On Being a Real Person: The Missing Core of K-12

A small green book with the audacious title anchors a prominent stack of books in our family room. On Being a Real Person by Harry Emerson Fosdick offers up a formula for health and happiness rooted in personal responsibility and his Baptist faith. Seventy years later there are fewer of us with Harry’s formulaic clarity.

George Packer’s new book outlines America’s unwinding, ”allowing unprecedented freedom while rending the social contract, driving the political system to the verge of breakdown, and setting citizens adrift to find new paths forward.”  David Brooks writes frequently about the impact of the unraveling social contract, “People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.”

In Emerson’s day, many students experienced alignment of behavioral expectations between school, home, and a faith congregation.  In Packer’s America, there are fewer constraints, but less stable families and communities, and more cracks for kids to fall through.

The role of school. Last year Reed Hastings predicted that computers will keep getting better at teaching stuff and that will allow teachers to focus on what computers will never do–to teach young people how to be human. He said new learning technology “will free up teachers to teach humanity” including the ability to create and collaborate. “Our task is to inspire,” said Hastings. A recent paper outlines how new tools and strategies are improving teaching conditions.

From hundreds of school visits, I get the impression that most schools have lost ground on teaching humanity in the last generation. It’s likely a function of the increased focus on tested subjects in schools, growing diversity and poverty of school aged students, and a general decline in participation in traditional faith communities–we’ve become preoccupied, diverse, and unmoored.

As we transition to next-gen tools and schools, educators have the opportunity to place the subject of “becoming a real person” at the core. There are several related schools of thought on the subject of “teaching humanity”–a big venn diagram–with labels including workplace skills, social emotional learning, and character development.

In the first category, Ken Kay spent a decade advocating for adding the 4Cs–critical thinking and problem solving; communication, collaboration; and creativity and innovation–to the 3Rs. Tony Wagner’s 7 survival skills adds entrepreneurship.

MacMillion and McGrath urge an entrepreneurial mindset, “the process of discovering new things to do–things for which there are no precedents and about which there is very limited data/information.”  The Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship provides curriculum and activities to boost awareness of business opportunities and increase persistence.

Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, said, “ We don’t teach the most important skills,” a list that includes “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.” We don’t teach them and we don’t know what to call these “soft skills.” David Conley, EPIC, thinks the non-cognitive skills could more accurately be called “meta-cognitive learning skills.”

CASEL defines social emotional learning (SEL) as:

  • Self-management: Managing emotions and behaviors to achieve one’s goals

  • Self-awareness: Recognizing one’s emotions and values as well as one’s strengths and challenges

  • Social awareness: Showing understanding and empathy for others

  • Relationship skills: Forming positive relationships, working in teams, and dealing effectively with conflict; and

  • Responsible decision making: Making ethical, constructive choices about personal and social behavior.

Marty Neumeier thinks there are five “metaskills”–an update of workplace skills and SEL:

  1. Feeling: including empathy, intuition, and social intelligence.

  2. Seeing: the ability to think whole thoughts, also known as systems thinking.

  3. Dreaming: the metaskill of applied imagination.

  4. Making: mastering the design process, including skills for devising prototypes.

  5. Learning: the autodidactic ability to learn new skills at will.

On the character front, there are groups like Character Counts that have tried to create composite “values that everyone can agree on”: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.

Kern Foundation’s Ryan Olson noted that charter development programs have “come to be considered as almost exclusively psychological in nature.” Productive perhaps but divorced from “the ends toward which character education is aimed.” Olson calls the question of the ends and aims of public education.

The college and workplace readiness programs focus on the knowledge, skills, and dispositions likely to produce career success. Democratic schools typically teach civics, encourage student voice, and encourage collective decision making–they are often schools with a strong culture rooted in the  purpose of preparing contributing citizens.

Is the goal of public education to prepare entrepreneurs, citizens, or good people?  Ideally, all three. Good schools may emphasize one over the others in their aims but they do all three while preparing students for success at the next level of their education.

Critics of state testing programs argue that purpose has been narrowed to skills development, but the ends and aims of schooling are a function of leadership and a product of a community conversation. It is not unreasonable to demand that students should be able to read, write, and solve problems when they graduate but measures of these skills don’t make sufficient aims to develop a compelling school.

