‘Helping Children Succeed’ Author Paul Tough on What Works and Why

Author Paul Tough
Photo by Paul Terefenko

Grit. Perseverance. Self-Control. Optimism. In recent years, there’s been a growing awareness, both within and beyond the educational community, of the importance of noncognitive skills. That awareness was driven in part by author Paul Tough’s 2013 New York Times best-seller, “How Children Succeed,” a book that highlighted the relationship between these qualities and academic success.

So — perhaps predictably — educators decided to begin teaching grit and character and perseverance. Character development courses have popped up at schools all over the nation, and educators in schools both big and small now talk to students about growth mindsets. But overall academic achievement has remained stable. The achievement gap between students in high-resource schools and students in low-resource schools persists.

Why? What’s missing? Those are the questions Tough seeks to answer in his deeply reported new book, “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.”

In the book, Tough writes, “Maybe you can’t teach character the way you teach math. No child ever learned curiosity by filling out curiosity worksheets, and hearing lectures on perseverance doesn’t seem to have much impact on the extent to which young people persevere.”

We recently talked to Tough about the importance of environment in education.

There’s so much of a push right now in education to focus on character development and noncognitive skills. Are the way schools going about this a little misguided?

When my last book came out, the book and researchers were sort of saying two things. We were saying that it’s clear that these skills are much more important than we thought in the success of children. But we were also saying that we don’t really know how to help kids develop these skills. That’s a pretty frustrating combination of ideas for a teacher.

So naturally, educators thought, well, if we can teach the Pythagorean theorem, we can teach greater curiosity. But the more I read the research, the more it became clear to me that the development of these skills is really a reflection of the environment that kids are in.

What factors in the educational environment seem to be the most important? Surely, we’re not talking about bulletin boards and paint colors.

"Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why" by Paul Tough
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

We know that being in a calm, responsive, warm home in early childhood, with connections with adults, biologically changes the way that kids develop. The way teachers and administrators define homework, talk to students, and organize a discipline program also sends kids deep messages about things like belonging, their identity as students and their potential. Psychologists are discovering that those messages have a profound effect on a students’ motivation. A sense of belonging and possibility is what makes kids want to work hard.

One study found that putting a Post-it note on students’ homework assignments with messages such as, “I’m giving you this feedback because I have high expectations for you, I think you can succeed, and I think you need to just work a little harder to get there,” has a profound effect on how likely students are to revise their paper and how well they do.

What would an ideal classroom educational environment look like?

The most effective way to teach kids, especially kids who are growing up in adversity, is to make school about more than memorization and repetition. It’s encouraging kids to work on complicated long-term projects in groups. It’s having class discussions that get kids really involved.

That style of teaching feels like a lot of work to a lot of teachers. It may be outside teachers’ comfort zones. Some teachers feel like they’ve got to keep control of the classroom at all times or chaos will break out. But the opposite actually happens. When teachers let go of the reins and give students work that they care about, the students tend to work harder and be more attentive.

What kind of training and support do educators need to facilitate inclusive, deeper learning?

Some teachers immediately gravitate to this kind of teaching. But for most teachers, this type of teaching is not something they’re familiar with, as teachers or as students. American pedagogy has emphasized repetition and rote learning for a long time.

So when teachers are embracing this different kind of teaching, it takes a lot of support, professional development and coaching. One of the programs I studied, Turnaround for Children, works in high-poverty schools in New York, Newark (New Jersey), and Washington, D.C. Rather than sending administrators or teachers into a school, they send a team of two coaches and a social worker. The social worker provides one-on-one help to the kids with the highest needs. The instructional coaches work directly with teachers. They watch them teach and talk them through different tactics.

That’s what it takes for most teachers to make this change. Unfortunately, it’s very rare to get that kind of professional development.

There seems to be a disconnect between what research shows is good for kids and teachers and learning and development, and what happens in most schools. What needs to happen to move education in this direction?

I’ve now been writing about education for more than a decade. When I started, I felt like, OK, here are the answers; we just need to get the government to make some changes and everything’s going to change. I am now much more realistic about how change comes about in education. It comes slowly, and from many different directions at once.

There are lots of things that administrators — from the federal Department of Education to assistant principals — can do. They can change policies about discipline and assessments, and even change curriculum and pedagogy to reflect the research and science.

But I think it also has to happen on the level of individual teachers, parents and citizens.  Part of what I’ve tried to do with this book is to show teachers that there’s a different way of doing things. That these methods lead not only to better learning for students but also to a more satisfying experience for teachers. That kind of individual-by-individual change is part of what has to happen in order to create better educational environments for students.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.

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