There's a lot of talk these days about the importance of traits like grit, curiosity, and self-discipline — so-called "non-cognitive skills." How can schools teach those skills? Correspondent Emily Hanford explores the approach to character development at one school in Massachusetts.
One of the first things I noticed when I walked into the Springfield Renaissance School is something written in big blue letters on the wall. It says: “To start a school is to proclaim what it means to be human.”
It kind of startled me.
I visit a lot of schools in my job as an education reporter. What I often see on the walls are test scores and college banners. The message seems to be: Tests scores are who we are, and college is where we’re going.
But at the Springfield Renaissance School, the walls are not adorned with college banners or data sets. Getting kids to college and making sure they do well academically are absolutely essential, says Stephen Mahoney, the school’s founding principal. But those things should be seen as the results of a good education, not the definition of it, he says.
“How to be a responsible citizen, how to be a good human being, that’s as important a focus for a school as the Pythagorean Theorem, as supply and demand curve, as stoichiometry,” says Mahoney. “Knowing academic things is really important, but academic knowledge is a ticket into the world. If you are not equipped to be a good, productive person in the world, then all that academic stuff is … academic.”
I visited the Renaissance School, a grade 6-12 public school in Springfield, Massachusetts, because it’s what’s known as an “Expeditionary Learning” school.
Expeditionary Learning is a nonprofit organization that advises a network of schools across the country. The schools use an educational model developed in the early 1990s to bring a focus on character development, and also experiential learning, to American public schools. The line about what it means to start a school comes from the grant proposal that first funded Expeditionary Learning.
There are more than 160 Expeditionary Learning schools in the United States today. They’re almost all public schools, and most of the students are from low-income families.
The principles that guide the Expeditionary Learning approach can be traced back to the ideas of a European educator named Kurt Hahn, who founded private boarding schools in Europe. He also started Outward Bound, the outdoor education program.
One of my favorite Kurt Hahn quotes is one of Mahoney’s favorite quotes too. He had it posted on his office door. It says:
“I consider it the foremost task of education to ensure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeated spirit, tenacity in pursuit, sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion.”
You see quotes from Hahn, and quotes from other educators, philosophers, writers, leaders and athletes all over the place at Renaissance. This is what’s on the walls, instead of test scores and college banners.
Here are a few of the quotes I wrote down in my notebook.
“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” – Goethe
“There are two primary choices in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or accept responsibility for changing them.” – Dr. Denis Waitley
“Some succeed because they are destined. Some succeed because they are determined.” – unknown
Starting a School
Stephen Mahoney began his career as a teacher at elite private schools in New England and California. There are a couple of things he really liked about how those schools approach education.
One, there’s an explicit focus on character. The goal is to create responsible, engaged citizens and that goal is kind of baked into daily life in the way teachers talk to kids and teach their classes, says Mahoney.
Two, there’s a big emphasis on critical thinking and getting kids interested in learning. The mission statements of these schools includes lines such as: Students will be encouraged to “develop their individual talents and interests, and pursue a lifelong passion for learning.”
After about six years in private schools, Mahoney started working in public schools. And he noticed a remarkable contrast.
Public schools felt “big, impersonal, test-driven, autocratic,” he says.
There were exceptions of course, and lots of individual teachers and administrators who were trying to do things differently. But Mahoney says the system just didn’t seem set up to get kids excited about learning or to focus on developing their character. Especially at low-income schools, where the educational approach tended to be “sit down and shut up and listen,” he says.
Mahoney wanted to work in a school that was different.
He saw his chance in 2005. The Springfield Public Schools had received a grant to start an Expeditionary Learning school and they needed a principal. Mahoney got the job.
His first task was to convince parents to send their kids to Renaissance. It’s a magnet school; students are admitted by lottery. But Mahoney says parents were skeptical.
“I’m a freckle-faced, bowtie wearing, white kid from Boston,” he says. “They didn’t know me.”
