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Experts say building skills like grit and perseverance will help increase college readiness in the U.S.

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 11 2012 5:20 p.m. MST

Sometimes teachers' words cause students to assume that college success comes from being born smart. Through careful word choices, teachers can stress that all students are capable of learning, if they apply themselves. Focusing compliments and rewards on effort instead of natural ability helps.

Vocabulary for success

Author Scott Seider studied various approaches to teaching character at school in his book "Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Toward Success." The book is geared toward all students, not just first-generation college students.

"The research is very strong in showing a correlation between what are called performance strengths — perseverance and grit — and academic success," said Seider, an education professor at Boston University.

Students with high levels of perseverance and grit have the highest GPAs and best attendance, and are more likely to be accepted to the most prestigious schools. And, students who feel highly connected to a community within their school are also more likely to be successful, he said.

For his book, Seider studied three high-performing urban schools in Boston. Each school approached character training in a different way. One focused on moral character, another on civic character, and the third on developing performance abilities, such as perseverance and grit.

The schools carved out regular time for readings and discussions about their chosen values, and Seider's research showed that those values begin to permeate classroom talk in all subject areas. In each school, a vernacular for talking about character strengths arose, and everyone understood it.

Many U.S. schools list character values such as respect and reliability as part of their teaching missions, Seider said. But, few schools carry those values into the way academic curriculum is presented. At the schools he studied, having a shared vocabulary about character strengths made it easier for desired attributes to be built upon in every class, every day.

For example, when a student at the school that stressed performance abilities struggled with a writing assignment, the English teacher could use the school's character vocabulary as a useful shorthand for giving encouragement. Since students had clear understanding of what words like "grit," "determination" and "perseverance" meant, their power to motivate was heightened.

Sense of purpose

Seider used surveys, field notes, student achievement data and interviews to draw conclusions about how school culture affected success for all students at the three Boston schools. His surveys of students showed that they did broaden their understanding and interest in the character values each school stressed. And, students' academic success increased.

All three schools serve low-income student populations, yet achieve impressive results on state assessments and student acceptance into colleges and universities. School leaders cite their emphasis on character development as a key lever in achieving these results, Seider wrote in an education blog. Working together on character growth also contributed to a sense of pride and community purpose at the schools, Seider told the Deseret News.

"Students who feel a strong sense of purpose are more likely to be successful in academics, and all sorts of other things," he said. "It's important for schools to help students think about the purpose behind the work they're doing to get to college."

Email: cbaker@desnews.com

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