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How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character Hardcover – September 4, 2012
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Q&A with Paul Tough
Q. What made you want to write How Children Succeed?
A. In 2008, I published my first book, Whatever It Takes, about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. I spent five years reporting that book, but when I finished it, I realized I still had a lot of questions about what really happens in childhood. How Children Succeed is an attempt to answer those questions, which for many of us are big and mysterious and central in our lives: Why do certain children succeed while other children fail? Why is it, exactly, that poor children are less likely to succeed, on average, than middle-class children? And most important, what can we all do to steer more kids toward success?
Q. Where did you go to find the answers?
A. My reporting for this book took me all over the country, from a pediatric clinic in a low-income San Francisco neighborhood to a chess tournament in central Ohio to a wealthy private school in New York City. And what I found as I reported was that there is a new and groundbreaking conversation going on, out of the public eye, about childhood and success and failure. It is very different than the traditional education debate. There are economists working on this, neuroscientists, psychologists, medical doctors. They are often working independently from one another. They don’t always coordinate their efforts. But they’re beginning to find some common ground, and together they’re reaching some interesting and important conclusions.
Q. A lot of your reporting for this book was in low-income neighborhoods. Overall, what did you learn about kids growing up in poverty?
A. A lot of what we think we know about the effect of poverty on a child’s development is just plain wrong. It’s certainly indisputable that growing up in poverty is really hard on children. But the conventional wisdom is that the big problem for low-income kids is that they don’t get enough cognitive stimulation early on. In fact, what seems to have more of an effect is the chaotic environments that many low-income kids grow up in and the often stressful relationships they have with the adults around them. That makes a huge difference in how children’s brains develop, and scientists are now able to trace a direct route from those early negative experiences to later problems in school, health, and behavior.
The problem is that science isn’t yet reflected in the way we run our schools and operate our social safety net. And that’s a big part of why so many low-income kids don’t do well in school. We now know better than ever what kind of help they need to succeed in school. But very few schools are equipped to deliver that help.
Q. Many readers were first exposed to your reporting on character through your article in the New York Times Magazine in September 2011, which was titled "What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?" How does failure help us succeed?
A. That’s an idea that I think was best expressed by Dominic Randolph, the head of the Riverdale Country School, an exclusive private school in the Bronx where they’re now doing some interesting experiments with teaching character. Here’s how he put it: "The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything."
That idea resonated with a lot of readers. I don’t think it’s quite true that failure itself helps us succeed. In fact, repeated failures can be quite devastating to a child’s development. What I think is important on the road to success is learning to deal with failure, to manage adversity. That’s a skill that parents can certainly help their children develop--but so can teachers and coaches and mentors and neighbors and lots of other people.
Q. How did writing this book affect you as a parent?
A. My wife and I became parents for the first time just as I started reporting this book, and our son Ellington is now three. Those are crucial years in a child’s development, and I spent a lot of them reading papers on the infant brain and studies on attachment and trauma and stress hormones, trying not to get too overwhelmed.
In the end, though, this research had a surprising effect: it made me more relaxed as a parent. When Ellington was born, I was very much caught up in the idea of childhood as a race--the faster a child develops skills, the better he does on tests, the better he’ll do in life. Having done this reporting, I’m less concerned about my son’s reading and counting ability. Don’t get me wrong, I still want him to know that stuff. But I think he’ll get there in time. What I’m more concerned about is his character--or whatever the right synonym is for character when you’re talking about a three-year-old. I want him to be able to get over disappointments, to calm himself down, to keep working at a puzzle even when it’s frustrating, to be good at sharing, to feel loved and confident and full of a sense of belonging. Most important, I want him to be able to deal with failure.
That’s a difficult thing for parents to give their children, since we have deep in our DNA the urge to shield our kids from every kind of trouble. But what we’re finding out now is that in trying to protect our children, we may actually be harming them. By not giving them the chance to learn to manage adversity, to cope with failure, we produce kids who have real problems when they grow up. Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.
*Starred Review* Debunking the conventional wisdom of the past few decades that disadvantaged children need to develop basic reading and counting skills before entering school, Tough argues that they would be better served by learning such skills as grit, conscientiousness, curiosity, and optimism. It boils down to a debate about precognitive versus noncognitive skills of self-regulation or, simply put, character. Tough (Whatever It Takes, 2008) spent two years interviewing students, teachers, and administrators at failing public schools, alternative programs, charter schools, elite schools, and a variety of after-school programs. He also interviewed psychologists, economists, and neuroscientists and examined the latest research on character education beyond the bromides of the Left and Right to discover what actually works in teaching children skills that will aid them in school and in life, whatever the circumstances of their childhoods. Most compelling are Tough’s portraits of adolescents from backgrounds rife with poverty, violence, drug-addicted parents, sexual abuse, and failing schools, who manage to gain skills that help them overcome their adversities and go on to college. Tough ultimately argues in favor of research indicating that these important skills can be learned and children’s lives saved. A very hopeful look at promising new research on education. --Vanessa Bush
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Here is the argument in brief:
There exists in our society a troubling and growing achievement gap between the have and the have-nots. The cause of that gap is neither merely poverty nor IQ, but a specific set of non-cognitive skills including executive function and conscientiousness, which Tough calls "character." Children who acquire these skills can break historic cyclical patterns of failure.