He was the outsider coming in with what sounded like kind of a wacky way to do school. He wanted Renaissance to be something like the private schools where he used to teach. Learning would be loud and messy at times, with a kind of informal attitude.
“Student-centered, lots of projects, joyful noise,” he says.
But parents, he says, made it clear they wanted order and discipline.
At the first parent meeting, after he and his faculty had laid out their vision for the school, one of the parents stood up.
“This all sounds wonderful,” said the man, according to Mahoney. “But here’s what I want to know. When will we have a school uniform?”
“The place went berserk,” says Mahoney. “All the parents were like, ‘Yes!’ And the faculty and I were like, ‘That’s so, like, not what we’re for.’
He puts on a stoner style when he says this, evoking a cultural divide on education that has long been thought to exist between whites on the one hand (in this case a mostly white faculty), and blacks and Latinos on the other (in this case, a mostly black and Latino parent population).
The divide is thought to be this: Whites tend to favor more progressive, open-ended schools while blacks and Latinos want more structured, traditional schools.
There’s not much empirical evidence to support this belief, but it’s a tension Mahoney says he’s felt over the years at Renaissance. The way he dealt with it at that first parent meeting? He put together a committee to figure out what the school uniform would look like.
Mahoney says what he’s learned in his nearly 10 years at Renaissance is that doing Expeditionary Learning in a city public school requires striking a balance between rules and regulations and a more progressive approach.
Mahoney says one of the things that draws parents to Renaissance is Expeditionary Learning’s focus on character development.
Renaissance has chosen seven character traits to emphasize. Most kids can rattle them off in an instant if you ask. The seven character traits are:
The students chose the character traits back in 2005 when the school first opened. They also came up with a list of statements about what it looks like to demonstrate each trait, a list the current crop of students revisited and revised a few years ago.
Here are some examples of what the kids came up with:
Demonstrating friendship means: “I encourage my peers to act responsibly” and “I am nice, kind, and polite to all members of my community.”
Demonstrating perseverance means: “I go into situations with a positive attitude” and “I learn from failure.”
Demonstrating respect means: “I can agree to disagree with people-amicably and politely” and “I make eye contact with people when conversing.”
Demonstrating courage means: “I stand up for people who are being picked on and/or disrespected” and “I take academic, personal and social risks that help me grow.”
How does Renaissance teach these character traits?
Teachers get the students to talk about the traits a lot. The traits are posted on the walls, in every classroom, in the halls, in the main office.
Teachers also try to get kids to practice the character traits, to actually do things like take academic risks, and act in a kind and polite way.
Teachers choose one aspect of character to focus on in every lesson. In a sixth-grade social studies class I went to, one of the goals for the day, written on the board, was to “use appropriate and respectful language.” Then you heard the students practicing that by saying things during their class discussion like, “excuse me, but I disagree with you because …”
At the end of the class, the teacher asked students to reflect on ways they had practiced the various character traits during class. The kids had taken a test, and a boy named Josiah said, “I think I showed friendship today because once I finished my test, I was quiet and didn’t interrupt the other students.”
“Absolutely, I noticed that too,” said the teacher. “And not only friendship, but you showed respect, right? Respecting the fact that there was still a test going on, and you remained silent.”
Maybe this doesn’t sound meaningful or like it would even work. But when you hear exchanges like this over and over again, when you see teachers taking the time to make a point of character in every lesson, it seems like it could all start to add up.
It’s not that kids here are all perfectly behaved. (In fact, the reason students revisited and revised the list of character statements a few years ago? There had been a huge fight between two kids.)
And it’s not like kids at other schools don’t exhibit and demonstrate good character.
But at Expeditionary Learning schools like Renaissance, there is a deliberate attempt to make character a priority, to take time for it in the way schools take time for things like teaching grammar and preparing students for tests.
The educators who designed Expeditionary Learning back in the early 1990s decided that one of the core elements of their school design would be something called a “learning expedition.”
