Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character aims to redefine how we look at and classify “success” for children. Beyond good grades and high standardized test scores, what character traits are we teaching kids that will help them be successful through college and into adulthood? He argues that success has less to do with IQ and more to do with inner skills like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, and optimism, which can be taught within educational institutions.
Tough draws on extensive psychology, neuroscience, and economic research as well as his own investigations into the KIPP programs, prep or charter schools, and other educational projects. He does a good job of synthesizing the science with the anecdotes from individual experiences. The gist of the book centers around the cognitive versus non-cognitive skills debate, specifically as it applies to the concept of failure – how children relate to it, how they overcome it, how it challenges them. Tough surmises that privileged children are so sheltered that they haven’t learned how to recover from failure so it demoralizes them when it happens while impoverished children have dealt with so much failure in their lives without being equipped to handle it that they often give up on themselves. However, children from any socio-economic background who are persistent, self-disciplined, and focused can learn from their failure and move forward. These lessons are useful as children encounter increasingly difficult academic environments and adult responsibilities, and without learning them early they cannot be successful throughout their lives.
Then the problem becomes, how do we teach these skills? Again, scientists and educators have all sorts of opinions about it. Even the character traits considered vital for success differ across the board, with synonyms (i.e. “grit” being replaced by “resilience”) or arguments about whether “kindness” should be one. This is not to mention the varying definitions of success, as exemplified by the chess champion who fails academically or KIPP graduates who drop out of college. KIPP has now committed to focusing on character development, even issuing a character report card, but it’s unclear if this new model can create lasting success in a child’s life. Certainly standardized tests aren’t the best predictor of success, but we do need some way to measure process and it’s hard to measure the impact of character development initiatives.
Also at question is whether schools should even be teaching character, or if they should just be focused on content. Character development was previously the responsibility of parents, the primary influences on a child’s life (aside from their friends as they grow older). If education shifts its focused to non-cognitive skill training over cognitive, we’re looking at a learning landscape very different from the traditional historical model.
Tough doesn’t ignore the importance of parenting, negatively or positively, since what’s going in on in a child’s family can’t be isolated from their life at school. One strategy for at-risk youth is providing them with nurturing environments, which helps them overcome traumatic experiences. Meanwhile, wealthy parents tend to “helicopter” and this excessive attachment puts too much pressure on their kids to succeed. A healthy medium between the two is needed, though he isn’t exactly clear on how to find that.
This book doesn’t posit a ton of effective solutions, mainly because we don’t yet know what’s an effective solution. From Tough’s examinations, there’s a wide variety of methods that are being used to varying degrees of success – most of what is implemented is done on a trial and error basis. Still, he offers much to think about on the links between education and character development, factors that I hadn’t considered in play while I was growing up, but seem more obvious in retrospect.
An informational, though not necessarily ground-breaking, read for teachers and parents, especially those who place a high value on education or have strong opinions as to the current state of America’s educational system.