U of A Professor's Research Project in Spain Asks if Character Traits Can Be Taught

Researchers Ildefonso Mendez, from left, Gema Zamarro and Jose Clavel recently were interviewed on Spanish radio about the project.
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Researchers Ildefonso Mendez, from left, Gema Zamarro and Jose Clavel recently were interviewed on Spanish radio about the project.

University of Arkansas professor Gema Zamarro and a colleague in Spain will embark this fall on a research project to discover whether children can be taught character traits believed to help them do better at school now and at work later.

The project is designed to gather data on three questions:

  • To what extent can these character strengths and skills be successfully taught in schools?

  • Would new teacher practices oriented to teach these character strengths have an impact on student academic outcomes?

  • What is the role of parents in the success of these practices?

Zamarro joined the faculty of the College of Education and Health Professions in 2014 as the holder of the Twenty-First Century Chair in Teacher Quality, one of six endowed chairs in the Department of Education Reform. She created Charassein: The Character Assessment Initiative to bring together faculty and doctoral students interested in improving measures of character skills and better understanding how character skills are developed. The group has published several papers on the topic. Charassein is a Greek work that means to engrave, scratch or etch and is the root of the English word "character."

On this research project, Zamarro is teaming with Ildefonso Mendez, a colleague who teaches economics at the University of Murcia in Spain.

Research in the fields of economics and psychology shows that circumstances that characterize an individual's childhood affect their education, employment and other relevant outcomes in adulthood, Zamarro said. These researchers suggest that non-cognitive skills such as conscientiousness, grit and self-control may be the missing link in the causal relationship between childhood experiences and success as an adult. Having a growth mindset in which people believe they can get better at something also appears to play a role.

"Although we know of the relevance of such character strengths and skills, less is known about their origin and development and to what extent they can be shaped by the school environment," she said. "We know the brain is a muscle that can be trained to be smarter."

Zamarro will use technology such as Skype to help train teachers at a randomized selected group of elementary schools in Murcia who expressed interest in participating in the research project. Murcia is the seventh largest city in Spain with a population in the metropolitan area of about 700,000 as of 2010.

Spain is one of the countries in Europe with the highest level of school dropouts, Zamarro said, 24 percent for boys and 16 percent for girls, and Murcia is one of the regions with the highest dropout levels in Spain. Its employment and education attainment rates are among the lowest in Spain.

Parents in Spain may be more likely than those in other countries to see their children in a certain way and that they can't change.

"There is a fixed mindset that seems more common in Spain," Zamarro said. "Parents will say, 'This is the naughty one.' We hope to have participation from parents and teachers."

The new curriculum aimed to stimulate the development of non-cognitive skills will be used with students from ages 4 to 12. It will be compatible with the official Spanish curriculum, Zamarro said, and will include activities, materials and teaching strategies based on recent scientific research.

The researchers will also develop a module for parents explaining the relevance of the skills being taught and how they can continue the learning at home.

The training and materials focus on two established areas - social-emotional learning and executive functioning. Social-emotional learning is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show sympathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

Psychologists have identified brain executive functions, including working memory, attention control, cognitive flexibility and response inhibition, as the foundation of core skills and processes that could help support the development of relevant character skills such as self-control, perseverance and grit, Zamarro explained. Notably, executive function development in childhood has been found to be correlated with later life outcomes. Moreover, at risk students with lower socio-economic status have been found to present lower levels of executive function.

"We are mixing ideas that show promise in the United States," Zamarro said.

An example of an activity could be for children to talk about feelings, how to recognize them, when they occur and what causes them, using scenarios to imagine their feelings in different situations. The activity could conclude with exercises to help children manage their feelings more effectively so that they don't get into trouble and disrupt their learning.

The researchers will begin data collection this fall with baseline surveys to parents, teachers and children participating in the project. They will collect the first outcome measures next spring.

Zamarro said she hopes the collaboration will result in U of A students having the opportunity to go to Spain to work on the research project or others.

This project is funded by a research grant from the Seneca Foundation in Spain.

Contacts

Heidi S. Wells, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions
479-575-3138, heidisw@uark.edu


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