Each month, Kelly reviews a book from our Professional Collection which has over 150 books.
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough
Summary: 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 stay 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.
Kelly's comments: Wow. I am blown away by this book. Every teacher, every parent, everyone who is connected to raising children and caring about their education should read this book. Okay, that really does mean everyone. And I am not just giving lip service to that statement. This book validates what I have believed for years, but Tough provides the science, research, and first-hand observations behind those beliefs. The author references James Heckman, an economist who won the Nobel Prize in 2000, who has made great strides with the idea that non-cognitive skills are more important than cognitive skills. Hell, yeah. (I am not familiar Heckman, but you can bet I plan to learn more about him and what he's doing.) Our competency work at my school is stressing the transference of skills and acknowledges that "soft skills" or what Tough and others call non-cognitive skills are important. In the education sphere, we've heard the word grit bandied about, but no one has told us how to teach students to have grit/perseverance. Guess what? Tough shows us how to teach these skills!
There are plenty of others (Tony Wagner, for one) who stress many of the same points, and this should make us sit up and listen. Students need to be taught to be curious, to demonstrate self control, to persevere in their work, and to be confident. We assume that some students are born this way, or we assume if they haven't learned it early in life, it's too late for them. Ah, but Tough provides examples of older children learning these skills, and it's not a matter of luck in regards to whether we are born with the skills or not.
Here's why I find this book so refreshing:
1. Tough shows us low income, underprivileged children with little parental guidance who, despite these disadvantages, succeed when they have these non-cognitive skills.
2. Tough shows us how helicopter parents who refuse to allow their children to make mistakes or fail are harming their privileged children and their opportunities to succeed. Amen, amen, amen. Parents should not be doing everything for their children; children need to take responsibility.
3. Tough acknowledges that we expect schools alone to solve everything, but it's a larger issue of poverty in America, one that our government needs to help find solutions for. I've read plenty of books on this topic. Again, Tough has plenty of company with this thought.
4. Tough goes beyond the idea that it's good for kids to fail, and instead says that multiple failures can negatively impact a child's development IF we do not teach these kids how to work through adversity, deal with failure, and figure out ways to succeed. Yes! I believe students need to experience failure while they have great support system AND we need to teach them how to deal with this failure on their own. (No more everyone gets a trophy for participating.)
5. Tough provides plenty of examples of students succeeding against the odds and showcases the people who are helping them (KIPP and Riverdale). We would do well to emulate some of these programs.
6. Tough provides concrete examples of what we can do to teach these character traits. No more excuses. We need to shift our thinking of what children should be learning in school. Content is still important, but content means nothing if students don't have the character traits that will help them to succeed in a variety of situations and not just in one class or one content area. There are plenty of students who succeed at school (they've learned to play the game), but some are unable to transfer this success outside of school because they never learned to hone and use these non-cognitive skills.
I mentioned my school and competencies earlier (and we are just in the early stages), but I read between the lines of this book and thought about seat time vs. demonstrating competency, and I realize we have a lot more work to do to reconcile these two ideas. For example, Tough cites a study of students who took the GED rather than graduate in the traditional manner. Although these students scored well on the GED this did not help them to succeed later in life the way that those who graduated the traditional way did. I agree with Tough that students who took the GED did not fully learn the non-cognitive skills that they could apply to their life. A lot of thoughts are percolating in my mind over this, and we need to have big discussion at my school about this.
I wish everyone at my school (including parents) would read this book so we could have a messy, difficult, AND productive discussion.