Category Archives: Research Data

Part One: Co-opting a good idea

Review of  “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” a  9/14/11 New York Times article by Paul Tough

The author of this article mentions, often with little or no insight or analysis, some of the most critical issues in education today including the nature and nurturing of character development (the basis of violence prevention), competition and collaboration, and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, including reward systems and report cards.

To summarize the “plot” of the article, the author explored the efforts of two atypical New York City schools – the private and prestigious Riverdale Country School for the affluent, and the free KIPP charter school with enrollment open to all NYC students (by lottery). Both focus on preparing students for college and turning out people who are successful in life. Not liking the results they were seeing, they each identified the need to look more closely at character development, and ways to teach those essential character traits typical of a high functioning, autonomous adult.

Using Martin Seligman’s work on positive psychology and his 800-page book (tome) on character strengths and virtues, the headmaster and superintendent of the respective schools looked at the practical benefits of teaching both:

  •  “Moral character” – high quality values such as  honesty, integrity, compassion, and fairness, and
  •  “Performance character,” –  high quality behavior such as persistence, team work, self-control, and something researcher Angela Duckworth calls “grit.”

The Good Idea:

The KIPP School ultimately chose the seven of  Duckworth’s 24 identified character strengths that were the most predictive of  “life satisfaction and high achievement.”

  • zest
  • grit
  • self-control
  • social intelligence
  • gratitude
  • optimism
  • curiosity

While life satisfaction and high achievement are not synonymous with living a life of high moral character, the list is useful, especially if social intelligence encompasses positive moral traits and pro-social beliefs and skills.

KIPP then took these seven strengths and converted them into 24 statements, such as the student:

  • Is eager to explore new things.
  • Believes that effort will improve his or her future.
  • Allows others to speak without interruption.
  • Remains calm even when criticized or otherwise provoked.

The intent was to use these statements as goals for behavior, and to gauge a child’s progress toward high moral and behavioral character. As we read over the list, they sound like the qualities we’d like to see in everyone.

But then they took a wrong turn.

To be continued…

Slam books and Social media

Violence: intentional physical force, emotional torment, and abuse of power, whose purpose is to intimidate, dominate, or inflict pain on another person.

Old Media – Slam books

A slam book is sheets of loose leaf paper stapled together with a construction paper cover. The name of a student is written at the top of each sheet.  I was first exposed to slam books in sixth grade. I didn’t know who made it – the homemade book  just showed up one day surrounded by an air of  secrecy.  I watched as it was quietly passed around, each girl who wanted to participate anonymously writing whatever she wanted about the different girls. You can imagine some of the adjectives used and the hurt feelings and damaged relationships they caused. My teacher got wind of it and confiscated the book. He warned that slam books were outlawed in our school and that this was the last he wanted to see of it. I give the teachers and administrators of my elementary school a lot of credit for taking such a tough stand against this form of social violence. Even back then they realized how mean and destructive a slam book was.

New Media – Facebook, cell phones, Twitter, IM and text messages

Unlike the slam books of my childhood, digital social media was not created for the purpose of hurting others. But electronic media have become a widespread outlet for meanness and cruelty. Young people are using the Internet to embarrass, demean, stalk, spread rumors, and bully others. The statistics are convincing, the language shocking, and the pressure to take part in digital abuse sizable. And absent clear guidelines for acceptable online behavior and clear avenues to get help, many young people become perpetrators and victims of this violent, bullying behavior.

AP and MTV partnered to conduct an online Digital Abuse Study between August 18 and 31, 2011. Findings were based on interviews with 1,355 young people between the ages of 14 and 24. The study found that 76% of 14-24 year-olds feel that digital abuse is a serious problem for people their age.

The types of online abuse they experience include:

  • Sexting of nude photos and sexually explicit messages
  • Digital dating abuse where one partner uses electronic media to exercise control over the other
  • Spreading rumors and intentional untruths
  • Forwarding messages intended as private
  • Discrimination and hurtful slurs directed toward peers especially those who are overweight, LGBT, African-American, women, Muslim, and immigrants. (Visit the study for the words commonly used online.)

Noteworthy Findings:

  • 71% of respondents said people are more likely to use slurs online or in text messages than in person.
  • A majority of the study participants exposed to digital abuse found it deeply unsettling.
  • Those who have sexted are four times as likely to have considered suicide than those who have not sexted (20% vs. 5%).


The most disconcerting aspect of this phenomenon is the attitude held by 46% of those surveyed that it is okay to use discriminatory language if you make it clear you are just kidding, and the attitude held by 54% that it is okay to use such language with friends because they know that you don’t mean it. Thinking name calling, teasing, and demeaning others is okay because it’s supposedly done in fun is one of the most prevalent and wrong-headed justifications young people have for intentionally hurting one another. They are assaults against your vulnerabilities intended to throw you off balance and diminish your sense of personal power.

The Good News

But there is also some good news. Projects like MTV’s “A Thin Line” campaign and schools’ cyber-bullying prevention efforts that empower young people and stop the spread of digital abuse seem to be having an impact. Sexting to strangers is down, awareness of the ramifications of online indiscretions has increased, 51% of those who saw someone being mean online would intervene (up from 47% in 2009), and young people are using a variety of strategies to stop cyber-bullying, including going to adults for help.