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How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character Hardcover – September 4, 2012
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The story we usually tell about childhood and success is the one about intelligence: Success comes to those who score highest on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs.
But in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues for a very different understanding of what makes a successful child. Drawing on groundbreaking research in neuroscience, economics, and psychology, Tough shows that the qualities that matter most have less to do with IQ and more to do with character: skills like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, and optimism.
How Children Succeed introduces us to a new generation of scientists and educators who are radically changing our understanding of how children develop character, how they learn to think, and how they overcome adversity. It tells the personal stories of young people struggling to say on the right side of the line between success and failure. And it argues for a new way of thinking about how best to steer an individual child – or a whole generation of children – toward a successful future.
This provocative and profoundly hopeful book will not only inspire and engage readers; it will also change our understanding of childhood itself.
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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.