Character Skills

In 2013, a journalist named Paul Tough wrote a book called “How Children Succeed” that became a bestseller (rare for books about education) and a national phenomenon. The book focuses on a simple question: “what are the skills that children need to be successful, particularly in college?”

Tough summarizes the best current research in Education, Cognitive Development, Developmental Psychology and Youth Development. The conclusion of the research was unexpected and remarkable and is as follows:

We, as a society, have placed too much emphasis on the “cognitive theory” that holds that success in college is a function of IQ, academic skills and SAT scores. These measurements have some relationship to collegiate success, but not as much as certain “non-cognitive skills”, including grit, self-control, optimism and gratitude. Tough also calls these “character skills”.

In short, a student with self-control, grit and optimism is more likely to graduate from college than a student with high IQ or top SAT scores.

The research is essentially indisputable and leads us to a tricky question: if these are the most important skills, then how do we foster them in our children?

The good news is that these “character skills” are, in fact, skills and not inherited attributes. Children can develop grit, learn self-control and cultivate optimism.

Our traditional education system, however, is not designed to produce these outcomes. While great teachers can help with some of these skills, teachers are limited. They only get a few hours a week with students. More importantly, they are evaluated on how they teach specific knowledge (math and reading) and not on character. Typically, we manage what we measure. As a result, schools spend most of their time and effort on academic skills and not on character skills.

American Seafarers, on the other hand, focuses on character skills 16 hours a day. In fact, it is inherent in our seafaring environment. We focus on the “4 Rs” of Responsibility, Respect, Reaching Out, and Reasonable Risks.

I have had several conversations with Paul Tough about summer programs and developing character. He has led me to some of the researchers that he encountered doing his research. We are talking with them about ways to make American Seafarers the most effective summer sailing program in the nation for teaching and growing character in our children!