How Children Succeed

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

I picked up this book after feeling fascinated and vindicated by a couple excerpts I had read online (Here are links to The NY TimesSalon and Slate). I particularly loved the excerpt on Slate. It was all about motivation and what makes kids try. They gave two groups of students a very boring test, and one group was motivated to do well because they were military recruits whose careers depended on it, while the other group was made of less motivated high-school and college students who were only doing the tests to help the researchers (but who had on average scored better than the recruits on another IQ test). The recruits did better, because they cared about the test’s results. Years later, when researchers looked at outcomes for the second group, their score on this boring test was predictive of success. Because the world rewards people for having whatever quality it is that makes them care and try on a boring test that will make no difference in their lives. I loved learning about this research, because it shows that kids’ ability to try hard even at something that’s really boring is what makes a difference in their success.

This research seriously undermines the push for teachers to be constantly engaging, putting on a new “dog and pony show” every class. Newsflash: life isn’t engaging. Work isn’t engaging. You will be bored, and you will have to do your work anyway. Life will reward you if you do that work well, no matter how bored you are. School should reflect that reality. If students are able to deal with boredom, and work hard at something that’s not fun, they will be more prepared to succeed than kids who have been over-stimulated  by edutainment their whole life. My Catholic school education was probably more old-fashioned than the education most of my same-age peers recieved, very text-based, with lots of lectures. I was bored sometimes; I dealt with it by racing through my work and getting out a novel. While I appreciate and even enjoy many more recent student-centered models of teaching, there is a curmudgeonly piece of me that sometimes finds such activities exhausting and longs to be able to run a classroom like the ones I excelled in back in high school: quiet, orderly, teacher-centered, desks in a row. (Blasphemy, I know.) Teachers are generally most comfortable teaching the way they learned, so anything that validates an approach that doesn’t over-privilege student excitement is welcome to me.

The book was full of studies like this, lots of stories that gave insight into current education issues, especially the achievement gap and the effects of stress on developing brains. The style reminded me somewhat of Malcolm Gladwell, although Tough didn’t tie things together quite as neatly as Gladwell does (although sometimes Gladwell is too neat, so maybe that’s ok). Tough told stories about a championship-winning chess program in a high-poverty New York school, about various programs that have tried to help low-income students graduate from college, and about KIPP Academy’s collaboration with a ritzy New York private school to create a character education curriculum and even a character report card.

Tough discussed positive psychology, including Martin Seligman and his colleagues’ research. I was left with a lot of the same feelings I had when I read Seligman’s book. It was great to hear that it was possible to teach skills like resilience and positive thinking. But nothing in my teacher training prepared me to do anything remotely like that. I love the idea, but I need someone to hand me a curriculum before I can make it work in my classroom. It was kind of frustrating to read about the exciting research and feel like finally people have discovered a way to make a difference for students in need, but not to know how to do the same work myself at my school.

I liked how Tough’s conclusion discussed the history of the debate on poverty and the way it has become conflated with education policy. One offhand suggestion I particularly liked was the idea of a program similar to Teach for America that would send high-energy Ivy League graduates into social services programs, working as social workers or addiction counselors or parole officers. Schools and communities reflect each other, for better and for worse, and it’s almost impossible to improve one without improving the other. It would be great to focus some more attention on the second half of that equation.


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