“How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough

how-children-succeed-250x300In this blog I’ve written several times regarding “Grit.”  However until last week I had not actually read the book How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough from cover to cover.  Over Spring Break I made it a point to get this read.  After reading the entire book it provides me with significant questions both as a parent and as an educator.  In the Introduction to the book Paul Tough argues that in the United States we are committed to the “cognitive hypothesis.”  From the book p.xiii:

…the cognitive hypothesis: the belief, rarely expressed aloud but commonly held nonetheless, that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills—the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests, including the abilities to recognize letters and words, to calculate, to detect patterns—and that the best way to develop these skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible.

One indication described in the book of our commitment to this hypothesis is that if a person can demonstrate certain cognitive knowledge, they can “skip” the process of High School and get a G.E.D. (or in Ohio, test out of courses through Credit Flexibility).  But the outcome of this is that many people with the G.E.D. are, in fact, not “prepared” to function in the real world of ever-more-demanding work environments.  Even though the cognitive ability is there something is missing. (This proved true with many high IQ students as well.)

Paul Tough’s premise is that cognitive skills are not enough!  What actually matters more is character.  In particular, there are seven key non-cognitive traits that are much more important in helping children succeed.  These traits are optimism, zest, curiosity, social intelligence, gratitude, self-control and “grit”.  ”Grit” is defined as “persistence in pursuit of a passion.”  Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania identified these seven traits.  She has shown that these character traits (and self-control in particular) are better predictors of success than IQ scores.

To reinforce this concept Tough refers to the findings of the economist James Heckman p.xix:

What was missing from the equation, Heckman concluded, were the psychological traits that had allowed the high-school graduates to make it through school.  Those traits—an inclination to persist at a boring and often unrewarding task; the ability to delay gratification; the tendency to follow through on a plan—also turned out to be valuable in college, in the workplace, and in life generally. As Heckman explained in one paper: “Inadvertently, the GED has become a test that separates bright but nonpersistent and undisciplined dropouts from other dropouts.” GED holders, he wrote, “are ‘wise guys’ who lack the ability to think ahead, persist in tasks, or to adapt to their environments. (Obviously that is a generalization, but it serves to make a point that is valid statistically across the general population.)

Examining these traits, I believe they can be taught in public school:

• an inclination to persist at a task;
• the ability to delay gratification;
• the tendency to follow through on a plan

Tough argues that these “so-called” soft skills are every bit as critical to life and work success as are any cognitive skills.

Furthermore there were two things that Tough’s research identified that adults could do to bolster children’s character.  One is supporting secure attachment in early childhood. The second thing Tough said we need to do to develop our children’s character is to let them fail.  Tough explained that what successful parents and teachers do is help their kids see that failure is an opportunity to improve. Tough identifies two types of mindsets – “growth” and “fixed”.  The “growth” mindset is one that believes that a person can grow and improve and learn with effort.  The “fixed” mindset believes that talents and abilities are mostly innate.  Unfortunately, the cognitive hypothesis, with its emphasis on IQ, aligns itself with a “fixed” mindset.  Yet it’s the “growth” mindset that has been shown to produce better results.

So, what does all that mean for Worthington Schools.  I think it means that school matters.  I think it means that Worthington schools must be a “Both/And” school district.  A district that values academic achievement based upon all measures, but also values the development of the whole child.  We can’t be an “Either/Or” school district that only measures our success by ratings in a newspaper or by college admittance   In addition, I think it means that we need to make certain we are spending time helping students and families develop the necessary “soft skills” that most students will need to be successful in the 21st century.  Finally, I believe it means that we need to look hard at programs such as Worthington Estates’ “The Leader in Me” that works to create these skills through a common language and determine if they should be generalized across the district.  If nothing else I think the book is important reading for all parents and educators.  We should all be thinking about, talking about, and working together to help our students develop: Optimism, Zest, Curiosity, Social Intelligence, Gratitude, Self-Control and “Grit”.

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