With the publication of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character” four years ago, author Paul Tough inspired a national conversation about learning mindsets like grit and perseverance: why they’re important and how they’re formed early in childhood. The book examined the latest research in neuroscience that found the effects of trauma and stress, particularly in the nation’s poorest neighborhoods, inhibited children’s ability to learn at an early age and their later success in school.

Paul Tough, author of "Helping Children Succeed," answers questions during a discussion at EdSource earlier this month.

Credit: John Fensterwald / EdSource

Paul Tough, author of “Helping Children Succeed,” answers questions during a discussion at EdSource earlier this month.

“How Children Succeed” was a call to address an invidious form of inequality. Now Tough is back with “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why,” a short companion book that shifts the focus from deficits in children’s non-cognitive capabilities to creating environments where they can grow and thrive. He introduces readers to programs and schools, from infancy to high school, that are demonstrating progress.

In 2012, EdSource interviewed Tough after the publication of “How Children Succeed.” Earlier this month, he returned for another interview in a discussion with EdSource’s staff and board of directors. What follows is a portion of the Q&A, edited for brevity. John Fensterwald led the questioning.

In “How Children Succeed,” you really brought the public’s attention to non-cognitive qualities of learning and their importance in helping children learn. The book created tremendous interest in qualities like grit and perseverance and curiosity. I wonder whether out of that there’s been almost an oversimplification and an assumption that things that you’ve talked about could be taught easily. I wonder whether this book is a course correction.

I’m trying to portray it as a step forward. But I think you’re right. I feel like there were things that I and the people I was writing about didn’t make clear enough, around the time of “How Children Succeed,” that I’m trying to make more clear here.

The two places where things got off track [occurred] in the language that we use. For understandable reasons, a lot of people use the language of character when they’re talking about non-cognitive capacities. So they use words like “character” and “grit,” “fortitude,” “self-control.” In lots of ways those words are appropriate, and focus people’s attention on what we’re looking for in terms of behaviors and habits we want students to have.

The downside is that those terms all have this kind of moral quality to them. We think that if kids who have grit are good, then kids who don’t have grit are bad. So, obviously, if we’re talking about something that we want students to develop, having that kind of moral balance is not particularly helpful. And especially if we’re talking about it in the context, as I am in this new book, of kids who are growing up in poverty, that language has served as a distraction.

The other place where I’m trying to correct course is in talking about these as skills. They are not a lot like teaching math or English or history. These are instilled in very different ways. I’m trying to steer the language toward thinking of these qualities as the product of children’s environments, so we need to think about what changes we can make in environments in order to help kids be more likely to persevere.

Talk a little bit about early childhood programs you’ve seen that have been effective and what makes them so unusual.

We spend 94 percent of our public dollars on 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds, and 6 percent on 0- to 3-year-olds. This despite the fact that we now understand that 0 to 3 is when the most important brain development is going on, and especially in this non-cognitive realm. It’s where the stress responses are being formed, where kids are adapting to their environment in ways that persist into school. There are some interventions that are especially effective. The ones that I write about work directly with parents, supporting them, usually through home visiting programs. They focus on attachment, on the emotional, psychological connection between parents and children for two reasons.

Research suggests what is happening that is most important, is the back-and-forth connection between parents and the children. What psychologists sometimes call “serve and return parenting.” It changes the brain in all sorts of positive ways.

Home visitors are able to give parents other strategies for connecting with their children, and that changes child outcomes not only in terms of behavior and school success, but biologically. You can see the effects in the cortisol* levels of their babies despite the fact that the intervention is just with the parents and not with the children.

When you talk about high school, again, you don’t talk about skills like grit and perseverance; you talk about environments that schools need to create. You’ve sort of boiled it down to what you call meta-messages. Describe the importance of belonging and the importance of work.

These are two toolboxes. One is connected to the mindsets around belonging. That when students feel “I belong in this academic community, I may feel related and connected” to the adults and their peers; they’re much more intrinsically motivated and likely to persevere.

The second toolbox has to do with work, and particularly about challenge. So this is connected to mindsets around competence, autonomy, around growth mindset. When kids believe “I can take on challenging work and persist through struggles, and succeed,” that is incredibly motivating for them. That is not a mindset that I think you can develop through verbal messages. They believe it by doing it. If we’re not giving kids challenging, rigorous, meaningful work, it’s very difficult for them to believe that they can do that kind of work. But when we do give kids that kind of work, it can be really transforming.

One of the schools that impressed you is Expeditionary Learning.

