The Genesis of the Traits Initiative: An Excerpt from the Head of School’s Letter to Parents

By Dr. Rodney V. De Jarnett, Head of School

Before sharing more specifics of this new “traits” initiative [at Dwight-Englewood School], I encourage you to think for a moment about the first day that your child(ren) came into your life. I am not sure if you do this often. I do. I wanted each to be a good person. I wanted each to be happy. I hoped each would live a fulfilled life, and would find love in life. I know that I had other hopes for them as well. I know, however, that during these important first moments and days, I did not hope for good grades, high SAT scores, or acceptance to any particular college or university.

Over time, my hopes for my children became more specific. I remember hoping each of my children would develop a deep love of reading, and that they would continue to improve in particular subject areas. I guess life does that to each of us. It was not as if I lost sight of those first initial hopes and dreams, it was just that the realities of the everyday began to overshadow the bigger notions I first held dear. But have my hopes and dreams really changed that much?

I ask this question through my parental framework. As an educator, I also ask myself very similar questions—but through a professional lens. As I review (and strive to keep up with) the most recent research on teaching, learning, and the brain—as well as the best practices in my field to ensure my students perform at the highest levels—I am learning that my original hopes for my children still matter. In fact, they matter a lot.

Process over Product

As a new teacher in the early 1970s, I focused almost solely on improving the product my students were producing, and not enough on what was really needed for my students to produce better products. Over time, I realized that there were important characteristics or traits necessary for each student to possess if they were to perform well in school. I found that daily preparation, for example, is important for a student if he or she is to perform well in schools—and in life. Organization is another such trait that is important for students, as is perseverance. Daily preparation, organization, and perseverance are only three of the traits on our list. Over time I began to focus more on the process—not just the content—that would help my students love learning and find success in school.

Putting Happiness First

As I learned more, I also realized that a happy child learns better. Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, writes about the growing body of research in positive psychology and how that research informs us that happiness is not the product of our success—rather it is the precursor to our being successful in schools, at work, and in our relationships. Happiness must come first!

With that premise in mind, consider a slice of my generation’s narrative. Growing up, we were mentored to believe that if we were diligent in school, we would be accepted into a strong college or university…and then “happiness” would follow. Once in college or university, yet another message was given: If you were disciplined as an undergraduate, then you would be accepted into a strong graduate program or professional position…and then “happiness” would follow. And so the pattern continued: Following graduate or higher-level studies, in time after starting work in a paid position, one quickly learned that if they were the first one at work, the last to leave, and the one who continued to work during weekends, inevitably a partnership or similarly lucrative leadership position was achieved…again implying that “happiness” would follow.

For so many, happiness is therefore delayed and even placed permanently in a holding pattern…ironically, in the
pursuit of happiness. Thus one is inevitably compelled to ask: Was I as successful as I could have been because I was stressed about the future rather than happily engaged in my present?

We all know people who are “ridiculously” happy—they love their work, they are successful at it and at their relationships with others. These individuals are creative and wonderful problem- solvers and always seem to get everything accomplished. If you know such people, you witness all that research implies: that happiness must come first—and the rest follows!

John Medina, in his book Brain Rules, explains why a happy mind better retains information, is a better problem-solver, is more creative, and more efficient. In general, a happy mind is better than a stressed mind. It is both instructive and striking to note that surveys taken in the 1980s revealed that parents in the United States shifted from wanting their children to be “good” to wanting them to be “happy.” I recall articles in which that change reflected the reality of adults who had worked hard but had yet to find life satisfaction. They just wanted their children to be happy—maybe because they were not. Fortunately, this same research also informs us that one very important way to become happy is to be good to other people. Knowing that being good will help children to be happy is a bonus. And that brings us back to what we aim to assess.

Evaluating, Not Grading Traits

Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, has been instrumental in bringing to the forefront of the public conversation years of research that reveals the importance of non-cognitive traits. Additionally, through new ways to assess students, such as the Mission Skills Assessment (MSA) and the College and Work Readiness Assessment (CRWA), schools can measure traits similar to those described by Tough, and can track improvement by schools in terms of how well they fulfill their missions.

The traits that we at D-E are focusing on—engagement, perseverance, risk taking, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, daily preparation, and organization—[are not exhaustive] but will rest at the core of the comments our faculty will write to students, and which parents can read and discuss with their children. Students can sometimes brush off a bad grade, but [what’s exciting] is that they will personalize a grade on a trait like risk taking because it speaks less to their performance, and more to who they are as a person.

We can and must help our students to recognize and understand each trait. Then they will become more self-aware: “Am I a risk-taker? Do I prepare well each day? Can I persevere when the going gets difficult?” With knowledge and self-awareness, a student can begin to learn how to self-manage and self-improve. And as we learn more from studying and comparing the effect of our program from cohort results, teachers will know more about not only how to foster traits but also how to help students improve.

Educating for Their Future, Not Our Past

As parents, we might be the first generation that has no clear idea of the world in which our children will work. As educators we are faced with the reality that we must educate our children for their future, not our past. Unlike our parents and educators before us, who felt they had a clear idea of the skills and content we should master in schools to be successful, we live when the pace of change places our conversation with children in a different light.

Most who talk about the future do, however, narrow the focus on teaching children how to learn, fostering in children their creativity and passion for learning. This implies that each student should leave our schools knowing well how they learn. And schools must foster in our children a passion for learning.

As Sir Ken Robinson suggests in his book Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, schools must foster creativity since research informs us that all children enter school with creativity but that parents and schools “beat creativity” out of them. Knowing that you want to graduate students who know how to learn, have a passion for learning, and possess strong creative traits will inevitably transform the way we “do” schools. And to know that we are serving this generation well, we need to assess such traits, not for individuals, but for entire schools—in the words of our mission, “in order to meet the challenges of a changing world.”

I still hope that my children will be good people. I hope each finds happiness in life. I hope each will live a fulfilled life, and will find love in life. I want each to find something in their lives about which they will be passionate. What is different now is that we know that certain traits will help them find success in school, in work, and in life. I also now know that we have a growing number of ways to robustly assess those traits in each of our children.  Conversations about these traits must become an important part of their education. And I personally look forward to energetically engaging in these new assessments in order to help find ways to improve these traits in our children—and not to rank order them as yet another way to compare them.

Editor’s Note: An extended version of the perspectives Dr. De Jarnett provides in this letter to parents will be featured in the New York Parents League Review, available this month, in the article “The Measure of Success.”

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