York Times opinion piece “Should Schools Teach Personality?” caused a stir in education circles. North posed the question and then explored how character development – specifically qualities like curiosity, consciousness, self-control, and the charter school favorite ‘grit’ – could fit into our approach to education.

The debate stems out of recent research indicating that personality is a greater determinant of students’ success in school than traditional smarts, which has led many U.S. schools to incorporate these noncognitive traits directly into their teaching. The KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) system is a perfect example, where academics are taught alongside character traits including grit, optimism, and self-control, among others. Critics of the approach do not discount the importance of character education, but rather note that the increasing focus on personality distracts us from more pressing factors affecting students’ success – for example, the school environment, what type of material is taught, and how it is taught.

We interviewed TYO’s Psychosocial Program Manager Suhad Jabi, who counsels children ages 4-8 in our Core Child Program, to get her thoughts on the debate and its relevance to reforming education in Palestine.

Do you think noncognitive traits – for example grit and curiosity – can be taught? How?

Definitely. I believe that it can be taught, especially through modeling. But character development really starts at home and in the community, with family and community members encouraging positive behavior, modeling resilience, or say, compassion. It’s not something just one person can teach. Particularly in the high-need communities that TYO works with, family members play an important role in modeling emotional maturity and conflict resolution with children.

And of course, the first 5 years of a child’s life is the most critical time for personality development. Focusing on character development at an early age can have great long-lasting effects, and neglecting it can be hugely detrimental. As a society – families, the government, and other institutions – we need to invest more at that early age.

Of the two models described in the article – teaching character directly and teaching character integrated in classroom experiences, which do you think more closely describes TYO?

The second. At TYO, we’re all about exposing children to new experiences in the classroom that they do not experience at home: for example, mixing children from the city and refugee camps, or from two different refugee camps, and mixing boys and girls in the same class. It’s through experiencing these alternatives that the children begin to build positive personality traits and life skills.

Isn’t it difficult to measure a child’s achievement on these soft skills?

In that way, I think the debate misses an important point, which is that “teaching character” is not about creating identical copies of a certain personality type. That’s what I grew up with in Palestine’s rigid school system, which did not encourage individualism and valuing oneself. Until today, our school system fails to adapt to the diversity of personalities, of strengths and weaknesses, that children come in with. Not all kids have the same curiosity level or the same resilience, and that’s OK, so formally measuring those isn’t the right way to think about it.

At TYO, our children come in at very different stages of emotional and cognitive development. We offer an environment that fits the different needs and capacities of our diverse kids, an environment where they feel comfortable to try and fail without judgment. One of the first lessons taught in our curriculum for 4-5 year olds is that you are unique as an individual, and therefore valuable. That acceptance gives children the space to become more self-aware. Like the article mentions, our goal is to "teach people what they’re naturally like, so they can make better choices."

- Interviewed by Niralee, TYO Core Child Program Manager