Scholars on Schools: Interview with Patricia Maloney on Charter High Schools

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Several years ago, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at UVA launched a major research project in order to better understand the moral formation of high school students. Researchers went into ten different sectors of schools, from public schools (both urban and rural) to private schools (both religious and nonreligious) to homeschools and others. In this interview, sociologist Patricia Maloney talks with CultureFeed Editor Joanna Breault about the concept of “grit” and how its application to lower-income students can be unfair. She also touches on what some schools are doing to help alleviate some of the challenges their students face.

Can intellectual virtues deliver what grit can’t?

A focus on instilling students with persistence and passion—a character virtue identified as “grit” by scholar Angela Duckworth—has evolved into a movement with schools across the country working to integrate it into the curriculum.

But a recent editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education argues the singular focus on grit is likely an overly simplistic view of character education and offers an alternative “intellectual virtues” approach that focuses on multiple factors that play into student success.

David Gooblar, a professor at the University of Iowa, highlighted Duckworth’s research into role of “grit” in student success and the subsequent scramble to integrate her perspective into classrooms nationwide.

“Elementary and secondary schools across the country began integrating measures of grit into their assessment of students and teachers,” Gooblar wrote. “Organizations, nonprofit and for-profit alike, began popping up all over to help schools and students ‘get more grit’ in their education. And in short order, grit became one of the more controversial topics in recent educational discourse.”

But Gooblar points out several growing problems with the idea that grit alone will help struggling students improve academics, and he offers insight into why the phenomenon has caught on in recent years.

“Even if grit is as important as its most ardent supporters suggest, pushing one characteristic as the secret to student success says more about our culture’s love of easy answers than it does about the way students actually experience their education,” he wrote. “There is no single characteristic that will account for whether a student succeeds in school or not.”

Gooblar notes that Duckworth herself claims “We’re nowhere near ready—and perhaps never will be—to use feedback on character as a metric for judging the effectiveness of teachers and schools.” He contends the focus on grit ignores systemic problems in education in favor of blaming students, but the approach is widely accepted because “grit maps so easily into traditional American narratives of self-reliance and meritocracy.”

Loyola Marymount University professor Jason Baehr offers a more nuanced vision for character education that incorporates nine intellectual virtues in an advisory-based approach used at Intellectual Virtues Academy, a charter middle school in Long Beach, California.

“The intellectual-virtues approach initially appealed to me because it seemed to avoid the simplistic logic of the grit-promoters. Rather than a single characteristic, Baehr argues that there are nine core virtues we should be encouraging in our students: curiosity, intellectual humility, intellectual autonomy, attentiveness, intellectual carefulness, intellectual thoroughness, open-mindedness, intellectual courage, and intellectual tenacity,” Gooblar wrote.

Gooblar contends educators are always teaching character, through everything from assignment selection to discouraging or encouraging certain habits, and points to Baehr’s framework as a way to intentionally assess and promote good character.

“An intellectual virtues framework can provide educators with the concepts and language to better understand, articulate, and practice much of what they already value and are trying to accomplish with students,” Baehr wrote in a 2013 article published by Journal of Philosophy of Education.

The clarity that the intellectual virtues framework offers is critical for establishing a moral community.

James Davison Hunter, the founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, writes in The Death of Character that “it is precisely these kinds of social worlds, defined by a clear and intelligible understanding of public and private good mediated consistently through integrated social networks of adult authority, that moral instruction has its most enduring effects on young people.”

The intellectual virtues that charter schools have are the strength of both a clear statement of what they’re pursuing and an advisory system that continually mediates this understanding.

Intellectual Virtues Academy offers a video with more details on its philosophy for those who recognize the complexity of students and seek a more multifaceted approach to helping them learn. Baehr also maintains a website with a 500-page resource guide for educators.