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How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character Paperback – July 2, 2013
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"In this absorbing and important book, Tough explains why American children from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum are missing out on these essential experiences. … The book illuminates the extremes of American childhood: for rich kids, a safety net drawn so tight it’s a harness; for poor kids, almost nothing to break their fall."
—Annie Murphy Paul, The New York Times Book Review
"An engaging book that casts the school reform debate in a provocative new light. … [Tough] introduces us to a wide-ranging cast of characters — economists, psychologists, and neuroscientists among them — whose work yields a compelling new picture of the intersection of poverty and education."
—Thomas Toch, The Washington Monthly
"Mr. Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, combines compelling findings in brain research with his own first-hand observations on the front lines of school reform. He argues that the qualities that matter most to children’s success have more to do with character – and that parents and schools can play a powerful role in nurturing the character traits that foster success. His book is an inspiration. It has made me less of a determinist, and more of an optimist."
—Margaret Wente, The Globe and Mail
"How Children Succeed is a must-read for all educators. It’s a fascinating book that makes it very clear that the conventional wisdom about child development is flat-out wrong."
—School Leadership Briefing
"I loved this book and the stories it told about children who succeed against big odds and the people who help them. … It is well-researched, wonderfully written and thought-provoking."
—Siobhan Curious, Classroom as Microcosm
"How to Succeed takes readers on a high-speed tour of experimental schools and new research, all peppered with anecdotes about disadvantaged youths overcoming the odds, and affluent students meeting enough resistance to develop character strengths."
—James Sweeney, Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[This] wonderfully written new book reveals a school improvement measure in its infancy that has the potential to transform our schools, particularly in low-income neighborhoods."
—Jay Mathews, Washington Post
"Nurturing successful kids doesn’t have to be a game of chance. There are powerful new ideas out there on how best to equip children to thrive, innovations that have transformed schools, homes, and lives. Paul Tough has scoured the science and met the people who are challenging what we thought we knew about childhood and success. And now he has written the instruction manual. Every parent should read this book – and every policymaker, too."
— Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit
"I wish I could take this compact, powerful, clear-eyed, beautifully written book and put it in the hands of every parent, teacher and politician. At its core is a notion that is electrifying in its originality and its optimism: that character — not cognition — is central to success, and that character can be taught. How Children Succeed will change the way you think about children. But more than that: it will fill you with a sense of what could be."
—Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here
"Turning the conventional wisdom about child development on its head, New York Times Magazine editor Tough argues that non-cognitive skills (persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence) are the most critical to success in school and life....Well-written and bursting with ideas, this will be essential reading for anyone who cares about childhood in America."
—STARRED Kirkus Reviews
“This American Life contributor Tough (Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America) tackles new theories on childhood education with a compelling style that weaves in personal details about his own child and childhood. Personal narratives of administrators, teachers, students, single mothers, and scientists lend support to the extensive scientific studies Tough uses to discuss a new, character-based learning approach."
From the Back Cover
Why do some children succeed while others fail? 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 that the qualities that matter more have to do with character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control.
"How Children Succeed" introduces us to a new generation of researchers and educators, who, for the first time, are using the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of character. Through their stories and the stories of the children they are trying to help Tough reveals how this new knowledge can transform young people s lives. He uncovers the surprising ways in which parents do and do not prepare their children for adulthood. And he provides us with new insights into how to improve the lives of children growing up in poverty. This provocative and profoundly hopeful book will not only inspire and engage readers, it will also change our understanding of childhood itself.
Illuminates the extremes of American childhood: for rich kids, a safety net drawn so tight it s a harness; for poor kids, almost nothing to break their fall. "New York Times"
I learned so much reading this book and I came away full of hope about how we can make life better for all kinds of kids. "Slate"
PAUL TOUGH is the author of "Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada s Quest to Change Harlem and America." He has written about education, child development, and poverty in "The New Yorker" and in cover stories for the "New York Times Magazine," where he is a contributing writer. His journalism has also appeared in "Slate," "GQ," and "Esquire," and on "This American Life." Learn more at www.paultough.com or follow him on Twitter: @PaulTough.
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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.
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
Top international reviews
How Children Succeed follows on from the classic Mischel work on self control and examines the importance of character (things like self-control, optimism, and grit), not just intelligence, in adult outcomes. Tough points out that measures of character are as good at predicting success in later life as measures of intelligence, and that measures of intelligence can be disturbingly flawed: one study found that offering M&Ms for each correct answer increased IQ scores by 12 points for kids at the bottom of the distribution.
One of the most fascinating chapters, though, is on stress. On the savannah, when we see a lion every possible system activates in order to get us out of trouble: we breathe faster, we have more white blood cells, our muscles tense, etc. This response is essential for survival, but wears our body out over time. He argues the same happens today when people have stressful childhoods: their systems become overloaded and wear out, and they find it difficult to regulate thoughts and emotions later in life. If we measure stress levels as children and control for them, the effect of poverty on adult outcomes almost disappears.
The evidence is clear that character is extremely important to outcomes, and it’s not clear our modern society accounts for that. Policy interventions are therefore critical. Stress reduction among children can contribute to measures meant to tackle poverty, and ensuring that students rate themselves on non-cognitive measures can go a long way to encouraging the right behaviour, as some charter schools that offer a character report card have discovered. Intelligence is not enough, as many an intelligent adult can tell you.