Expeditionary Learning is this network of 150 schools across the country. It came out of this collaboration between the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Outward Bound. They don’t do a lot of these sort of Outward Bound-style activities anymore, but they’ve used it as a metaphor in the classroom, for working together as a group to take on a project that seems really difficult to achieve. They very much are influenced by these same two toolboxes, so they have a lot of mechanisms within the school that give kids an opportunity to feel the sense of belonging.

When kids believe “I can take on challenging work and persist through struggles, and succeed,” that is incredibly motivating for them. That is not a mindset that I think you can develop through verbal messages, said Paul Tough, author of “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.”

But their real innovations come in the challenge department. These are a lot of deeper learning style techniques, especially with their low-income students who, in other schools, often don’t get those sorts of strategies. Kids working on projects for long periods of time, working in groups – revising their work over and over again. You just do that day’s worksheets and then move on to the next one. Expeditionary Learning is demonstrating not only an effective way to teach math or English but also an effective way to build the mindsets that make kids motivated to persist, not just succeed.

You mentioned measurements. In California, the CORE districts are trying to measure learning mindsets. Our state board is trying to measure school climate and perhaps go further with questions to students about whether they feel safe or whether they feel it’s a good learning environment. What are the cautions that you would give?

It’s an important question and a fascinating time to be here. I have mixed feelings about it. You know, “How Children Succeed” is very much about calling into question accountability measures based only on the kind of standardized tests that measure cognitive skills. So I’m very much in favor of trying to expand that – expand those measurements to include all of these non-cognitive capacities and mindsets.

At the same time, we do not yet have reliable measures that can be used in a high-stakes accountability environment, especially, where their school, where their teacher is being held accountable for it.

But there are really interesting experiments going on, some of which suggest that there are lower-stakes ways to measure school climate, to measure student engagement, student motivation through things like their attendance, their behavior record, their GPA, all of which get complicated when you’re using them in accountability measures. My hope is it will push us to thinking about accountability and about assessment in a different way.

All of what you have been saying I’m sure resonates and makes sense to teachers, that we need to be looking at these other non-cognitive factors, but isn’t this like adding to the burden? A teacher – also schools – now have to focus on this other thing, which is somewhat amorphous. At least with a test, you can measure how kids are doing.

That’s all very true. To the extent that we present this to teachers as, “Do everything you are doing now, but here’s an additional responsibility to take on, and we’re gonna give you an additional test,” that’s not going to work. But when teachers are able to focus on this dimension of students’ development, it helps with test scores. It helps in all of the academic sides as well.

A lot of teachers have an instinct that this dimension is important, but there’s not a lot of mechanisms within schools to share this knowledge. If there was a system of professional development, coaching and connection where this information is passed to and through teachers, not only would it be more meaningful for teachers but it would also be more successful for students.

* Cortisol is the primary stress hormone that, when continually produced, can lead to depression, anxiety and impairment of concentration.

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  1. David McAdams 2 years ago2 years ago

    Can governmental institutions transform dysfunctional families? What role has social engineering played in the disintegration of the family in our nation? All families, black, brown, white, rich, poor and middle class have seen declines in quality and effectiveness. In all groups the quality of of the family is most correlated to the strength of the bond between the parents. It is not rocket science and yet our continuing social disintegration, aided and abetted by ill … Read More

    Can governmental institutions transform dysfunctional families? What role has social engineering played in the disintegration of the family in our nation? All families, black, brown, white, rich, poor and middle class have seen declines in quality and effectiveness. In all groups the quality of of the family is most correlated to the strength of the bond between the parents. It is not rocket science and yet our continuing social disintegration, aided and abetted by ill conceived government intervention in the private lives of its citizens, seems almost inevitable. Perhaps a policy of non-intervention might be considered.

  2. Jonathan Raymond 2 years ago2 years ago

    If there is one thing that continues to make this work confusing is the very language being used to discuss and describe it. Let’s stop referring to this learning as non-cognitive! When you look at all the brain science behind this learning it is very cognitive.

  3. Roger Grotewold 2 years ago2 years ago

    One thing about this, John, is that not every teacher has this instinct. For many years when I was still teaching, often times it seemed like an appropriate response to students just didn't seem to be evident in some of the teachers. The real question should be, can this be trained into a teacher with workshops and seminars? I don't think it can be done easily, especially by folks who are not working every day … Read More

    One thing about this, John, is that not every teacher has this instinct. For many years when I was still teaching, often times it seemed like an appropriate response to students just didn’t seem to be evident in some of the teachers. The real question should be, can this be trained into a teacher with workshops and seminars? I don’t think it can be done easily, especially by folks who are not working every day in an actual classroom environment. Of course, that is the way it is done today, which is really unfortunate and unproductive, in my judgment.