Monday, March 17, 2014

the difference between skills and virtues


One way to encapsulate the ancient Greek idea of a virtuous man is someone who wants to do what is right. And a skill is know how, having the ability to perform a task. I've heard a lot of discussion in the last couple of years (months?) about teaching people more than just know how. "Soft skills" is one heading for these "non-cognitive" skills. And I have been thinking that at least the reporting is missing a clear distinction that would help make this new category of teaching make more sense.

The "soft skills" are things like being on time, self presentation and certain interpersonal skills. This morning we heard all about grit, and its importance. The thing that makes grit something other than a traditional skill is it contains an idea of what is right and what to expect for doing it. It is a virtue in the ancient Greek sense.

The whole idea of determination is that if you stay on a problem and don't quit then you will succeed. And a kid who has grit will not only be able to stick to a problem, they will want to. They will have the virtue of determination. But everyone knows how to be determined, you just don't quit, but how do you teach someone to want to be gritty? By teaching them that they can expect a pay off for it.

Staying with a problem can be painful, boring and embarrassing. You fail and fail and fail; there has to be at least the expectation of a light at the end of the tunnel otherwise quitting is the thing to do. And the way to build that expectation is by repeated experience. Repeated experience is how the brain builds up expectations, if you are shown a reward for persistence enough times you will find persistence rewarding.

That's not a skill, its not a know how, it's wanting to do what's right. What we are talking about with these non-cognitive skills are affective-skills. Teaching kids to enjoy the adaptive behavior so that they want to do the right thing. You can't just explain it, you have to instill it, and the method for that is operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning is changing animals behavior by controlling the outcomes of actions, rewarding or failing to reward behavior. Rewarded behavior is strengthened and unrewarded behavior is weakened. Its how you teach your dog to sit or roll over and it works with every animal on the planet. We need to reward what we value, to reward what will be valuable. And if we do then our children will become virtuous through wanting to do what they should do.

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