Should schools be responsible for teaching character dispositions, such as grit and adaptability?

Yes Susan Renard

As we all know, when babies learn to walk, they fall. A lot. We don't throw a cushion under them to soften the blow or grab their hands to keep them from failing, because if we did, they wouldn't experience — or learn from — defeat. This is how they learn perseverance, the value of taking risks and what it’s like to eventually succeed so they are motivated to try something risky and new the next day. 

And yet, we tend to want to take all that away when they get old enough to communicate. Once they get to school, we don't ever want them to struggle or feel defeat, even though that’s what helps them learn.  

In the digital age, students need to know more than just how to get from Point A to Point B. They need to trouble themselves with all the bumps in between, as that's where the real learning takes place. They need to develop grit and perseverance to master the learning curve, see the lessons in their mistakes and ultimately find their way to achievement. Hopefully, they will begin to associate the sweet feeling of success with the often messy process that comes before it. That is true achievement, and it provides kids and adults with a lasting sense of self-worth and capability.

Personalized learning can easily include development of character dispositions like perseverance and grit. And most problem- and project-based learning inherently involves learning to navigate through bumps via trial and error.

Take the simplified example of learning to spell a new word. Instead of telling a child how to spell a word when they ask, encourage them to sound it out or look it up. Yes, the child may experience frustration, but that is part of learning how to persevere, and they will get to experience the glory of achievement for their trouble.   

Or, to teach math, you could give students a project that involves planning a building. What dimensions should the building be? Will it have angles other than right angles? If they want the walls to be X thick, how much concrete will they need? How much would it cost to build this building, given the price of concrete and other materials?

Perhaps problem- and project-based learning do not “teach” grit, adaptability and persistence per se. But offering learning activities that forego immediate black and white answers, require students to work through their learning and offer multiple possible solutions will naturally provide the useful bumps in the road that allow students to develop these traits. They will become more adaptable and persistent as they seek their own answers, and the personal sense of achievement they earn will lead to greater confidence, competence and willingness to take risks.

Susan Renard is a blended learning instructor at Lebanon High School in New Hampshire. She has been teaching technology and business courses in grades 7-12 for over 15 years.

No Nancy Penchev

Each parent has a different set of ideals for their children, including where they want them to go in life, how they want them to act and whom they should associate with. These ideals are based on norms from their community, where they live, the religious views of the family and beliefs they hold dear. The parent teaches the child those ideals through modeling, storytelling and actions/reactions to the child’s behavior.

This shaping of the child’s character begins at birth and continues throughout their life. By the time a child reaches school age they have already built much of their belief systems and have begun to understand the expectations of their behavior.

Once students enter school, their family’s character building must then align with school rules and expectations. But if a teacher or school tries to override the parents’ ideals, it’s likely to impose a hardship on the child and the teacher.

And let’s not overlook the teacher’s already loaded curriculum. Teachers must already meet Common Core State Standards, state-issued mandates and school requirements. Adding the development of character traits to the mix is just too much. Yes, you could add moral lessons to the study of books you read or personal responsibilities to your social studies curriculum, but the majority of character-building needs to happen in the home.

In addition, character-building is not something that can be taught in isolation. Just as you shouldn’t teach a lesson on verbs without giving students an opportunity to look for examples of verbs in sentences or books, you cannot teach perseverance without concrete examples. And in the case of character dispositions, those examples can’t be manufactured artificially.

There are, of course, some thing teachers can do. They can lead by example or point out teachable moments when they occur naturally. Encouraging students to continue displaying positive character traits, such as willingness to take risks or flexibility, is something most teachers do already. But if you make all this a requirement, it would suddenly become much more onerous. You would have to assess it and provide proof of learning. How do you prove a student has committed to lifelong learning? How do you show evidence of a student having grit and determination? Is there a paper-and-pencil test, or should this be a portfolio assignment? How can you determine if a child is adequately demonstrating “grit”?

As educators, it is our job to teach our students content. We can support parents and give assistance when asked. We can partner with parents to guide their children toward good choices and ensure they become strong, productive citizens. But we cannot take over the building of character. The home shapes the child, and we shape the mind. 

Nancy Penchev is the media/instructional technology coordinator for Scheck Hillel Community School in North Miami Beach, Florida, and has taught elementary school and early childhood education for 18 years. See her professional presentations at, read her blog on technology tools at and follow her on Twitter at @penchevable.

Readers Respond

Here's what other ISTE members had to say:

Join the conversation, check out the debate in our Connect section.

Like (0)