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Life habits schools can teach

[This is my column for the Local Living section of Feb. 18, 2010. It is the cover piece.]

I learned at an early age from my mother that there was more to school than reading, writing, arithmetic and lunch. She was a teacher. I was an eager student of the academic sort. That didn’t impress her. She told me later it was clear I was ready to read when I was four, but she refused to teach me because I needed more work on my social skills.

She will turn 93 at the end of this month. I am tempted to call and ask her to evaluate how I turned out, but I fear the answer. My life has been a lot of reading and writing, with some arithmetic. Even as a parent I rarely considered how well my children’s schools were teaching life skills that went beyond what is assessed under No Child Left Behind.

The habits of the heart are probably learned almost as much at school as at home. But which ones can we reasonably expect teachers to address? What should we look for to make certain these unmeasurable immeasurable but invaluable traits are being reinforced?

With help from Local Living editor Liz Seymour, whose children are just starting school, I came up with eight essential life skills. I sought expert opinion on their importance and how to teach them. If you have your own suggestions, post a comment here.

Here are mine, in no particular order:

1. Organization

Linda Allen, a star math teacher in Arlington, said helping students absorb a sense of structure is key to her middle school’s success. “A good teacher, regardless of the content area, has today’s main idea and homework in the same area of the room every day. That teacher reminds students every day to copy the information down at the start of the class, and gives them time to do that," she said. She gives parents timely feedback about work completion “so that intervention can happen sooner rather than later.”

A related lesson is deferring gratification. Psychologists Angela L. Duckworth and Martin E.P. Seligman, by seeing what happens when children have the choice of a dollar today or two dollars next week, have concluded that self-discipline and self-denial are keys to success. Katherine Bradley, president of the Washington-based CityBridge Foundation, says it “means sticking with something even if it’s boring, pushing yourself to finish even if it’s a long assignment.”

2. Music

Kenneth J. Bernstein, a much-admired social studies teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince George’s County, is also a piano player. “I do not think every child needs to learn to sing or play an instrument,” he said, “but each may need to learn how to listen, because different kinds of music may require different kinds of listening. In a sense, being exposed to several kinds of music is like learning a second language: It begins to empower one to learn further on one’s own, because one has gone beyond the limitations of what one grows up with.”

Allen said students should also learn how to be a good audience. “If a child can hold it together in the company of hundreds of their peers, they can hold it together for any event,” she said.

3. Teamwork

Games aren’t the only way to learn how to cooperate with others toward a shared goal, but for many students such contests have lifelong importance. Frazier O’Leary teaches Advanced Placement English, one of the toughest courses at Cardozo High School in the District, but he is also the baseball coach. “Sometimes it is hard for high school students to understand the value of working together until they grow up and realize that teamwork is essential to success,” he said.

4. Exercise

Sarah Melanie Fine, a writer, went for a run every morning when she was teaching in a D.C. school. She needed the exercise to survive tough days. Her students often did not have the same chance. “Particularly in an environment where seat time is the ever-growing end-all, kids desperately need time where they’re using their bodies and learning a different kind of discipline,” she said. Not only does it relieve stress, but it clears the head for dividing fractions, declining nouns and other feats of concentration.

5. Friendship

Mike Feinberg, co-founder of the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools, which emphasize character, said an essential ingredient of learning to be a friend is what some call social intelligence or emotional intelligence. It includes “not giving in to peer pressure, becoming self-aware and using that self-awareness to self-adjust as necessary,” he said. He acknowledges that many people think this is something parents should teach, but sometimes they don’t, and students’ futures depend on it.

6. Arguing

Bernstein has a favorite trick for teaching this correctly: “I remember once asking students to prepare a debate, three for the affirmative and three for the negative. When they came into class and I checked that they were prepared, I made them argue the other side, not the one they had prepared. With the exception of the class president, who as a politician did not trust me and thus had prepared both sides, they flopped. And in that failure they learned an important lesson: One is far more effective in debate and discourse when one has thought through both sides of an argument.”

