The power of character?


I have just finished reading ‘How Children Succeed’ by Paul Tough. The basic premise of the book is that education systems misguidedly focus too much on trying to directly improve the cognitive abilities of their students, a futile struggle. What matters most, Tough argues, in a child’s development, is not how much information can be stuffed in their brains, instead it is whether education is able to help develop a set of qualities that includes persistence, self control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self confidence. Economists refer to these as non-cognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.

I find Tough’s thesis very convincing within the context he is writing. It seems that within ‘Western’ education systems a greater focus should be placed on socializing children and improving their character. At every school I have worked at in the UK the most difficult thing was trying to instill in pupils a desire to learn and giving them the ability to control their emotions. Pumping children’s heads full of information was the easy part.

Within a Gambian context however I almost believe the opposite to what Tough proposes. The vast majority of students that I have worked with here possess ample amounts of grit and curiosity and an abundance of character, especially in comparison to their Western counterparts. The non-cognitive skills don’t seem to be the problem here, something I have really appreciated when working as a teacher in a classroom, and management is a walk in the park here compared to a UK classroom where I have feared being hit and cursed at on a daily basis. I will admit taking a nursery class of over thirty Fular children who don’t understand a word of what I am saying can descend into chaos. But it’s not because the children lack character.

This disparity in character between UK and Gambian kids I think illuminates a central paradox of modern contemporary western life; we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we know that what children need more than anything is a little hardship; some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if it just to prove to themselves that they can.

The Gambian children I work with are certainly exposed to too much deprivation, and I am not naïve enough to espouse that the hardship of the average Gambian child’s life is actually good for them as it gives them so much precious character. But I have found that children that live a life lacking in material benefits, with large caring and supportive families, acquire many of the character traits we are so keen to inculcate in our children in the more developed world.

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