What good schools do. All schools create a culture–or allow a culture to be created. All schools teach values whether they articulated or not–there’s a view of what is good and what is not tolerated.  Writing about Danville Kentucky, I noted that Good Schools Start With Good Goals.

At the Denver School of Science and Technology Public Schools (the best high poverty STEM school), Bill Kurtz asks two big questions, “What’s your view of the human condition?” and “What do people want?”  He suggests that most people want to be connected to a bigger story and they want to be affirmed for their unique gifts and talents. To that end, DSST constructed core values including respect, responsibility, integrity, courage, curiosity, and doing your best to guide their students and team in pursuit of discovering their unique talents and developing them to further the larger human story.

Great Hearts Academies in Arizona prepares its graduates for top universities and “to be leaders in creating a more philosophical, humane, and just society.”  Great Hearts engages students in “an intense and formative dialogue with the Great Books and Ideas of Western Culture,” with the intent of understanding “more fully what it means to be a human being.”

The operators of EAGLE College Prep, also in Phoenix, “strive to be a warm and loving organization with strong relationships built on trust, service, respect and genuine communication.” They match “time-honored values” with cutting edge approaches.

New school developers bring their values to the design process. Invigorating an existing school starts with a community conversation about shared values and desired outcomes.

The existing toolbox for character development and college/career preparation includes visual cues and daily reminders, student behavior and feedback systems, and advisory curriculum. Good schools integrate core values into the curriculum as well as staff development and evaluation systems. Good schools hold regular community conversations

Good schools encourage students to practice enterprise. The Big Picture and Cristo Rey networks are particularly good at structuring internships. Service learning can yield many similar benefits.

What’s next? College Board has BigFuture and Envictus has Navigation 101 but teens and their families could use better support for the all important postsecondary decision.

Comprehensive learner profiles will soon power recommendations for secondary course taking and help counselors make sure students gain exposure to the most appropriate college and careers. (Families should have the ability to manage the privacy settings in the student profile.)

The Hope Survey measures students perception that they can set and accomplish goals. Schools should have access to more tools like this that measure perception and track social emotional growth.

Students should be tracking their own development in digital portfolios. For example, schools could ask students to blog on their learning and development on a different character trait every month.

On character development, schools could use better advisory curriculum and instructional units that can be incorporated into history, social studies, and English language arts.

Is all this more stuff for schools to take on? A better way to think about it is a new spine of character development and college/career preparation. As Hastings suggested, new blended formats are creating the potential to incorporate a central focus on developing young people–one rooted in purpose, and a Ryan Olson said, “attaches them to a cause greater than themselves and that holds them accountable for their actions.”

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Lisa Dicksteen

As a teacher I am for all the "teaching humanity" we can muster, however, my experience has been that those of us who believe this are in the minority, and that we make administrators and other teachers nervous enough to get rid of us.
The question isn't what to teach or how to teach it - simple modeling of basic appropriate human behavior will do it.
If you are trustworthy, kids will learn both to trust you and to be honest and trustworthy themselves.
If you treat them with respect, they will return the favor and eventually start treating each other the same way.
If you truly care about them - even when they are not in your classroom - they will internalize that and begin to care about you, and about their work, and themselves, and each other.
The old poster about how children learn what they live really says it all - no major dissertations required.
The question remains, how do we make the ensuing strong bonds between teachers and students be less threatening to administrators and those teachers who do not behave in this manner? Until we can get more teachers with this approach accepted into secure jobs, they will continue to float from school to school and eventually leave the profession in frustration.
If we can solve this, we will be a long way toward being able to get on with the real business of education - teaching children to become responsible, productive, educated members of our participatory democracy and citizens of the world.

Alice Ray - Ripple Effects

Yes! And no. Teachers dedicated to instilling core values have run into criticism for cultural unresponsiveness and disproportionate discipline referrals (and their school district's face lawsuits because of that). Only the values of democracy are universally shared, and even they are interpreted with fierce differences across a political, religious, and cultural spectrum. In a diverse society "becoming a real person" is not the same task and not the same journey for every student. Programs that claim to promote authenticity and humanity need to be doubly sure they are promoting a deep respect for diversity in the process.

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