Improving Academic Performance

How Children Succeed: Part three

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Thu, Dec 15, 2016 @ 01:39 PM

In part two of our introduction to How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character we explored the cognitive hypothesis, which suggests 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 three, we’ll explore one of the major themes of the book, which is that “character,” and more specifically “performance character” is the more fundamental driver of success, and it too can be nurtured and developed. Tough believes society has gotten significantly off track, focusing too much on building a narrow set of cognitive skills and abilities, and taking a misguided approach to teaching children how to build all-important “character” skills.


As such, he finishes his introductory chapter by sharing two examples of the type of research that supports the notion that character, not cognitive skills, should be considered of primary importance as we educate children. First, he introduces a University of Chicago economist named James Heckman, who won a Nobel Prize in economics in 2000 for developing a new statistics methodology for understanding the economy.

Heckman, buoyed by his academic pedigree, pivoted in the mid 2000s from a pure focus on economics, toward understanding education and social issues. Most relevant for Tough’s book and research, is Heckman’s analysis of the GED test. It turns out that the GED program (General Education Development program), which administers a test high school dropouts can take to indicate they have the same academic skills of a high school graduate, has proven to be a useful tool for understanding the importance of character attributes. The GED was supposed to be a test that “leveled the academic playing field,” allowing children born into poverty and difficult circumstances to pass one single test that demonstrated they were ready for college.

Heckman has found that, in fact, in many ways a GED holder is exactly like a typical high school graduate. By comparing the two groups (GED holders and regular graduates of high school) