[Book Review] How Children Succeed

In the last several weeks I’ve applied for teaching jobs for the next semester. While we all know that being a teacher and being a teaching artist are not the same, a book I just finished reading has given me a new appreciation for the common ground — and common goals — that both types of educators share, as well as a better focus on my intentions as an educator. Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character makes a fresh case that success is not found in scores on tests, but in something much harder to quantify: grit, curiosity, resilience, and creativity.

Of course, there are many educators who know this already, so in a sense a teacher or teaching artist reading Tough’s book may feel like he’s preaching to the choir. But, I always find it useful to keep in mind an author’s intended audience, and what that means for the book. In this case, Tough isn’t writing for teachers. His case is meant for the layman, and true to his roots as a journalist, he’s backing up his arguments with interviews, case studies, and extensive research. It’s one thing to argue for students needing skills for success beyond what can be measured on a test (this is, after all, part of why arts integration claims to work so well). It’s another thing to be able to point to literally thousands of pages of research in psychology, sociology, economics, and human development when making your argument, and say, “Look what these facts are telling us.”

I came to appreciate Tough’s approach. First, though, a couple caveats.

First, he covers a lot of ground very quickly, and I’m now finding it difficult to make sense of the jottings I made, or recall specifics of the research from memory. So in hindsight, I would have taken much more thorough notes on the book, so that I could dig up more of the research for myself.  The information is great, but there’s a lot of it there. So if this book is to provide the arsenal of research that it could for educators, keep a notebook close by.

Second, I think that the first few chapters were a bit slow to put together his point — lots of interesting examples and bits of data, but to my mind it didn’t yet have a structure of how it all fit together. He covered everything from the mindset work of Carol Dweck, to Martin Seligman’s idea of Learned Optimism, to health clinics in the inner city, to the character report card used in KIPP charter schools, to an extended case study of a chess program at a middle school in Brooklyn. All were deeply engaging, and offered insights into what a whole body of research is saying on the value of “noncognitive skills” like optimism, curiosity, and the like. It was a lot of ground, and it felt a bit meandering as much as it was an engrossing read.

By the end, however, Tough’s arguments became clear, and the breadth of his research paid off. The skills we need to teach are students aren’t just about having fundamental literacy or numeracy, but a deep appreciation for what that learning can do for a student later in life. As it turns out, a lot of that research outside of education settings translates into a pretty clear view that if we consciously worked to develop the non-cognitive skills of our students, then the whole education reform debate would radically change. Having well-developed curiosity, a dedication to learning, and a sense of optimistic resilience about what school achievement can mean actually ameliorates the effects of poverty on students. Issues around race, class, and the quality of inner city schools are critical dimensions of current discussion in education, but as Tough’s research shows, all of those issues also need to consider, “How well can our students handle those challenges? Are the resilient? Do they have the mindset, the optimism, and the character so that they can handle those stresses and motivate themselves for achievement?”

Stepping back from those questions, there’s also the question, “What’s an educator’s role in this process?” Thankfully, Tough demonstrates that too, with fantastic examples from teachers in cities around the country. This, to me, is where the book really shone for teachers. I got to a point where I said, “I want my students to have those skills! I want to challenge them like that!”  There are great examples of teachers doing what we all hope to do. So with the New Year around the corner, Tough’s book prompts me to make a resolution — that in the coming year I will do whatever I can to focus on the resilience, grit, and curiosity of my students. I hope you do the same. Tough persuasively demonstrates that when we focus on these skills, the test scores and other conventional measures of success will follow.

If you’d like to learn more about Paul Tough, you can buy his book, or check out his website at PaulTough.com