By Paul Tough (2013)

Pages: 256, Final verdict: Should-read

Are the children with the highest test scores more likely to succeed in life? As the United States spend over $550 billion a year on public elementary and secondary education, this question is always on the forefront of political campaigns and controversy.

Paul Tough, former contributor of the New York Times, brings us a fresh perspective on how to foster the power of grit, curiosity and resilience in our children. By moving away from the traditional narrow band of cognitive skills measured on standardized tests, we take a deeper journey into how to fail, build character, think and succeed.

What affects success

It is easy to boil down the prediction of success to scores on standardize tests, such as a famous I.Q one. They are, after all, standard. They are abstracted from the social context of the child, their level of practice of the subject, or even how he/she is feeling that particular day. But are they true indicators of success? The premise of How Children Succeed claims otherwise.

As the book alternates between the author's personal experience and scientific research, we get in touch with astonishing studies. Some followed children for more than 20 years starting at pre-adolescence. Others tracked the progress of government initiatives such as the GED, where students who passed a series of tests would receive a high school diploma (despite their age). On almost all cases, the conclusion was the same. It is a foundation of strong core non-cognitive skills that is the best predictor of success later in life.

A comprehensive study done on character strength, ranging from the works of Aristotle to the profiles of Pokémon creatures, settled on 24 characteristics. After adjustments and iterations, the 7 most likely to predict satisfaction and high achievement in life were:

  • Grit - A passion for achieving something, while being persistent and resilient to obstacles
  • Self-control - The ability to control one's emotions and impulses on adverse situations
  • Zest - Enthusiasm and energy
  • Social intelligence - Ability to cooperate and get along with others
  • Gratitude - Being thankful and showing appreciation
  • Optimism - Hopefulness and confidence on what the future will bring
  • Curiosity - The desire to learn something new

But how does this apply to the school setting? This challenge of how to measure these characteristics is seen through a few experiments with charter schools and including children of all economic backgrounds.

Building towards higher character

If non-cognitive skills are the foundation of success, what is stopping schools from super sizing them on our children?

The main obstacle to children's growth, as revealed through a myriad of examples, is the social context and stress that children face while growing up. The underlying reason to the dramatic correlation between adult outcomes in life (e.g addictive behavior or unemployment) and the social context children were brought up with appears to relate to the way we handle stress.

In short, our stress response system was built at a time when we needed to run away from predators. On those cases, responding to stress by elevating our heart-rate or rising our glucose levels might actually save our lives. Today, despite facing very different triggers of stress, our body reacts pretty much the same way. A prolonged exposure to stress, as during a traumatic childhood, causes physiological changes to a child's brain, particularly in areas responsible for self-regulatory activities such as concentration or resilience.

It becomes easy to understand how, if your body behaves as if it was fighting for survival, concentrating on the Pythagoras theorem might not be easy (when was the last time Pythagoras helped you escape from a lion?).

From charter schools to the world

Learning what are the obstacles to a child's path to success can be very surprising. However, making an impact begins on knowing how teachers, educators and parents can plant the seeds of personal and professional growth.

As we continue to explore the book, it is interesting to learn how programmes such as KIPP or OneGoal are embedding these principles into their curriculum, in particular by:

  • Teaching the growth mindset: Inspired by Carol Dweck's book Mindset, charter schools are incorporating the principles of how to develop in children the mindset that all abilities can be cultivated through effort and perseverance.

  • Mentoring: The most successful programs have put a great emphasis on mentoring their students and giving them a structured framework to approach high school.

Despite all these efforts, the path forward is still nebulous, as society has not yet cracked the code to leveling the bar in education. As initiatives to improve teacher's quality and reducing class sizes have not shown significant improvements on education, we are left wondering how far we are from seeing any significant results.

Bottom Line

The fight against social and economic inequality might the biggest challenge of the developed world. Here, a solution will certainly pass through our education system, and our ability to increase success of children from low-income families.

How Children Succeed presents a fresh view over how success is defined through more than raw intelligence. It can be as much entertaining as it is insightful. And despite dedicating a whole chapter (too much) on the example of chess, I'd definitely recommend it. In the end, Paul Tough presented us with something that is sure to give you enough food for thought on how we can help build a better, more equal society.

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