What’s a Teacher to Do? Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed

When Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, arrived in my mailbox, I opened it with great anticipation.  I love Tough’s writing; his pieces on This American Life and in The New York Times have always impressed me with their warm, clear prose.  What’s more, last year, an excerpt from this book, published in the New York Times Magazine, inspired me to turn around my approach to some serious classroom problems.

In that excerpt (taken from Chapter 2), Tough describes children from difficult backgrounds who nevertheless succeed in school and other endeavours because, he posits, they have developed certain character traits.  I chronicled my thoughts on that piece in a post called “Fail Better,” and I then took his ideas to my students, some of whom were having a lot of difficulty.  I asked them to analyze some of the fictional characters we were reading about in terms of the important qualities Tough describes.  I then asked them to think about which of these qualities they possess themselves.  And I asked them to discuss his main assertion: that character, notably the trait he calls “grit,” is more important than intelligence when it comes to children’s success.

My students seemed convinced by this assertion.  So am I.  It forms the foundation of this book, in which Tough examines current research, as well as a few inspiring case studies, in order to support it.  He supports it very well, and puts together a powerful argument.  The upshot: character is more or less destiny, but character can be taught, or at least influenced.

Tough tells stories of students who have met with terrible adversity but have still managed to achieve impressive things: chess titles, admissions to competitive universities, or just a good GPA and graduation from high school.  He also speaks to people, particularly educators, who have made a difference along the way: curriculum designers, coaches, principals, teachers.  He outlines the qualities that researchers suggest divide children who succeed from children who don’t: curiosity, zest, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, self-control, and grit, or a passionate desire to stick with a task until it is accomplished.

These characteristics are rooted in brain chemistry, Tough discovers, but they are not entirely innate – they are directly affected by a child’s environment, particularly a child’s exposure to stress and, on the other side, nurturance and support.  A child who lives in a stressful environment may have difficulty developing these qualities.  However, such a child, from such an environment, who is given the tools and confidence to face challenges may develop a stronger character than a child who faces little adversity.   A child who grows up in poverty but has a nurturing, supportive parent – one who encourages the child to tackle difficulties, praises success, and promotes the learning potential inherent in failure – may have more character tools than a middle-class or wealthy child whose parents protect him or her from every bump in the road.

I loved this book, and the stories it told about children who succeed against big odds and the people who help them.  The greatest satisfaction it offers is the knowledge that such children CAN be helped.  In the end, though, it left me feeling a bit sad.

Character can be nurtured.  Children are not doomed by their social circumstances or their genes.  Nevertheless, I’m not sure what my role is.  How much can teachers help, especially teachers who don’t meet children until they are no longer children at all?  The book left me with one lingering, powerful desire: to do some research of my own.

This research would involve examining sixteen-to-twenty-year-olds who have made it through high school, who have been admitted to CEGEP – granted, a CEGEP with famously forgiving standards – but who are still floundering.  That is to say, my students.  Is it too late?  Have their characters been formed?  Is it possible for them to now learn grit, curiosity, self-control etc.?  If so, am I in any position to inspire it in them?  According to some of the authorities Tough cites, “variations in teacher quality probably [account] for less than 10 percent of the gap between high- and low-performing students.” (191)  However, he also tells us that “transformative help” (196) can come from myriad sources – not just parents, but anyone with whom the child comes in contact.  His book gives us stories about people, mostly teachers, who have offered that kind of transformative help.  These stories are moving, but they also highlight the intensive energy and the depth of inner and outer resources teachers need in order to help these kids, preferably at early stages in the kids’ education.

I would encourage any educator, community worker, parent, or person who cares about children and/or the state of our social world as a whole to read this book.  It is well-researched, wonderfully written and thought-provoking.  It also raises a powerful question that it does not answer.  It tells us that children, no matter what their background and innate capabilities, can succeed in school and the professional world.  It tells us that they cannot do it alone, but that we – the people who surround them – can help them.  It doesn’t give us, as individual teachers, a blueprint for how to do that, especially when we come along later in the game.  But it gives us some examples.  With a little grit and curiosity of our own, maybe we’ll be able to figure it out.