7. Thinking critically

I remember that my favorite teacher when I was in high school, Al Ladendorff, encouraged our American history class to criticize the textbook. I wondered: Was that legal? Much later I realized the contrarian habits he taught were vital. I am a better writer, a better voter and a better parent for learning to examine popular assumptions and judge if they are correct.

8. Presentation

“In learning to make a persuasive argument, one has to learn how to address an audience,” Bernstein said, “be it one person or a large group.” As adults we often learn the hard way how important it is to be prepared, maintain eye contact and dress appropriately for the situation. It is better to learn this in school than while shaking in fear two minutes before our first job interview.

Read Jay's blog every day at

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By Jay Mathews  | February 17, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  arguing, character education, exercise, friendship, life skills, life skills taught in schools, music, organization, presentation, presentation. thinking critically, teamwork  
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Great list. Now we need a column on how schools are not meeting these needs because the entire focus of just about every public school in the country is on preparing students for standardized tests. Any teacher who attempts to directly work on these skills will be dinged for not focusing on the skills that are tested on the high stakes tests.

Posted by: kronberg | February 18, 2010 5:22 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for calling attention to some of the skills that will help students achieve REAL success. (In combination with good academics, of course.) As a DC Public School teacher, I would add one more essential: teaching kids they can succeed if they work hard. I wish this were automatic, but for many students, it's not. In fact, DCPS has made it part of the Teaching and Learning Framework on which teachers are evaluated (IMPACT.)

For a full comment on how this belief plays out in DC classrooms and how it relates to IMPACT, please read my post here:

Posted by: UseSerendipity | February 18, 2010 7:07 AM | Report abuse

Of course! How did we ever get to the point where a column like yours needs to be written? Who wouldn't imporved delayed gratification, for instance, over imporved test scores?

Posted by: johnt4853 | February 18, 2010 8:28 AM | Report abuse

You, sir, are ridiculous. I thought you hated 21st century skills. Or do you just hate the term?

The Framework for 21st Century Learning includes the Arts, which includes music. The Framework also includes collaboration (i.e., teamwork), arguing (i.e., communication), critical thinking, presentation skills, etc.

Also why call it arguing? Isnt debate a better term?


Posted by: doctordowntown | February 18, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

Own Your Behavior/Decisions
Too many students are allowed to avoid responsibility for their behavior or decisions. By the time a student reaches middle school he/she should be able to anticipate the outcomes from most of the decisions they make. Parents need to stop making excuses for their children and start letting the students face the consequences of decisions made.

Posted by: dpotts1 | February 18, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

I would suggest that having a "sense of purpose" is absolutely essential to success. Setting goals, then developing a plan of action to pursue these goals is paramount to successful academic performance and achievement.

In a nutshell,


All of this requires self-discipline and determination.
"Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently" I believe Henry Ford said that.

Posted by: jpstardust | February 18, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

I agree that these are good habits that should be instilled and reinforced at school, at home – everywhere.

I’d say you haven’t learned # 7 very well, Jay - “Thinking Critically” - at least with respect to DC school reform: “learning to examine popular assumptions and judge if they are correct.” I can see you’re starting to waver at bit on Rhee since she refused to apologize for the “teachers who have sex with children” remark, but despite her continued shows of poor leadership and her questionable, even false, achievement claims, you still say you’re rooting for her.

Maybe what you mean is that you’re rooting for school reform and Rhee has become school reform in your mind. Here’s the critical thinking part: school reform is not a person, it’s a concept. A person can make or break a particular school reform effort, but they can’t destroy the concept.

Like you and many others, I want school reform in DC to work. After careful discernment of Rhee’s methods, I don’t think she can do it, so I want her to leave before she makes things worse and it becomes even harder to clean up after her and to truly work at improving the schools.

Posted by: efavorite | February 18, 2010 11:38 AM | Report abuse

Another 'habit of the heart' that can/should be woven into most all of the above ideas is Being A Good Sport. This involves empathy (understanding the other side, especially in feelings), enough confidence to be humble in victory and gracious in defeat (in sports as well as grades), determination without bullying, humor without cutting remarks or humiliation, pride without boasting, responsibility without blame, etc.

