What sets children on a successful path in school and, hopefully, in life?
The current belief is that it’s how much children know, so we buy math flashcards for 3-year-olds and sit toddlers down in front of “Baby Einstein” videos. We eliminate recess to direct more time to reading and numbers.
But is the answer stuffing information into children’s brains at earlier ages?
A new book suggests that we are focusing on developing the wrong abilities. What might contribute more to children’s success — especially children growing up amid deep adversity — is persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self confidence, said Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,” in a telephone interview.
After visiting classrooms, campuses and laboratories and interviewing teachers, researchers, chess masters and students, Tough concludes that the most significant skills children must learn in their early years can’t be taught with flashcards.
A chronicler of school reforms, including KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone, Tough became intrigued by the question of why some children thrive and others fail. (Tough also is the author of “Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.”)
To find answers, Tough interviewed the chess teacher who created a chess dynasty in a poor Brooklyn school. He interviewed the head of a prestigious New York prep school who worried that his cossetted students never tried anything that held the possibility of failure.
“People who have an easy time, who get 800s on their SATs, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great … we are actually setting them up for long-term failure,” Riverdale Country School headmaster Dominic Randolph told Tough.
Tough came to believe that success comes down to a set of character traits that, contrary to the belief that they are innate, can be fostered in children.
And those traits are most important to youngsters from low-income families, who don’t have the family supports and financial resources to protect them from youthful missteps, shield them from consequences and set them back on the right track, he said.
“If you don’t have that kind of safety net — and children in low-income families almost by definition do not — you need to compensate in another way,” said Tough. “To succeed, you need more grit, more social intelligence, more self-control than wealthier kids.”
One genesis for Tough’s interest in character and grit grew out of his reporting on KIPP, the high-achieving network of charter middle schools launched by two young teachers in Houston in 1994. Today, KIPP operates 125 schools in 20 states, including Georgia.
In 2003, KIPP co-founder David Levin watched one of his most impressive Bronx middle-school classes graduate high school and head off to college. At KIPP, the students had earned the highest scores of any school in the Bronx and the fifth-highest in all of New York City.
Levin expected this class to flourish in college. But six years later, only eight of them — 21 percent of the original cohort — had earned college degrees. KIPP continued to see too many of its students make it through high school but flounder in college. Levin decided to figure out why.
According to Tough, Levin discovered that the KIPP students who succeeded in college weren’t necessarily the academic superstars of their grades. They were students who showed greater optimism, resilience and social agility. They were able to recover from setbacks. They didn’t let a bad grade destroy them. They would seek extra help from their professors. They would turn down a movie to stay home and study.
So, KIPP added another dimension to its program, one that continues to evolve. Along with fractions and equations, students learn teamwork, empathy, self control and perseverance. Drawing on social science and cognitive-behavioral therapy, KIPP teaches its students to understand that obstacles can be overcome and evaluates them on zest, grit, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity.
While Tough understands that some parents — and policymakers — may be leery about schools teaching character, he said, “There is a whole lot that we in the public sphere can do to help develop these skills in kids. There is no better vehicle than parents, but I don’t think it’s the right approach to say, ‘If kids aren’t getting these sorts of skill developments at home, there is nothing the rest of us can do.’ I don’t think it is fair to those kids. ”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog