How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Personality

How Children Succeed is a new book out by Paul Tough. The book discusses the importance of the non-cognitive or people or soft skills in the success of students, especially in university and beyond. Schools spend a lot of time teaching, measuring, and reporting the cognitive side of education, I think because it is easier than measuring things like resilience or perseverance. But, Tough explains that it is these character traits that will be a bigger factor in determining the future success of our students. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Tough on the web site.

Q. How did writing this book affect you as a parent?

A. My wife and I became parents for the first time just as I started reporting this book, and our son Ellington is now three. Those are crucial years in a child’s development, and I spent a lot of them reading papers on the infant brain and studies on attachment and trauma and stress hormones, trying not to get too overwhelmed.

In the end, though, this research had a surprising effect: it made me more relaxed as a parent. When Ellington was born, I was very much caught up in the idea of childhood as a race–the faster a child develops skills, the better he does on tests, the better he’ll do in life. Having done this reporting, I’m less concerned about my son’s reading and counting ability. Don’t get me wrong, I still want him to know that stuff. But I think he’ll get there in time. What I’m more concerned about is his character–or whatever the right synonym is for character when you’re talking about a three-year-old. I want him to be able to get over disappointments, to calm himself down, to keep working at a puzzle even when it’s frustrating, to be good at sharing, to feel loved and confident and full of a sense of belonging. Most important, I want him to be able to deal with failure.

That’s a difficult thing for parents to give their children, since we have deep in our DNA the urge to shield our kids from every kind of trouble. But what we’re finding out now is that in trying to protect our children, we may actually be harming them. By not giving them the chance to learn to manage adversity, to cope with failure, we produce kids who have real problems when they grow up. Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.

I listened to a pod cast from the National Public Radio program, This American Life, interviewing Mr. Tough and some other stories about school programs focusing on these character traits. It got me thinking of what we are doing at ISB in these areas. I know that we do talk with the students all the time about these things, and many of them are covered in the Learner Profile. I also feel that much of this comes from our families and these skills are developed at home. It would be more critical with a school population, for example, in a lower socio-economic demographic.

I think we can do a better job of systematically identifying and teaching the skills however, for success and a portion of our students are lacking in  these. For example in the podcast, they discuss a program in Chicago, Illinois schools that teaches at-risk students skills for success at university instead of focusing on solely on raising SAT scores. Many of these are common sense, but very important. Two things students can do they mentioned was for them to sit in the front row during university lectures, and introduce themselves to the professor and take advantage of office hours of the professors. In the US, we have the highest drop out rate of university students in the world. Only 58% of students graduate within 6 years of enrolling. I think some of this is caused by our focus on preparing students to get into university and not preparing them for coping with university life. I also think that more students go to university than in other countries, and many who drop out, would not have enrolled in other countries. It is something for me to think about, especially when we are working with our high school students. 

I will definitely download the book and perhaps get a group of our faculty together to come up with a system of looking at these skills. Perhaps in adapting our Learner Profile.


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