A person’s intelligence, knowledge and skills are essential for a success in school and in life. However, educators are discovering that there are qualities that are just as important as academic skills to get students on the path to success. Success takes a combination of academic skills and certain personal qualities.
Some school boards that have undertaken efforts to reform their schools have conducted surveys to determine how their recent high school graduates are faring in college and other post-secondary education settings, and they are puzzled by the relatively high drop out rate from these post-secondary schools within the first two years following graduation. For example, in New Haven, Connecticut, one of its top performing high schools, Sound School, a small high school that has a graduation rate of near 90%; yet, had less than half of its class of 2011 enrolled in a third semester of college. The third semester of college is one measure by which the New Haven School System has opted to evaluate students’ persistence to remain and perform adequately in their college level courses and other post-secondary institutions. New Haven Public Schools, which has initiated some excellent school reforms in recent years, should be commended for collecting these data on its high school graduates, as they provide essential feedback for further reform. Analysis of these data and subsequent discussions will certainly yield some answers to the question of persistence that New Haven Public School officials are asking. There is a lot more than just intelligence and academic skills that are responsible for a young person’s success.
Noted author, Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed, noted that students who succeed possess more than mere facts, high test scores, or high intelligence. Paul Tough writes that there are four qualities that matter most in determining a student’s success, all of which go to character:
All of us have read about or heard about people who have dropped out of college, or never attended college, and still rose to be successful in their chosen fields; Bill Gates is probably the most recognizable of the names on such a list. Mr. Gates dropped out of Harvard to work with Paul Allen, and the two developed the Microsoft Corporation, the world’s largest computer software manufacturer. Larry Ellison, billionaire co-founder of Oracle Software Company, dropped out of two universities to work on the development of their company. Tiger Woods attended Stanford University for two years before turning pro at 20 years of age. Vanessa Williams, actress, singer, model, dropped out of Syracuse University in her sophomore year; she returned to finish her degree 25 years later. Then, there is billionaire Warren Buffet, astronaut Scott Carpenter, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Walt Disney. Even Paul Tough dropped out of college. The list of such people is seemingly endless. All of these people had the qualities they needed to succeed in college, if succeeding in college was what they wanted to do. They chose a different course through which to become successful; however, they succeeded because they possessed the four character qualities detailed in How Children Succeed.
The four qualities that Tough writes about are as important as intelligence in order for students to be successful.
- Perseverance is the quality of staying on target and pursuing goals in spite of the obstacles, setbacks and difficulties the individual encounters along the way; simply put, the determination to pick oneself up after a fall and continue to work toward the intended goals. One question that parents and educators must examine is, “am I doing a disservice to my children (students) by preventing them from meeting failure, making mistakes, or not providing them with challenging tasks?” Perseverance is a quality that must be developed throughout the school years. Messages that it is okay to make mistakes are not being properly received by students, or school officials are not properly communicating them. Why shouldn’t young people struggle to solve a problem? With the proper guidance and a supportive learning environment young people can actually enjoy courses in which they struggle to find the answers.
- Curiosity is a natural state in children. If one observes a young child at play, it is evident to the observer that the child tries to find out how things work, how things go together. Young people have a natural inquisitiveness, a desire to know. We teachers and parents, as the adults in their lives, must work hard to motivate them and cultivate their curiosity, the desire to know more. It is unfortunate that there are still some classrooms where teachers are slowly dampening young people’s curiosity through poor planning and lessons that are isolated and unmotivating. It is also unfortunate that some parents still use the television to be the baby’s sitter instead of engaging their child in creative play and new experiences. Courses in school that are taught constructively and utilize the latest technology will engage students and drive their curiosity to new areas for exploration and understanding.
- Conscientiousness is a quality in a person that drives her to do her best work; she is dedicated to the task and guided by personal principles. A conscientious person is one who is a reliable worker, one in whom others feel that she will give it her best effort. How does one develop conscientiousness in students? Conscientious people are thorough in their work and have well developed self-control; therefore, teachers and parents need to teach young people to control impulses, delay gratification and work toward goals in an organized manner.
- Optimism is the tendency to believe in outcomes that are brighter and more favorable. One way to build optimism in young people is to praise them for their successes, being careful not to overdo such praise. Praise has to have value to the child, which is why praise should be given when an achievement is made. A “can do” attitude is built one step at a time starting with small successes. All of us recall the children’s story, “The Little Red Engine That Could.” All of these qualities are linked in various ways. One can be optimistic, even in the face of adversity, if one is persistent; perseverance pays off.
Parents and teachers can find many ways to develop these qualities, starting in small ways and building upon small successes. Educators and parents need more research on the science of learning and how to develop in children those qualities that will lead to their future success. One thing that is certain; what leads to success is more than good test scores and grades.