Solving an Age-Old Riddle: Why Do Some Students Succeed?

Solving an Age-Old Riddle: Why Do Some Students Succeed?

Donald Kamentz

Executive Director, Character Lab

In my time as an educator, I have returned repeatedly to a central riddle: Why do some students succeed in college where others fail? 

This riddle manifested itself over and over in my 16-plus years with YES Prep Public Schools, a network of high performing charter schools in Texas. I worked with extraordinarily bright students, getting to know their passions and stories. As educators, our primary goal was helping each student develop the necessary skills for success at YES Prep, in college and beyond.

But our endeavor proved difficult. I’d see two students with similar backgrounds, similar grades, similar experiences. One would graduate from high school, enroll in college, persevere and graduate; the other would not.

The traditional explanation for why some students succeeded and some failed was that some students are just plain smarter. But that explanation didn’t tell the whole story. Intelligence does matter, but so often, my brightest students floundered in college. I began asking: What are other reasons that students thrive? Other than intelligence, what was essential to success in college? 

As I worked with my colleagues to answer this question, we realized that college success is influenced by a suite of strengths that were going unmeasured. Often what distinguishes two equally capable students is that one demonstrates higher levels of purpose, grit, passion, perseverance or optimism. 

These and other strengths are collectively known as “character.” It was clear that if we wanted to ensure college success for all of our alumni, we needed to cultivate character in our students. What’s more, we needed to talk openly about character so that our students could recognize it and understand why it’s so important.

This is where my work intersected with that of Angela Duckworth, the founder and scientific director of Character Lab, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the science and practice of character development.

Character Lab Founder Angela Duckworth and Executive Director Donald Kamentz

A little over a year ago, I joined Character Lab as executive director to oversee four interlocking goals: 

  • Develop strategies that teachers and families can use to cultivate character strengths like gratitude, grit and curiosity. 
  • Create educational tools like interactive online activities that students and teachers can use to help develop and measure character strengths. 
  • Create measurement tools, which can help educators to understand how students are growing and learning in these important areas. 
  • Change the conversation to help more families and schools recognize the critical importance of character skills in students’ lives. 

To traditional educators, the “goals hierarchy” that Angela developed might sound unrelated to a student’s ability to pass a college class or complete a senior thesis. But we are increasingly confident that character is not an extra. It is fundamental to students’ ability to thrive in the college environment, in careers and in life.

At the moment, we’re working on some exciting initiatives at the Character Lab. Our hope is that these will be game-changers for students and educators. 

We’re exploring ways to bring scientists and educators together at every stage of the research-to-practice pipeline. This means leveraging teachers’ insights and experiences along with those of scientists, while providing both with the support they need to work collaboratively. 

We’re working to radically reduce the cost and time required to conduct school-based research. Currently it can take more than a year and more than $500 per participant to take a good idea from hypothesis to data collection. We’re creating an online portal — the Virtual Character Lab — to make character research more efficient.

And we’re developing more accurate, more precise ways to measure character strengths. Why? Because measurement opens the door to research and reflection. In particular, we want know when a particular intervention or program is working and when it’s not. We also want to provide students with feedback on their character development, so they and those who support them can become more aware of their strengths and areas for growth. 

We believe that our work will yield a new solution to an age-old challenge and help us answer the riddle that I — and many of my colleagues in education — have been working our entire careers to solve.

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