Character Revisited, Singapore Style

I don’t mind being right, and I don’t mind revisiting something important that I think someone might have missed the first time around.  So, here we go.  About 18 months ago, I wrote about a Character Rubric that we had developed at the high school I co-founded in 2009 in New York City.  Now, this reprise of the story is getting a surprising Singapore twist.

The original story went something like this:

The principal, the teachers, and I were troubled by some of our students’ lack of concern about their work and their behavior.  For example, they didn’t do their homework.  It wasn’t that it was too hard or that there was too much of it.  They just didn’t feel like doing it.  Our students weren’t geniuses, even though ours was an Early College high school and the students were on a fast track to graduation (in just three years instead of the traditional four).  They were average New York City kids—no better, no worse—and we all felt they could care a little more and work a little harder.

Chris Aguirre, our remarkable principal, and I came up with the idea of a checklist to assess our students’ personal traits—at least, the ones that could be displayed in school and that were important for school success.  These traits were drawn, in part, from the work of psychologists/professors Martin E.P. Seligman and Angela L. Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania) and Christopher Peterson (University of Michigan).  After working with our teachers and testing out several versions of our checklist, we came up with what we referred to as our “Character Rubric.”  It was a way for teachers to evaluate students on six important traits—traits that we all felt would make a difference in their ability to succeed in school and later in life.  As we said about our students in the introduction to our Character Rubric, “Without these character traits, all of their intellectual achievements cannot make them college ready and career ready.”

Teachers rated each student twice in each semester, using a simple scale from 0 to 3 to indicate how often the student exhibited each trait:  not at all, rarely, sometimes, or usually.  We also gave teachers examples of student behaviors that defined each trait so that we could agree on what teachers were looking for when making their judgments.  For instance, “Is diligent” (our version of the now-very-popular “grit”) came with behavior examples like “Does whatever it takes to complete an assignment,” “Finishes what he or she starts,” “Keeps trying in the face of difficulty,” “Tries hard to meet the teacher’s standards,” and more.

The Character Rubric turned out to be well liked by both teachers and parents and well tolerated by students.

Fast forward to an article that I read a few days ago (reprinted by BBC News), shockingly titled “Why high-flying Singapore is scrapping grades” and written by Dr. Lim Lai Cheng.  Dr. Lim is formerly the principal of the very prestigious Raffles Institution secondary school and now the Academic Director of the Office of the Provost and the Executive Director of the Academy for Continuing Education at Singapore Management University.  Here is a little background, courtesy of Dr. Lim:

It was no accident that Singapore created one of the world’s highest performing education systems in five decades.

Reminiscent of the examinations for selecting mandarins in old China, the road to success in Singapore has always been focused on academic credentials, based on merit and allowing equal access for all.

This centralised system helped Singapore to create social cohesion, a unity of purpose among its schools and an ethos of hard work that many nations envy.

But the purpose of the education system has changed and Singapore in 2017 is no longer the fledgling state it was in 1965.

Schools have become highly stratified and competitive. More advantaged families are better able to support their children with extra lessons outside of school, such as enrichment classes in mathematics, English, dance and music.

Those who can’t afford this have to depend on their children’s own motivation and the resources of the school to catch up.

Many of us in education have spent at least some time in the past decade admiring Singapore’s work on the education front, including the achievement of Singapore’s students on international tests.  Now, Singapore appears to find itself in a place not unlike some American communities, where more advantaged families can support and enrich their kids’ education handsomely and less advantaged families have to look to the schools for that support and enrichment instead.

What does this mean for Singapore?  Here is what Dr. Lim says:

The next update of the education system will have to ensure that Singapore can create a more equitable society, build a stronger social compact among its people while at the same time develop capabilities for the new digital economy.

Government policies are moving away from parents and students’ unhealthy obsession with grades and entry to top schools and want to put more emphasis on the importance of values.

Schools have been encouraged, especially for the early elementary years, to scrap standardised examinations and focus on the development of the whole child.

I didn’t see that coming, including that Dr. Lim is championing work on values—we called it “character”—from the primary grades right up through the high school years.  By the way, in her article, Dr. Lim also refers to the work of Dr. Seligman (one of our sources for our Character Rubric), whose model she says “advocates that academic success and well-being form a double helix, and that the best schooling must include educating children on values and character, as well as how to interact well with others, set goals for themselves and work towards achieving those goals.”

What does this new emphasis look like in Singapore’s schools?  Dr. Lim describes some of Singapore’s efforts this way:

“Character scorecards” and “reflection journals” have become the staple in many primary schools, to allow parents to follow the social and developmental progress of their children.

An important segment of the new curriculum, at the primary level is family time, and how parents should play an important role in inculcating the right values in their children.

At the secondary and high school levels, “values in action” programmes lie at the core of educating young Singaporeans to be empathetic, socially responsible and active citizens in their community.

For example, students work on projects that serve the elderly, reach out to migrant workers and read to latch-key children in day-care centres.

I like to think that those “character scorecards” are a lot like the Character Rubric we developed—an idea whose time has clearly come.  And who doesn’t love the idea of a “values in action” program for our older kids?  It’s like the community service hours that so many of our high school students already do; however, I get the feeling that it is more central to what Singapore is trying to achieve as a society.

But, here is where Dr. Lim really goes off the high board:

There have also been calls for more flexibility over admissions to local top schools and universities to encompass selection based on character traits such as drive, resilience and passion. . . .

All round, government leaders have expounded a wider definition of success beyond academic grades.

The media and elite schools have been discouraged from showcasing top students and their academic achievements.

Discouraged from showcasing top students?  Does that go too far?  Maybe so.  But more backing for having U.S. colleges look more broadly at applicants would be welcome indeed.  I spend a lot of time on my podcast, USACollegeChat, talking about college admissions and the inequities of the admissions game for so many students, especially for low-income students.  This call to action all the way from Singapore is intriguing and refreshing.

Dr. Lim says much more in her article, including about the connection between school and work, about putting counselors in the primary schools, about bringing in counselors with industry experience to advise students on both school and career options, about actual financial initiatives to promote lifelong learning, and even about “rotating experienced principals to schools that need more attention.”  Just go read her whole article.  Really.

Parents:  Here is some of the advice I gave you 18 months ago—before Singapore’s news.  It’s just as good today.

Take a look at how teachers in your school encourage your children to develop important character traits and values and how they let students know when they need to improve.

Ask your school board whether nurturing students’ character is an important part of the board’s vision.  Is judging the results of that nurturing also part of the board’s vision?  Does the board intend to look at how successful the district is in producing students with excellent character as well as excellent academic skills?  Ask the same kinds of questions of your child’s principal.

Ask your school board or your superintendent or your principal to come up with a Character Rubric to use, if they do not already have one.  If they are having trouble coming up with one on their own, they can probably get a great one from Singapore.