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Philadelphia’s Character Lab builds better students, and better people


We all know that it’s essential to build “character” in our children, but what exactly does that mean? Philadelphia’s Character Lab, a nonprofit, early-stage tech company, is tackling that question by advancing the science and practice of character development in schools.

“Overwhelming scientific evidence now shows that character strengths are as important as IQ and socioeconomic status to achievement and well-being,” says Cameron French, Character Lab’s communications manager. “In other words, if we want students to succeed in school, if we want students to lead fulfilling lives, if we want students to be good people to those around them — all of these things require what we call character.”

Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” founded Character Lab with two others in 2013. Besides serving as CEO, Duckworth also teaches at University of Pennsylvania. This fall, the company moved to ic@3401, a partnership between the University City Science Center and Drexel University that has become home to the largest collection of funded, early-stage tech companies in Philadelphia.

Teaching character in schools is important — and possible.

Character Lab defines “character” as an amalgam of traits including gratitude, grit, curiosity, self-control, zest, optimism, creativity and purpose.

“Our research has demonstrated that there are at least three categories of character that matter for school success,” says French. “Interpersonal strengths, like gratitude, enable harmonious relationships with other people; intrapersonal strengths, like grit and self-control, enable achievement; and intellectual strengths, like curiosity, enable a fertile and free life of the mind.”

And these qualities are teachable.

“There’s an element of nature and an element of nurture to all character strengths,” she continues. “We know that character is malleable, and so Character Lab is dedicated to finding ways to develop character. We focus on adolescents in middle and high school. While very young ages may be important for establishing the foundations of character, science shows that this is not the only time that you can instill it. Character may never stop changing.”

If we want students to succeed in school, if we want students to lead fulfilling lives, if we want students to be good people to those around them — all of these things require what we call character.Cameron French, Character Lab

Character Lab offers free “Playbooks,” ready-to-use resources comprised of videos, interviews, examples and facilitation guides that target a specific character strength and are aimed at middle and high school students.

“We chose this range because we think it’s especially formative for character, especially the transition times like ninth grade when students first enter a new school,” explains French. “We also think that test scores are dominant at this age, and so this is an ideal time to help educators balance intellectual growth with character growth.”

Another initiative, the Character Lab Research Network, brings top scientists together with schools that want to advance character development science. And every summer, Character Lab cohosts the Educator Summit, bringing hundreds of educators together to learn from each other and from world-class scientists about the latest in the field.

Character Lab’s 2017 Educator Summit

As for you adults, don’t forget that character is a lifelong learning experience.

“It’s never too late to practice and develop character strengths,” adds French. “At the end of the day, character is about aligning individual goals with helping others, and it’s never too late to do that. Curiosity helps people of any age learn more. Gratitude is good for the self and others no matter how many candles are on the birthday cake.”

ELISE VIDER is news editor of Keystone Edge.

WRITER IN RESIDENCE is a partnership between the University City Science Center, Keystone Edge and Flying Kite Media that embeds a reporter on-site at Quorum, the Science Center’s clubhouse for entrepreneurs at 3711 Market Street. The resulting coverage will provide an inside look at the most intriguing companies, discoveries and technological innovations coming out of this essential Philadelphia institution. 

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Education, Entrepreneurship, Higher Ed, Philadelphia, Research, Science & Tech, youth