A learning expedition is a big, interdisciplinary project meant to get kids excited about learning and to help them make connections between what they’re learning in science and social studies and so on. You can trace the idea back to the projects students did at Hahn’s private boarding schools in Europe.
Every learning expedition at Renaissance begins with what’s called a “kickoff” day. Kids spend the entire school day being introduced to the project they will be working on for the next several weeks or months. All of their teachers are involved. Dr. Mahoney often is too.
–10th-grader at the Renaissance School
One of the days I visited Renaissance was the kickoff day for a 10th-grade learning expedition about antibiotic resistant bacteria. Mahoney was dressed in a surgeon’s mask, rubber gloves and a white biohazard suit. He and the school nurse were pretending there’d been an outbreak of an antibiotic resistant infection at the school. They were marching into classrooms, quarantining kids who showed signs of being “sick.”
“He’s a little hot, he’s a little hot,” Mahoney declared, his hand on the forehead of a confused-looking 10th-grader.
He and the nurse plucked a handful of kids out of class and marched them down the hall to the main office.
“Are we in trouble?” one kid asked.
No one was in trouble. This role-playing exercise was designed to get students thinking about the dangers of antibiotic resistant bacteria and connect what they learn in school to real-world situations.
As part of this learning expedition, the 10th-graders will collect bacteria samples from around the school. They’ll have those results tested by a local lab. Then they’ll visit the lab to find out what was in the samples. They’ll learn about the history of antibiotics. They’ll meet microbiologists, epidemiologists and doctors. And they’ll write and present a scientific article.
Other learning expeditions at Renaissance include one in 12th grade about the relationship between school discipline policies and high incarceration rates. At the end, students make recommendations about discipline policy to the school’s governing board.
In eighth grade, students study the physics of rollercoasters. They build a rollercoaster and go through the process of applying for a patent for their design.
In sixth grade, they study chocolate. They learn about developing countries where it’s grown and how it’s produced and sold. They make chocolate. And they set up a booth at a local community college to tell college students what they learned.
Not all learning at Renaissance is through expeditions. Students take traditional math and English classes, they take standardized tests, they even do some test prep.
But lots of students told me they really look forward to the expeditions.
“I’m a hands-on person,” a 10th-grader named Chaineryz said. “I can’t learn looking at a teacher in the front at the board and she just lectures at me all day.”
Chaineryz says if she was at another school in Springfield, she doesn’t think she’d still be in school.
Mahoney uses the phrase “deeper learning” to describe what he’s trying to do at Renaissance.
Deeper learning has been defined by researchers, educators and foundations as an approach to learning that emphasizes critical thinking, conceptual understanding and application of knowledge, rather than just memorization of facts and acquisition of basic skills. (Note of disclosure: The Hewlett Foundation, which supports and promotes deeper learning, is a funder of American RadioWorks. The foundation has no editorial influence on our coverage).
Mahoney says he encounters a lot of skepticism among educators that deeper learning can work at a low-income school like Renaissance. They say the focus should be on getting kids caught up on basic skills first.
But Mahoney thinks that approach leaves kids behind — kids who may not have perfect grammar or high test scores, but who can get excited about learning when they’re given something interesting to learn.
The graduation rate at the Springfield Renaissance School is the highest in the city.
It also has some of the best test scores. That doesn’t mean test scores are great. They’re below average when compared to the state of Massachusetts as a whole. Mahoney says scores might be higher if he had students spend more time on test prep. But he says he’s not willing to do that.
“We’re not going to be testing and re-testing and testing and re-testing. That’s bad for kids, it’s bad for schools,” he says. Students aren’t “going to get respect and courage and perseverance and cultural sensitivity — and they’re not going to learn how to be human beings — if all they learn to do is take a goddamn test.”
When the founders of Expeditionary Learning first developed their school model back in the 1990s, they were concerned about the growing influence of standardized testing.
They acknowledged that students at their schools might be required to take standardized tests. But they wanted to see a different kind of assessment too. So students at all Expeditionary Learning schools do something called “student-led conferences.” They’re kind of like parent-teacher conferences, but the student is in charge.
