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Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why Hardcover – May 24, 2016
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“The good news is that attention is finally turning to the psychic and emotional qualities our students bring to the classroom. No one is better at chronicling this shift than Paul Tough. In Helping Children Succeed, he asks how, concretely, we can improve students’ noncognitive skills.” —David Brooks, New York Times
“Tough (contributing writer, New York Times Magazine) builds on the research he outlined in his book How Children Succeed to address at great depth the ways adults can build success for children who face the greatest adversity. Contending that it is the environment that shapes children’s ability to develop significant noncognitive skills such as perseverance and optimism, Tough presents research that shows success in these areas is possible for all children. Diving into studies and supporting their conclusions by defining real-life examples, Tough convincingly argues that classroom climate is what needs to be changed in order to shape students’ experiences. While advocating for transformation of a broken system that could turn disadvantaged kids’ lives around, the author also acknowledges the small things that make a difference. Tough calls upon individuals to make those small steps and shows that by looking through a different lens it is possible to see how education can be better structured for the future. Verdict: For readers concerned with finding practical ways to engage with and improve education for those children with the most to lose.” — Rachel Wadham, Brigham Young University, Library Journal
About the Author
PAUL TOUGH’s last book was How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which spent more than a year on the New York Times hardcover and paperback bestseller lists and was translated into twenty-seven languages. He is also the author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America. He is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and a regular contributor to the public-radio program This American Life. You can learn more about his work at paultough.com and follow him on Twitter @paultough.
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What seems to have changed Tough’s direction is growing research that shows that “grit” cannot be taught, at least not in terms of direct instruction. Imagine, simply telling kids to “work hard, be nice” doesn’t seem to do much. How odd. But Tough stumbled on the work of Deci and Ryan which seems to show that non-cognitive abilities can be improved, but it involves more than rewarding kids for being grittier or punishing them for not. In fact, rewards and punishments actually do harm because they increase extrinsic motivation (motivation to get the reward or avoid the punishment) at the cost of decreasing intrinsic motivation (motivation for pursuing an activity for its own sake). In other words, Tough is trying to morph into Alfie Kohn.
I very much appreciate Tough’s (belated) recognition of research demonstrating the benefits of progressive, whole child, experiential, social-emotional learning. Brain science is showing us that learning is not something that happens in a vacuum, but within the context of human relationships and pursuits based on interest and relevance. Education is not about stuffing random, disconnected facts into kids’ heads and seeing what they can regurgitate on a test, but rather about exciting and channeling (or, at the very least, not squelching) children’s innate drive to explore, experiment and adapt. I am very happy that Tough seems to understand the challenges that poverty presents to that natural process and how understanding, supportive relationships and wraparound services are ways to ameliorate some of the worst effects.
But, as always with Tough, there is much to argue with. First, Tough can’t seem to get past the quest for test scores. All of the interventions he supports are because they raise test scores. Standardized tests are a snapshot in time which, at best, measure how well particular students were able, in that particular moment, to take that particular test. They have little bearing on a child’s actual abilities or their likely success in college or the real world, much less their interests or who they are as people. The purpose of education is not to churn out children as widgets that can be plugged into the corporate world. The purpose of education is to develop unique, healthy, well-rounded individuals who are prepared to actively participate in a democratic republic.
Second, after spending his previous books building up the likes of Geoffrey Canada (who twice “fired” an entire cohort of students because they weren’t performing well on the standardized tests) and Angela Duckworth (who is profiting from teaching children in poverty “grit” skills, even though she herself denies that’s what her work should be used for), Tough refuses to admit any previous error or fully acknowledge the implications of his new perspective. I never would have thought I would be an admirer of Diane Ravitch after her work as Assistant Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush and her launching of the “accountability” movement, but she has fully renounced her former positions and openly admitted the error of her thinking. Tough needs to take a similar openly self-reflective course.
I could also fault Tough for refusing to follow his own research to its logical conclusion. If a child’s environment is so important to his/her development (and it is), then why are we only tinkering around the edges of the environment? If poverty is so devastating to children who grow up in it, why focus on education for children in poverty, rather than the environment of poverty itself? Why not call for solutions to income/wealth inequality? Why not structural social changes to eliminate poverty? An end to “austerity” and “neoliberalism”? A call for good, living wage jobs with good benefits? A call for a strong social safety net, universal healthcare and housing as rights? But Tough doesn’t seem to think such grand changes are possible. Neoliberalism is the future, There Is No Alternative. The best we can do is make everyone as comfortable as possible within their allotted station in life. We can improve education for children in poverty, but there’s nothing we can do about poverty itself.
Finally, one of my biggest peeves with Tough (and many other “reformers”, such as KIPP) is their complete failure to acknowledge and credit the huge body of work that has gone before them. After promoting “grit” and “no excuses” and other harmful policies, such “reformers” are discovering just how harmful they are and quietly revising their stance to become kinder and gentler and focusing more on relationships, less on punishment. But progressive education is no new thing. It’s been around since at least John Dewey’s day 100 years ago. There is a substantial body of research demonstrating the effectiveness of whole-person, student directed, experiential learning. In fact, the superiority of such education over rote, test-based, direct instruction is so clear that for decades the elite have sent their own kids to schools that use progressive models, such as Sidwell Friends, Lakeside Academy and the University of Chicago Lab School. For decades the powers that be have known what is best for their own children, while foisting “grit” and standardized testing on other people’s children. I guess I’m supposed to be grateful that, in the never-ending quest for “innovation”, the “reformers” are finally stumbling onto what’s been known for 100 years, and maybe now everybody’s children can get an education rooted in whole-child development supported by caring relationships and meeting basic needs. And, if in fact, Tough’s recognition among the “reformers” allows for more progressive education for children in poverty (as well as children not in poverty, but not rich either), then I will be grateful. But please don’t pretend that this is anything new or “innovative”. In fact, Tough and others are quite late to the game.
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The book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why was written by Paul Tough in 2016 and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt as a...Read more