Keynote speakers at a recent conference were Li Cunxin, acclaimed ballet dancer, author of "Mao's Last Dancer", stockbroker and Artistic Director of the Queensland Ballet, who spoke about overcoming adversity and achieving excellence and Tony Ryan, teacher, author, and futurist, who spoke about what would be needed by Australian students, in future, to achieve excellence.  Both had quite different experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives but they both spoke about character traits needed to achieve excellence.  

Li Cunxin spoke about his early, impoverished childhood and how characteristics such as: work ethic, determination, persistence, tenacity, and resilience were important factors in the development of skills and attainment of excellence.  He mentioned a specific teacher who had taken the time to identify what it was that motivated this young student and used that information to encourage his personal development. He stated that there is currently too much reliance upon an individual's talent and believed that achievement depended upon personal characteristics, that are stimulated by, and required to overcome, adversity.  He maintained that these personal characteristics were responsible for 80% of his capacity to overcome the various challenges that he encountered throughout his life.    

Unlike Li Cunxin, who spoke about what had influenced him, in the past, Tony Ryan spoke about the future and placed emphasis upon characteristics such as: initiative, adaptive agility and kindness, that would be required by students to achieve in the future.  He also mentioned that these were the same characteristics that would be required by parents and teachers wanting to support students to achieve excellence.    Ryan talked about individual capabilities but maintained it was critical to emphasise autonomy, mastery and purpose to motivate individuals to attain excellence in any field.

curious cat.pngRon Ritchhart, while working with Project Zero at Harvard University, wrote the book, "Intellectual Character", in which he focussed on cognitive dispositions such as: curiosity, skepticism and open mindedness, which he maintains are patterns of thinking that shape and motivate intellectual character.  Like the emphasis by Li Cunxin and Tony Ryan, Ron Ritchhart outlined the importance of cultivating these thinking dispositions and character traits to promote successful learning. He shifts attention from being smart to acting smart. Using descriptors of intelligence, he refers to patterns and dispositions of thinking.  By examining the work of various educational researchers and theorists, Richhart synthesises their work into three dispositions: creative, reflective and critical thinking expressed through behavioural and thinking routines.

While these approaches differ slightly, emphasis upon the development of character is constant.  Each person describes character as critical to the achievement of excellence.  The active routines, the thinking and behavioural habits that support the development of character, are consistent. Emphasis is upon activity that leads to the development of character.

© Michele Juratowitch                            

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Last reviewed 21 April 2021
Last updated 21 April 2021