There are at least two of these conferences a year. In the conference at the beginning of the year students establish learning goals and talk about challenges they want to overcome and character traits they’re working on. In another, at the end of the year, they assess their progress and show parents their work. For students who are struggling, there’s also a third meeting mid-year.
I went to one of these mid-year conferences, led by a student named Estefania, a confident-looking eighth-grader with black glasses and a hot pink streak in her hair. The conference was held after school, in a classroom, with her mom, Moraima Figueroa and Estefania’s advisor, a math teacher named Maria Ekmalian.
Estefania pulled a few desks together and got out a big binder full of her work.
She had to explain to her mom why she’d been struggling in school.
“My homework ethic has gotten much worse,” she said. “I don’t like to do homework. I’ve tried to get better but it’s hard.”
Estefania had written down some goals to try to get herself back on track. Her first goal was to stop rushing through her homework.
“And my second goal is to tell my mother the truth,” she said, reading out loud from her paper, her hands trembling a bit. “Because I told [my mother] that I was done with my homework sometimes when I wasn’t. And I will actually do the homework so that when I say it’s not a lot …”
At this point her voice trailed off. She was crying. She looked up at her mom. Her mom was crying too.
Kids in public schools get assessed a lot these days, but they’re not often asked to do this kind of self-assessment. Part of the philosophy of Expeditionary Learning is that understanding and reckoning with your own strengths and weaknesses is a critical skill. It’s not easy to look your mother in the eye and tell her you’ve been lying.
Estefania pledged to stop lying. She said she would start doing all of her homework in the kitchen, where her mom could keep an eye on her.
“Yes,” said her mom, nodding and smiling. “I help you, the most I can, but you have to play your part too. Push yourself to the limit. I know you can do it. I believe in you.”
Figueroa says she loves these student-led conferences.
“When I see my child stand up in front of me and starts talking and, oh, my God,” she says, giggling with joy. “We proud to be here in this school. They really, really do an amazing job with this kid.”
The Expeditionary Learning school model is built around a number of “core practices.” These are things you should find at every Expeditionary Learning school.
Student-led conferences and learning expeditions are core practices. So is something called crew.
A crew is a small group of kids — typically 10 to 15 — who are assigned to one teacher. They meet every day, and they stick together as a group with the same teacher for several years. It’s more than a homeroom. Crews do team-building exercises together, they throw birthday parties for each other. Sometimes they go on trips together. They do college planning together.
The primary purpose of crew is to build relationships and make sure all students have at least one group of peers, and one teacher, who know them really well.
“Crew is like a small family,” says a 10th-grader named Fabian. “It’s kind of like my place where I’m able to escape reality and just like be in like a comfort zone where people accept me for who I am.”
Another core practice is something called the “passage project.” At Renaissance, all students do one of these in eighth grade. They put together a portfolio of their work and give a talk in front of their family, teachers and peers. The idea is to show they’re ready to move on to high school.
Students do another one of these passage projects in 10th grade. That one includes a public service component. Students do things like volunteer at local hospitals or tutor kids in afterschool programs. One girl raised money to buy blankets and gloves and then got a group of students together to deliver the goods to homeless people on the streets of Springfield.
The 10th-grade passage also includes a physical challenge. Kids decide for themselves what their physical challenge will be. One kid I met was preparing for a marathon. Another was doing a weight-lifting program with his uncle. I also met a group of kids who were doing yoga together once a week after school.
“I want to touch my toes!” a 10th-grader named Jesse told me after his weekly yoga class, bending over and almost getting there. “I’m close. I’m very close!”
So, does Expeditionary Learning work?
The first thing to think about in response to that question is, work in what way?
One of the things that interested me about Expeditionary Learning schools is the wide range of things they are trying to accomplish with their students.
They’re trying to prepare them academically and get them to college, just like pretty much every other school says it’s trying to do.
