BBC Radio Four’s “The Educators” returned this week with a trip to Harlem to interview Dave Levin, co-founder of the KIPP Charter schools in the USA.
These schools were set up in economically deprived areas of the US with a focus on helping young people to learn life skills, and for the more academically able to successfully complete a college degree.
KIPP stands for Knowledge is Power Program but the “knowledge” isn’t restricted to academic facts. KIPPs knowledge is twofold – academic achievement and a focus on character strengths and skills.
The schools’ success proves that these two key aspects of schooling are not mutually exclusive, something we’ve always advocated. Their work also demonstrates the importance of a multi-intelligent approach to learning where intellect and social/spiritual intelligence are valued equally.
The KIPP schools also use a whole school approach. Character strengths and skills aren’t restricted to a single timetabled lesson. It’s an integral part of everything that happens in the school, and is referred to in every subject taught.
When setting up the KIPP schools, Dave Levin and his co-founder Mike Feinberg considered why young people were failing. In the Radio 4 broadcast Levin explained how he thought young people were being held back by the way they felt about themselves. He said they didn’t have the tools of resilience and optimism and he wanted to change their “feelings and actions”. By giving them an “emotional language” he believed that he was enabling young people to be “emotionally resilient”.
There has been a significant increase in the number of graduates educated at KIPP schools, and the students themselves confirm that they feel better equipped for lifelong learning and for successful living.
Not only are these schools dual-focused in their aims of improving life chances for young people through developing their academic abilities in conjunction with their “character” strengths, they’re also focused on the wellbeing of staff. Levin says that improved outcomes were “tied to teachers feeling better about the work they’re doing” – a lesson that is worthy of note for UK politicians and decision-makers. By implication, Levin suggests that academic attainment can’t be realised or sustained without teachers feeling valued, respected, secure and safe in their jobs.
It’s not rocket science.
The school focuses on themes from Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson’s “Character Strength and Virtues” list of 24 character strengths, believing that 7 specific strengths lead to positive accomplishments – his research showing these 7 are “highly predictive” of a successful person.
- Social intelligence
Levin explained how he thought these were “strengths and skills” not “traits and values”. Traits, he said, implied a fixed state – determined and immovable – and the whole notion of “values” as we have frequently said, is open to interpretation – a “loaded word” – according to Levin.
He said that the focus on these 7 strengths had to relate to behaviour, and that children and young people only learn about these strengths and skills through experience.
When questioned about whether anyone could teach “optimism”, he responded by saying that 50% of our strength and skills are hereditary, which means that 50% aren’t. That’s plenty to work on, and plenty to be left dormant if we don’t work with children and young people on their strengths and skills.
For us, this all sounds exciting and affirmative, mirroring our own views on education and schooling. Not once, throughout the interview did Levin refer to “emotional intelligence”. Like us, he prefers to think about emotional language and emotional resilience – we would say being emotionally intelligent, where our intellect, our social, spiritual and personal intelligences as well as our management of instinct and physical intelligences combine to make us emotionally intelligent.
Levin also discussed the morality of teaching “character”. The suggestion might be that KIPP schools are teaching children to conform, to be “good people”. His response to this was that there’s an explicit aim at KIPP to have productive careers and yes, they want young people to be “good” people but that there was no religious component to this.
Again this reiterates what we have said about morals and values. The extent to which a value is virtuous gives it validity. As we’ve said before, global tyrants throughout history have all had values. They just haven’t been good values. Their “values” have been detrimental to others.
For our part, we think that Levin is talking here about spiritual intelligence – ethics and virtues rather than morals and values. Enabling young people to consider virtuous living through the development of strengths and skills – understanding and behaving according to a universal set of shared values – has to stand them in good stead, and as Levin said, this isn’t a need exclusive to economically deprived kids from The Bronx. All young people, affluent or not, would do well to learn about character – as would many politicians.
At the conclusion of the broadcast, Dave Levin said that KIPP has proved that “demographics don’t determine destiny” – something that our own politicians and Ofsted chiefs might consider when thinking about the best ways to “improve” achievement in areas of the country that are allegedly failing. As Levin said “you can open a remarkable school in any area. It can happen. It requires long-term commitment and a ton of hard work” – but it can work, with faith, resilience, grit and a healthy dose of zest.
And it has worked in plenty of schools on this side of the Atlantic too. Only, their work in this area frequently goes unnoticed unless they can show clear evidence that it has impacted on “attainment” and “standards”. The fear of performance table slippage means that, in the main, the focus remains on academic success rather than these other important skills, strengths and intelligences.
The Educators programme looked at one UK school that’s committed to the development of “life skills”.
Kings Langley Secondary school in Hertfordshire focuses on three “strengths and skills” – empathy, stickability and self-regulation.
As the deputy head teacher, Ruth Jennings, said, this has had to be a whole-school approach and like KIPP they don’t restrict this learning to a “Life Lessons” slot on the curriculum. It’s integral to all activities, and when listening to the views of children on this work it seems to be successful. As one young person said, “the focus on character developed me as a person. There’s an atmosphere of respect”.
We know of many other schools that have determinedly maintained a focus on life skills, attributes, wellbeing, SEAL, PSHE education, whole school approaches – call it what you will.
As we have said in previous posts, the new Ofsted framework should enable schools to focus on life skills, character and values more often and more rigourously because the personal development of a child is now a limiting judgement.
That it takes a change to Ofsted rather than working from what is best for children to make this happen is disheartening.
What is, however, very heartening is hearing a progressive educator such as Dave Levin reiterating the purpose of education which has been espoused for decades by people such as Percy Nunn or Robin Alexander or Sir Ken Robinson, and ignored for far too long by far too many.
We conclude with a quote from the KIPP website.
“Since KIPP’s beginning in 1994, the development of character has been as important to us as the teaching of rigorous academic skills. Together, they are the yin-yang that make our schools come alive. We believe both are critical to the success of our students in college and life.”
Amen to that.