This is the first of a three-part introduction to Paul Toughs insightful book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.
The ultra-concise executive summary and key takeaway is that children do not succeed academically because of their innate intelligence, as is commonly assumed. Instead, Tough shares reams of research which suggests character traits like curiosity, grit, and the ability to persevere may be more important to long term academic success, and particularly success in college and life beyond college, than cognitive skills like mathematics, logic, and reading comprehension. The rest of this three-part article will introduce the author, explain the structure of the book, provide an overview of the book's introductory chapter, and offer a brief analysis/review of the book.
Let’s start by providing some details on the author.
Tough is a journalist with a specific interest in education, child
development, and poverty in America. He's written cover stories for the New York Times Magazine, and his writing has also
appeared in Slate, GQ, and Esquire. It's interesting to note that you don't find out until the final chapter that Tough himself
was admitted to Columbia University, but ultimately dropped out before earning a college degree. In that final chapter, Tough ponders whether he lacks some of the critical character traits he describes in the book.
Structure of the Book
The book has five chapters, each of which is organized numerically around specific people or situations that help make the key points.
These chapters are:
A.How to Fail (and How Not To) – talks about the impact of family life on early academic success and foundational executive functioning skills that enable a child to learn at school
B.How to Build Character – defines different types of character traits and various strategies for building them
C.How to Think – describes how thinking in one particular way is much more likely to lead to academic and other types of success
D. How to Succeed – uses case studies to describe how people in various extremely difficult
circumstances have found ways to succeed academically
E. A Better Path – offers ideas for implementing some of the book's key ideas at a national policylevel to improve academic outcomes for society's most at-risk children
Summary of the Introduction
The introductory chapter describes a scene at a unique early childhood education center, as well as research being done by an economics professor at the University of Chicago, to reveal the book's main theme: that academic success, and success in life in general, is influenced more by performance character skills like curiosity, grit, and determination than by IQ or cognitive skills like math, logic, and reading comprehension. The difference between performance and moral character attributes is
defined in chapter 2.
Tough starts by noting that he has a two-year old son named Elliot. He returns at various points in the book to his son, and how he plans on implementing some of the book's ideas in his son's life. I found this feature of the narrative compelling.
He describes a scene at a unique kindergarten that is trying out a new early education strategy called Tools of the Mind. Unlike most Kindergarten environments, which focus on pre-academic cognitive skills like writing, reading, and counting, schools following the Tools of the Mind model focus on teaching a different set of self-regulatory skills related to controlling impulses, staying focused on the task at hand, planning ahead, organizing your thoughts, and managing your emotions. Although the
following point is not actually explicitly made in the book, once can reasonably infer the the creators of Tools of the Mind believe that for very young children, focusing first on building the non-cognitive skills necessary to fully engage and focus on learning academic skills will lead to stronger academic skills in the long run because you will be better at learning.
Tough does go into a bit of detail on the strategies, tips, and tricks that Tools of the Mind uses to help its young students learn these self-regulatory skills. These include: private speech (i.e., talking to yourself while you do a difficult task), writing out
play plans to figure out in advance the fun things you are going to do today, and dramatic play which teaches kids to follow directions as they follow the rules of the game and regulate their impulses. The approach to early education, Tough notes, is fundamentally unique in American today, because it doesn't embrace what Tough calls the cognitive hypothesis.
The cognitive hypotheses states that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills (e.g., reading, writing, recognizing patterns, calculating, etc.) the type of intelligence that gets tested on IQ or standardized tests, and that the best way to build these skills is to practice them as early and often as possible.
In part two of our summary of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character we'll explore the cognitive hypothesis, one of the major themes of the book, in more detail.