But there are all these other things they’re trying to do too. Get kids excited about learning. Help them develop skills like self-discipline and perseverance. Teach them courage and compassion. Encourage them to volunteer in their communities. Help them stay physically fit.
I think most school leaders would tell you they’re trying to do all or most of those things with their students, but I don’t know that they have a plan for how to do it. Priorities and policies and money tend to be organized around the goal of better academic outcomes, better test scores. The other stuff may be important, but it’s not necessarily baked into the mission, into the daily routines at most public schools.
Expeditionary Learning has a plan, a set of practices, for how to teach students a wide range of academic and character skills — skills that research shows people need to be successful in life.
But still the question remains, is it working?
When you look at conventional measures of school success, the answer appears to be yes.
On average, students at Expeditionary Learning schools do better on math and reading tests than similar students in other public schools. They’re also more likely to graduate from high school. (See: this report, these results, this research.)
But are they more excited about learning? A recent study looked at Expeditionary Learning schools and a number of other school models that focus on “deeper learning.” That report showed students at these deeper learning schools reported higher levels of collaboration skills, academic engagement, motivation to learn, and self-efficacy. There was no significant difference, however, between students who attended the deeper learning schools and students who attended other public schools when it came to creative thinking skills, perseverance or self-management.
It’s hard to know what to make of this study. It’s one, small study, and Expeditionary Learning was just one of the school models examined. You can’t read much into the results, but those are the only results to read.
Measuring meaningful learning is difficult. Measuring character may be even harder.
There are some Expeditionary Learning schools that are trying to come up ways to assess whether their students have learned things like self-discipline, courage and compassion.
But assessing character is “really, really messy,” says Damon McCord, co-principal of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in New York City. “You don’t want to distill a student’s character down to a number.”
Even researchers who study character say measuring it presents significant challenges. In a recent paper, two prominent researchers warned schools and policymakers away from using measures of character skills, also known as “non-cognitive” skills, to evaluate kids.
There may never be a good way to know whether the Expeditionary Learning approach to teaching character actually works.
But to me it sometimes feels as if our ambitions for schools in the United States have shrunk to the size of the things we can easily measure about them — graduation rates and test scores.
Perseverance and respect, self-discipline and compassion
I admire the size of the ambition I saw in Expeditionary Learning.
And I was especially interested in the way Expeditionary Learning focuses on two different kinds of character. They call one “performance character” and the other “relational character.”
Performance character is “working hard, being organized,” says Ron Berger, chief academic officer of the national organization that advises Expeditionary Learning schools.
“It’s the character that’s grit. You know, applying yourself, being reliable and responsible.”
Relational character is different, says Berger. It means treating other people well.
“It’s about being a good person in the world. Being respectful and kind to others. Having the integrity of how you communicate and relate to others and work with others.”
When I hear people in education talking about character these days, it’s almost all about performance character: grit and persistence and self-discipline. Perhaps that’s because these are the skills that may be most directly related to things like raising test scores and graduation rates.
The current interest in character feels a bit like a strategy to achieve those goals.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but what I found refreshing about Expeditionary Learning schools is the way they embrace both: Perseverance and respect, self-discipline and compassion.
The idea of trying to teach these things in schools turns some people off. They say schools shouldn’t be trying to teach character. That’s for families, for religious organizations. Schools should be in the business of focusing on academics.
I asked Berger about that.
“We believe that schools have no choice but to teach character,” he said. “The very experience of schooling instills character in students. It either makes them more respectful, or less respectful. More compassionate or less compassionate. And so if schools don’t explicitly take on the teaching of virtuous character, it’s a big mistake.”
Berger added that despite the cultural and religious diversity of America, he believes most people agree on the basics of what good character means.
“Everyone agrees that respect and responsibility and courage and kindness are values that we want in our students,” he said. “Why are we not putting those at the center of the way we teach kids?”
An update to this story: In June 2015, Stephen Mahoney stepped down as principal of the Springfield Renaissance School to take a job with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he is Associate Director of the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program.