Title: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
Author: Paul Tough
Paul Tough took on the task of discovering what keeps children in poverty from completing college degrees and in the process taught me a lot about the stress of being poor, parenting infants, noncognitive skills, and coaching chess. Let me explain.
It's no surprise that socioeconomic position plays a major role in students' achievement levels. In general, the lower your socioeconomic level, the worse you will do in just about every measure of academics. The inverse is generally true too. However, the interesting thing is that poor kids aren't dumber than rich kids. The contributing factor to their detriment is the stress of being poor. A fascinating study is the ACE Questionnaire and the long-term affects of adverse childhood experiences. (I am fortunate to have an ACE score of 0. What's yours?)
If there was a way to predict with 77% accuracy whether your infant would complete high school, would you be interested in learning more? I'll skip the rats and tell you that it's all based on how much a parent responds to a baby's crying in the first months of life. This can have life-lasting effects in coping mechanisms, dealing with stress, and achievement in all areas. Sadly, you can see a thread of thought forming here. If a mother is dealing with the stress of being poor and has a high ACE score, she most likely won't be able to attend to her baby's needs, creating a downward spiral.
How do we break the chain of poverty and empower poor kids in education? I'm glad you asked.
KIPP is an interesting read all by itself. It is an inner city charter school system created to give students the tools they need to get to college. What KIPP administrators have discovered is they can help middle school students gain access to top-notch high schools in their cities, but college was a different story altogether. Many of their early graduates never attended or stayed in college. Their studies revealed they needed to teach character traits (also called noncognitive skills in the book) which can help students when the road gets tough.
In other words: Students never learned the skills necessary to overcome failure. Once failure came their way, they gave up and went back into the cycle of poverty.
These skills go by different names with different groups using them, but they involve concepts such as conscientiousness, grit, zest, curiosity, optimism, and politeness. As it turns out, students who are taught these traits tend to do better in life (not just in school).
And that leads me us to chess. Tough followed the nation's premiere middle school chess team, from an inner city school in the Brooklyn. What fascinated me was their coach, Elizabeth Spiegel. She spent hours with her students, recreating games -- win or lose -- to dissect every move. She would make students defend every move, every thought process. "Why did you move this piece here?" "What would have been a better move?"
It's called metacognition (thinking about your thinking) and it doesn't come naturally for anyone. It's a skill that is taught, and it takes a dedicated and caring teacher to painstakingly walk through a problem -- whatever form that may take -- to help a student see the right path. However, when that skill is taught and caught, some amazing things can happen in that student's life.
Application in My World:
I don't teach kids in poverty. The tuition for our school runs around $8,000 per student (give or take based on grade level) -- a total that is expensive but not nearly as much as many private schools. I would place our families in the "comfortably affluent" sector of life. While his focus was on students and families in poverty, Tough spent considerable time with students from the "wildly affluent" world ($38,000+ tuition). What he found is also interesting.
Many of these students were also missing these character traits. While we're not going to feel sorry for kids who have too much money laying around, the truth is that they also don't know how to succeed. Instead of learning how to fail, parents have worked hard to remove all hardship from their children. The safety net is set so high for them, that they do not have the chance to fail. They will continue to do well in school, go to prestigious colleges, and get jobs in top notch firms, but all within their comfort zone -- so failing won't be an option.
What I see is that students in my world also need a Ms Spiegel in their lives -- someone who will relentlessly help them see the good and the bad in their decisions. I'll admit. I'm the kind of teacher who will mark something wrong and leave it at that, hoping that students will take the time to figure out the error of their ways. Tough says that's not good enough! If you want your students to succeed -- in school, in college, in life -- you have to know when your student needs some love and attention and when your student needs some painstaking, one-on-one, teacher-guided metacognition.
If you are an adult with kids in your lives, I think this would be a great read to help those kids