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A Key to Character and More

Teaching kids to think critically can and should top the education agenda—an interview with William Hughes

William Hughes is a leader with a deep background in education and strong beliefs. “I believe in a science of thinking,” is one of them, he says. Others include: Leadership is learned, character can be taught, critical thinking is crucial to both, and the Socratic method is an accessible and invaluable tool. In fact, Hughes puts these topics at the top of his professional agenda at The Kern Family Foundation, and he’d love it if everyone else in education did too.

Hughes’s efforts and point of view align in large part with those of the McGowan Fund, which supports K–12 education, a range of job-training programs, and the McGowan Fellows Program, a scholarship and leadership development program that works with 10 top-tier MBA students each year. That’s why we sat down to ask him more about his ideas, especially those around character.

At first, the terms he uses—character development, critical thinking, leadership, virtues, and Socratic method—can all seem far afield from each other and the typical American classroom. But he’s patient about connecting the dots, much as they are connected in the Framework for Character Education in Schools (2017), a document developed by the interdisciplinary Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, located at the University of Birmingham in Great Britain. The Framework describes character education as equipping students with the intellectual tools to make wise choices of their own within a democratic society. Among the building blocks of character are the expected moral and civic virtues, but also intellectual virtues, such as critical thinking and reflection, and performance virtues, such as confidence and resilience. According to the Framework, the virtues should be reinforced everywhere in a school—on the playing field, in classrooms, staff training, special events.

“American education is in trouble,” Hughes says—and not just because these building virtues aren’t explicitly and appropriately taught. For instance, in 2019, in Wisconsin, where Hughes has served as a teacher, principal, and superintendent of schools, 39 percent of K–12 students were proficient in reading at grade level. That year—before the COVID disruption—34 percent of eighth graders were proficient nationally. This means that American kids can’t read for comprehension, for mastery over the subject matter at hand, Hughes says.

But it also means they can’t read critically, with an eye toward independent decision-making. Has the author made a good point? Does she have evidence to back her argument up? Has she cheated a bit in the way she draws conclusions from the evidence? What do I think about what she says and how do I think we should act on it?

“Critical thinking is a requirement for leadership ability,” Hughes says. The statement makes sense when the building blocks of character are laid out this way. But then he adds, “Everyone can be a leader of a kind in some setting,” which is bold, hopeful, and maybe a little hard to believe.

Hughes offers experience. “I’m a believer in the Socratic method,” he says. The Socratic method challenges students to master material and then answer probing questions from the teacher. Those questions and the subsequent discussion develop critical thinking, reflection, confidence, and more. “Most kids nine and ten can do this,” Hughes says. He’s seen it work in high-poverty schools. “It’s not going to be Day 1, but it works. If kids feel an attachment to a subject, then they’re engaged.”

How can public schools do this? Hughes imagines a district portal that provides curriculum down to the lesson. The questions must be well designed. Teachers must be trained. It will take some doing: Some American schools are operating on a 20th-century model. “Education has been figured out,” he says, noting that methods around fostering character, identifying virtues, and promoting critical thinking have been known for years, “but the public school system is not ready to be dismantled.”

Meanwhile, in his work as program director at the Kern Foundation, he leads a team managing more than $35 million in grants focusing on character education, leadership development, and preparation. One example is an $8.6 million grant to Wake Forest University to develop programs that put character at the center of preparing students for work in the professions. Among the objectives: reframing the meaning and process of learning to “think like a lawyer” and integrating leadership and character into the medical school curriculum.