Posted by: briannholli | February 18, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

Great comments. If you have more ideas for life skills that schools can teach, just add them here.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 18, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Loved the article.
I'd add, "learning to deal with failure."

Posted by: springer2 | February 18, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

I would add: "independence."

There are many public schools that encourage --even reward-- kids when it is clear that parents are actually doing the take-home projects.

Schools need to be serious about rooting out projects (e.g., science fair, National History Day) that have been commandeered by parents, instead of rewarding the kids and sending them on to the next round for awards.

What message does this send to the kids? (You're not good enough to do it on your own.)

What about kids who do not have college-educated parents? In schools like Alice Deal Middle School in DC, the "achievement gap" continues to grow- in part because when kids are rewarded for parent work, underprivileged kids will suffer --and will eventually feel like they cannot compete.

Posted by: trace1 | February 18, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

By the way, at least one Montgomery County school is taking the "parent problem" seriously and requiring that most science fair work be done during school hours.

Posted by: trace1 | February 18, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Certainly, schools should reinforce these habits. At the same time, it's not too likely that they'll get very far with these good habits/character traits if the home doesn't work on them first. Not to be too much of an old fuddy duddy, but when I was in elementary school in the '50's, children arrived in K with a pretty good grasp on these habits (even if we didn't perfect them until much later).

Posted by: jane100000 | February 18, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

I would add not to fear failure. I fear we are demanding a level of perfectionism from our children today and that they are loosing the ability to take a risk.

Posted by: Brooklander | February 18, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Many (all?) DC public schools are keeping kids inside-indefinitely - due to snow-covered playgrounds. So much for exercise, teamwork, and friendship.

How about giving the kids some shovels instead? I have no doubt that this is how it would be handled in Japan, where kids make lunches at school and also clean the school buildings.

Posted by: trace1 | February 18, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

So basicially create more or beef up preexisting Social Studies classes???

Add to the list


Don't be a whiner, complainer or quitter, when problems or injustices occur. Postively and effectively make a difference as best you can. If you're not part of the solution, then your're part of the problem.

Posted by: TwoSons | February 18, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

That is a pretty good list, but here is a truly complete one - see Page 2 (21st Century Skills and Habits of Mind)

as well on some thoughts on the striking similarity to what is needed for a happy and fulfilled life. Note how little of this list is amenable to standardized testing, and how much of it is deterred from being taught because of the emphasis on drill and kill test prep for high stakes testing.

Posted by: demsrising | February 18, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Some years ago, First Amendment Schools, a school reform effort initiated by ASCD and the First Amendment Center, developed a set of Core Civic Habits ( which describe Habits of Mind, Heart, Work, and Voice which must be taught and practiced within a school community to prepare students for work, future education and civic participation. You'll find some good additions to your list!

Posted by: molly612 | February 18, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Great column and comments! I would add two things to the list: curiosity and negotiation skills. The former is vital to understanding personal relationships and important public policy issues. In other words, looking beyond the "front page"! The latter is a pragmatic skill that takes training and practice to do successfully. Also, as parents, there are many great out-of-school supplements, e.g., The Traveling Players Ensemble in NoVa teaches my two items and most of the "eight". (Disclaimer -- my child is an avid participant!)

Posted by: reido1 | February 18, 2010 9:01 PM | Report abuse

As a former teacher, administrator and parent in schools, I delighted in your list of eight “big lessons”. I applaud, for instance, that you mention kinesthetic and auditory learning with music and exercise.(But why not "the arts")

Many of the others you identify can be developed by engaging in civil discourse. I believe one of the best ways to practice this is through Shared Inquiry™, a method of engaged learning that uses discussions of literature and other challenging texts. Working with this method in a consistent manner builds the capacity for collaboration, thinking critically, taking a stand (better than "arguing"), sharing your ideas with others (presentation), and seeing and even respecting more than one point of view (friendship). Civil discourse is not only a way of getting the best out of school, it is necessary for citizenship in a strong democracy and, I’d argue, global citizenship.

