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Character Assessment: A Growing Trend in Boarding School – Part 1

For decades businesses have valued what are called “soft skills” in hiring employees. Even before the new millennium dawned, the phrasing transformed to “twenty-first-century skills.” Recently an expanding body of psychology research has brought the terms “triarchic intelligence,” “growth mindset” and “grit” into the vernacular. This collective set of lingo illustrates the ongoing search to distill what character traits put people on the path to success.

Throughout this evolution, schools have been strongholds of character development. Character is particularly central to boarding schools, many of which were founded on classic tenets and a belief that the true pursuit of excellence requires a synthesis of strong intellect and purposeful personal growth. The blossoming of psychological research on noncognitive traits has added the weight of scientific documentation and new ways to structure this framework. The latest trend is the emergence of new tools—including standardized written instruments—to better understand a student during the application process. Thus it is valuable to explore how these new tools reflect the latest research and how schools see them benefiting students.

Valuing Cognitive and Noncognitive Skills

Cognitive skills are the thinking, reasoning, and memory processes that brains use to assemble and interpret information. Testing of this type of intelligence gained traction in the early 1900s and a person’s intelligence quotient, or “IQ” has long been considered a valuable predictor of potential for higher learning and advancement in the workforce. Yet IQ scores are just one data point in understanding any individual. The notion of “emotional intelligence” first appeared in the 1960s, but took a generation to become widespread. In the 1990s, the theory that emotional intelligence, or “EQ,” rivaled the importance of IQ was considered both compelling and avant-garde. Ever since, researchers have delved deeper into noncognitive qualities, which focus on motivation, personal integrity, self-discipline and social competency.

The turn of this century has witnessed an explosion of ideas for defining and measuring such qualities. Robert Sternberg, an award-winning psychology professor at Cornell University, developed a theory of triarchic intelligence that synthesizes: a) creative intelligence to generate new ideas, b) analytical intelligence to evaluate ideas, and c) practical intelligence to build support for and implement ideas. Carol Dweck, of Stanford University, created a sea change in how to approach personal growth with her bestselling book, Mindset. Dweck highlights the differences in growth between people who believe their talents to be innate compared to those who believe in their own capacity for change through consistent effort. Angela Duckworth, of the University of Pennsylvania, earned a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for her articulation of the power of grit, which is a person’s perseverance and passion to pursuing long-term goals.

Boarding schools are perfect catalysts for such personality traits. These communities are built around fostering passion, cultivating intrinsic motivation and inspiring students to embrace challenge. Students develop their identities as part of these intentional communities, which are microcosms for the choices they will encounter in college and career.

These immersive environments also allow learning to flow beyond classroom walls. Unlike day school faculty who may engage with students primarily in classroom settings, boarding school faculty also mentor students through the contexts of dorm life, athletics, arts, and social and extracurricular activities that occur every day of the week. This integrated perspective provides opportunities to observe the intellectual and social-emotional magnitudes of varied settings. As dedicated educators who serve in loco parentis, boarding school faculty make adept use of cognitive and noncognitive research to facilitate student learning. Ideas about grit or growth mindset may show up as part of formal curriculum, or be seamlessly integrated into the discussion when a student seeks help in solving problems. Knowing how intricately character is linked with success in a community, it’s natural for schools to consider a student’s character during the admission process.

Exploring Noncognitive Traits in Admission

At a boarding school, admission officers are tasked with bringing together a group of complete strangers—hailing from across the country and around the world—who will thrive and gel together as a healthy, vibrant community. Thus the admission process at any school has always incorporated some consideration of character. Teacher recommendations, personal essays, and direct conversations with students and their families offer a glimpse into each individual’s personality. Ray Diffley, Director of the Leadership Center for Admission & Enrollment Management Professionals at the Association of Independent School Admission Professionals, assures parents that admission officers understand their children are still works in progress. “Our expertise is in being able to understand where a child is in his or her development and project how they will grow in a particular educational environment,” he explains.

When Diffley worked as Director of Admission at Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, he collaborated with Sternberg and his team, who were then at Yale University, to create a forty-question assessment that reflected students’ current levels on three traits: a) academic self-efficacy, b) locus of control (whether they connected success or failure to their own efforts or to outside forces), and c) intrinsic academic motivation. Diffley is quick to caution that this tool is not a “measurement of character.” Rather, it is viewed as more information to support other parts of a student’s application. “This information was used in concert with teacher recommendations and interviews,” he explains.

When the development and efficacy of this self-assessment (which was part of a larger battery) was published as a paper in the Journal of Educational Psychology in 2009, this represented the first initiative of its kind at a secondary school. In the years since, Diffley reported that about 90 percent of applicants completed the self-assessment. “Choate has always been a school with these characteristics in its community,” Diffley said. “This gave us a tool for articulating those values as a clear priority, and I got countless emails from parents—and students—who appreciated that as a distinguishing quality for the school.”

This column is Part 1 of an article that is being reprinted from MOFFLY MEDIA 2017-18 Independent School Guide. Part 2 of the article will appear in our Winter newsletter.

Audrey Noyes Ludemann helps families seek independent school education, including day schools and boarding schools, from elementary to secondary grades. She also is an invaluable resource for addressing different learning styles—serving families whose students are gifted and/or have moderate learning differences. She can be reached at audrey@thebertramgroup.com