How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

My first contact with the work of Paul Tough was in this This American Life episode, in which he reported on the awe-inspiring work of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. Tough’s book on the same subject, Whatever It Takes, was published, praised, and widely discussed in 2008. In How Children Succeed, from 2012, Tough looks at the same concerns of the US and its dire need for education reform, but with a nationwide lens.

As the subtitle hints, in this book Tough is concerned with bringing to education the cluster of soft skills, character traits, and virtues that have been emphasized by the positive psychology movement (and which have spun off several bestsellers from 1991’s Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman to 2016’s Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success by Angela Duckworth). Tough argues–with plenty of test scores, statistics, and moving anecdotes to prove it–that character strengths and weaknesses have much more to do with student success and lifelong achievement than do IQ tests.

I love much of the foundation of the positive psychology movement, so named because of its desire to study and encourage mental wellness after more than a century of psychology’s (neurotic?) focus on mental illness. If that interests you, and especially if you are also fascinated by DISC, StrengthFinders, Myers-Briggs, et al, you should spend some time taking a few of these free tests connected to ongoing research at the University of Pennsylvania.

How Children Succeed is well-written and well-argued, for the most part. It’s inspiring to hear stories of children who seemingly should fail on paper, but who have taken flight in their educational and then professional and personal lives. It’s encouraging to learn about educators, thinkers, schools, and movements who are willing to reinvent themselves when initial hypotheses and reform attempts fail. I’m especially interested because it at least intends to create research-based interventions.

Where How Children Succeed falls short is its lack of intellectual modesty. Rather than adding the insights of positive psychology to other quality streams of thought in education reform, Tough presents “the hidden power of character” as a cure-all: IQ is out, and grit is in. And grit will fix all our problems, not only in schools but in adult happiness and life satisfaction.

Because Tough is so enthralled with the work of positive psychology researchers, he doesn’t seem to notice that he is replacing one overly simplistic answer to a complex problem with another overly simplistic answer. There is a star-struck quality to the arguments, and because of this partial blindness, there is little deep grappling in this book with the power of class, race, geography, or historical intertia. There is next-to-nothing in this book about teacher recruitment and retention (and instead an appalling number of references to the merits of Teach for America). And while it seems that this book would be incredibly timely in a year when everyone on social media seemed to have an opinion on education policy during Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearings, it just isn’t. It makes literally zero public policy arguments with the power to serve more than a tiny percentage of the US’ public school student population. (In its defense, the narrow focus of the book could serve as a useful partial foundation for public policy proposals.)

For all that critique, it’s not a bad book. It just needs to be one ingredient in a gumbo, not the single-ingredient meal it sets out to be. I’d recommend it without hesitation to educators, because educators have the context of wider reading, training, and experience in education policy, theory, and practice. I have no doubt that the best educators and best teacher training programs are already using many of these insights. But for readers like me, people who simply want to be informed about important trends in education and public policy, it has serious flaws. Read it if you read a lot of education books or if you’re already interested in positive psychology and you want to think through further practical applications. Just don’t read it expecting it to be the one education book to finally tell you “How Children Succeed.”

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