Our students and for that matter, our teachers deserve something more than what NCLB has harvested: “drill and kill” in the classroom for high stakes testing.

Great Books Foundation

Posted by: sgalbraith | February 19, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

I would add the following to your big lessons:
1. Role-playing: We do not act informally the way we do with our friends and then use the same jargon, lingo, and presentation with teachers, co-workers, bosses, and people in authority. There's a time for laid back relaxed clothing, speech, and mannerisms and the ability to look professional, well-meaning and competent. This skill has to start in school, and that's why private schools adopt a dress code and standards of behavior. Teachers should not work in blue-jeans and sweat shirts, and neither should students come dressed for school looking like they're ready to clean out the garage. We also have to emphasize the difference between formal writing and our blogs and twitters--they won't cut it once we go to work and have to write a formal memo to our boss about our project's progress.
2. A World View: Wonder why so many school systems have incorporated mandatory volunteer service? Students need to be exposed to those less fortunate at an early age to conter the self-absorption and "me first" mind set. Helping at Martha's Table just a few hours a week helps get priorities straight.
3. Math education: In light of President Obama's edict that our math and science skills are woefully inadequate, American University math professor Walt Wood is determined to set up seminars to improve math education skills that would incorporate teachers, parents, students, and engineers from major corporations. We cannot compete in the world market job-wise unless we accelerate learning in these fields.
4. Respect and common courtesy: It's a cut-throat world in the job market, but we can't afford anger, cynicism, bullying, insulting behavior to surface. Civility, kindness, and respect for others have to be instilled in schools. Ask any educator what the number one problem he encounters in his work day is and he'll reply, "Discipline." We will never have a world-class educational system unless there is zero tolerance for insults, foul language, bullying behavior, and the brutality that too often occurs in educational environments. No wonder home schooling increases, and parents of pre-school youngsters compete for noteworthy private schools. So parents have to stop making excuses for their child's misbehavior and start setting the example themselves that "kindness affects more than severity" (Aesop)

Posted by: Megyeri | February 19, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

I would add resiliency and persistence, as well as the ability to delay gratification. Todays kids are bombarded with immediacy in everything from their communication to videa gamesand beyond. How do they learn to set and achieve future goals when they always expect!

Posted by: dunnigan5 | February 19, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

While some may not view my suggestion as the same kind of "competency" as the others in your article, the ability to present one's thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively in writing is still absolutely essential for an "educated " person. It is an acquired skill and one which must be practiced, critqued and polisihed over time. Instead , we seem to be well on the way to "thumbed-down " written communication which uses --or abuses-- spelling, grammar, syntax and appropriate vocabulary.

Posted by: jmsbh | February 19, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for a spot-on list of key lessons good for all at every age. I would add two based on experience in school and business: BE PREPARED! Have an extra pen and pencil in each of your desks and in your brief case. Have a spare ink or toner cartridge and a ream of copy paper for your printer(avoid an empty cartridge at 10pm the night before the paper is due!)Take meeting contact information and travel directions home the night before the meeting. Keep small bills and change readily available. Charge your cell phone before it needs it. The other one: KNOW WHEN AND HOW TO GET HELP AND GET IT! Learn to recognize the gaps in your knowledge and skills and learn where the persons and data are that will fill the gaps.

Posted by: ednarranck | February 20, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

I agree that there needs to be more focus on life skills and character development like this in public schools instead of just striving for perfect test scores. However, I think there also needs to be more encouragement for parental involvement. It seems to me that many parents have the tendency to hand off too much of the responsibility of raising their child to the school system. Unless a student comes from a dysfunctional home life and school is the only time he/she spends in a semi-nurturing environment (and I hesitate to call most public schools "nurturing"), there is no way that what children learn in their school can compare to what they should be learning from a caring, responsible parent.

Posted by: topaz2911 | February 20, 2010 10:02 PM | Report abuse

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