Mark_Liston“So what makes you such a big deal?” asked Garen, the blunt 8th grader. I’m not exactly a rock star. I was speaking at his school about my tool that measures character strengths: the Character Growth Index (CGI).  I found Garen’s question entertaining.  “I developed CGI to see if you are ‘DIVERGENT’!”  His eyes bugged as he replied, “Scary but cool!”

Divergent is a best-selling book series among teens and now a movie with a sequel.  In a post-apocalyptic world (what else?), teens are tested for their greatest talent and must choose one of five groups to be in for the rest of their lives.  If they don’t qualify in the group they choose, they are either cast out or killed. Yes, kind of scary but a cool movie.

Character Growth Index isn’t really like the aptitude test in the movie.  What makes it attractive to educators is that, according to Drs. Marvin Berkowitz and Tom Lickona, CGI is, “…to our knowledge, the only valid, reliable test of character virtues for middle and high school students.”

Educators know that talent enables achievement but character sustains success, defines an individual’s reputation, and is a primary indicator of happiness and flourishing. Knowing our students’ character strength levels will provide a reliable indicator of their future success and well-being (Lippman, Moore, & McIntosh, 2011).  Better yet, if our students’ character strengths can be identified and measured over time, we have data to prove our character instruction is working… as we do in our academic instruction.

The character education movement is over 20 years old yet has never developed a character test.  Seems strange, doesn’t it? If you have ever tried to measure character, you will learn quickly WHY this is true:  Measuring character is really tricky!

Thus the CGI study’s research question was:  Can a valid, reliable measure of multi-dimensional adolescent character be developed? We weren’t sure it could be done but knew we had to accomplish three goals: 1) Determine the core character strengths; 2) Create developmentally appropriate, reliable questions; and 3) Establish the test’s validity.

At the Character.org conference in Atlanta October 15-17, 2015, we will share the results of this groundbreaking study.  Spoiler alert:  We are very excited and we think you will be also.  Why? Because you know what this could mean to your school:

  1. With your students taking a 15-minute online test, you can know their character level compared to national norms in 11 core strengths: Perseverance, Love, Courage, Optimism, Honesty, Kindness, Forgiveness, Spirituality, Peace, Humility, and Wisdom.
  2. You can determine the specific character strengths that need more emphasis and target instruction toward these.
  3. You can use this CGI information to evaluate your Character Education initiative with concrete data.  This will elevate CE from what some have termed “non-cognitive skills” (are you kidding me?) to greater legitimacy in academic circles because student development can be measured.
  4. (This is really exciting for high schools!)  Students can keep a record of their CGI scores as part of their individual Character Portfolio (© 2015 by Mark Liston) that they may develop during high school to be used when applying for college and/or jobs.  The Character Portfolio would include service learning, extra-curricular activities, community service, spiritual and religious activities, etc.

At an early meeting of my dissertation committee in 2012, I was talking about CGI with Dr. Mindy Bier.  You may know her name from her work with Dr. Marvin Berkowitz on What Works in Character Education (2006). Mindy was excited about CGI’s development and asked, “Did you know that federal funding for Character Education (CE) was terminated in 2009?  Even those who had been given grants for 2009 and 2010 were told the grants were withdrawn.”

I was floored!  “You’re kidding,” I responded. “Why?”  She said no reason was given or announcement made. It isn’t due to budget cuts because the federal budget has risen dramatically each year. Most give political reasons (Let’s not go there…).

One possibility:  Four federal studies of CE program effectiveness concluded that, due to the lack of 1) a unified concept of character and 2) a character test, determining effectiveness was pretty much impossible (Hanson, Dietsch, & Zheng, 2012; Lippman, Moore, & McIntosh, 2011; Person, Moiduddin, Hague-Angus & Malone, 2009; SCDRC, 2010).

So if CGI really works, maybe some of those millions of education dollars will start flowing toward CE. Perhaps we will see a renaissance of character instruction, providing your students with the foundation for life necessary to well-being, success, and happiness (Tough, 2012).

Garen, the blunt 8th grader, didn’t know how “scary but cool” the journey to create CGI has been.  When I first mentioned the idea to Dr. Berkowitz, he gave me the “eye roll” like I would to my teenager and said something I interpreted as:  “Yeah, right!  No way can you do that!” So the cool part for me was showing him that it could be done!

Educators, what do you think?  Please let me know: mark@listongroup.org. Please plan to attend the Character.org conference in Atlanta October 15-17, 2015.  I’d love to meet you at my breakout session and share the Character Growth Index with you.

Have a great summer,

Mark Liston, PhD, LPC