Malleability of Character and Intelligence
Whereas IQ is hardly malleable, executive function and character strengths - specifically grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity and conscientiousness - are far more malleable. These skills are better predictors of academic performance and educational achievement than IQ and therefore ought to be the direct target of interventions.
Attachment and Lifelong Health
Tough sees two key areas of influence for those who care for those trapped in cycles of poverty. The first is secure early attachment to parents. "The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical" (28). Specifically, children who experience high levels of stress but NOT responsive and nurturing parents suffer from a range of lifelong health and mental health issues. However, "When mothers scored high on measures of responsiveness, the impact of those environmental factors on their children seemed to almost disappear" (32). Tough cites one study in which "early parental care predicted which students would graduate even more reliably than IQ or achievement test scores" (36). Importantly, interventions that focus on promoting stronger parent-child relationships in high risk groups (including one in which just 1 of 137 infants studied demonstrated secure attachment at the outset) have shown promising impact. Of the 137 children in the study, 61% of those in the treatment group formed secure attachment by age 2, compared with only 2% of the control group.
Adolescent Character Formation
Paul Tough highlights the work of school and support programs that intentionally focus on forming the character strength habits that enable children to learn well in schools, form healthy relationships, and avoid the destructive decisions and behavior patterns modeled in their communities. Here, too, Tough sees a ray of hope. Just as early intervention with parents and young children yields wide ranging benefits for families in poverty, so character interventions in adolescence can and do enable young adults surrounded by cycles of poverty to learn self-control, perseverance and focus that are critical for escaping the gravitational pull of their communities.
Why You Should Read This Book
Paul Tough is tackling one of the most challenging - and contentious - issues of our time. His analysis will offend those who tend to blame poverty predominantly on the irresponsible choices of the poor by showing just how powerful the cyclical, environmental pressures are on children raised in these communities. His work is just as challenging to those who think that those trapped in cycles of poverty are mere victims of their environment who bear no responsibility for their decisions. Tough shows compellingly that parents and children in poverty can and do overcome the powerful environmental forces of their communities - and that this is a beautiful and essential component of breaking cyclical poverty. His call is for those with education and influence - the kinds of people who read books like his - to demonstrate motivation and volition (two components of character formation he extols) to recognize, celebrate, and nurture the character of children and families in poverty.
Author, The Apprenticeship of Being Human: Why Early Childhood Parenting Matters to Everyone
But after these first few chapters, the book really falters. Its like the book is a collection of essays or articles on school reform, which are then tacked together loosely with this idea of character helping children succeed. And while each chapter is well researched and referenced, the cumulative result is a lot of contradictory data, and no response to the question you wish this book would answer: How do children succeed?
What do I mean by contradictory data? Well, despite the premise that teacher quality does not matter much, the book spends a lot of time praising innovative teachers or teaching programs. Despite giving research to show that ACT/SAT scores are not a good indicator of college graduation, he examines how some schools have been successful in getting their povery students into colleges by cramming them for the ACT tests. And despite showing how learning chess can teach character skills like patience, determination, etc, the book also demonstrates that skills on the chess board do not necessarily translate to skills in the classroom or in the real world. Near the end of the book, Tough even admits that all of the studies that have identified what matters most in raising test scores and graduation rates of children living in poverty is misleading, because in reality the majority of improvements found by these innovative teaching methods are found in children that are poor enough to qualify for school meal plans, but not technically living below the poverty line.
Perhaps the most upsetting point of the book was near the end when Tough (who grew up middle to upper middle class) tries to relate to the poverty students by describing the time he dropped out of Columbia his freshman year and using his tuition money to take a Kerouac-esque bicycle trip. Tough uses this story to describe how this trip helped him take risks and build character traits that were not formed in school, and how this helped him succeed. I am uncomfortable with comparing a person with the financial means and support to voluntarily quit school, knowing his family is there as a safety net, to go play hooky, and a person living in poverty subjected to various external stresses, but is able to have the self control to focus and better themselves.
In the end, the hypothesis Tough proposed early in this book is contradicted by his later chapters, and the question of how all children can succeed is never answered. Implementation of the subject matter is this book is absent besides hugging your children.
The argument is that these "non-cognitive" or "character skills" -- things like grit, resilience, and resourcefulness, are often a better predictor of eventually success than mastery of academic skills. These non-cognitive skills are not all one needs, but they seem to be the least discussed ones. This is a great book for parents to read, in particular if you are inclined to get into discussions about education policy with your peers. I won't assert that this book will make you a expert, but it should lead to some interesting dialogs (internal and external) which will help you reconsider any idea you had that what worked for you in school was that right thing for your children.