Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What Does it Take to Nurture a Successful Human Being and Can Museums Help?

Janet Petitpas, Senior Associate, London

A recent article in the New York Times profiles the Riverdale Country School and its head, Dominic Randolph, as he and his prestigious private school aim to graduate students that demonstrate strong character. As part of Randolph’s exploration of character, he engaged with Martin Seligman (one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement) and David Levin (superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City) on the topic of developing character as part of the education system.

Seligman recently co-authored a book called “Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification,” which outlines 24 character strengths that reach across cultures. These include traits like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity as well as love, humor, zest, self-regulation and gratitude. They found that a cultivation of these strengths represents a reliable path to a life that is not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.

Levin discovered that of his graduates that went to college or university, those that stayed on through graduation were not the students with the highest IQ, but the students who showed the highest character strengths. Added to the mix was the work of graduate student Angela Duckworth, whose research showed that measures of self-control are a more reliable predictors of grade-point average than IQ. But she found that outstanding achievement was accomplished by people who combined passion with unswerving dedication, a combination that she terms “grit.”

Duckworth, Randolph and Levin condensed their lists down to a final list of strengths that they believe are likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.

Some of the changes in their schools have been the abolishment of AP classes and standard tests and include systems to train their students in standard curriculum of math and language, but also in perseverance and empathy. Students receive grades and assessments on their academic work but also on their character. Messages about behavior and values permeate the school day and are included in assemblies and explicit talk about character strengths are incorporated into every lesson.

These schools are also working with parents to help them understand that their children may need some hardships in life to overcome in order to establish their own “grit.” The struggle to pull oneself through a crisis, to come to terms with your own shortcomings and to labor to overcome them is what is missing at many academically excellent schools and many of the everyday lives of American youth.

Museums are well positioned to assist in building character traits in visitors of all ages. Some ways of doing this include:
• Helping to develop a sense of empathy through diverse programming and exhibitions, as well as presentations that tell individual stories;
• Building persistence through programs and exhibits that encourage visitors to create something, test it, tinker with it, and try again;
• Developing and encouraging passion in individuals through engagement with meaningful problems to be solved and beautiful objects;
• Inspiring curiosity and creativity through interactions with valued cultural objects with opportunities to take apart, create, explore;
• Setting up situations in which visitors can work together socially while problem solving.

Any other ideas about how Museums can help nurture happy, productive and high-performing citizens?

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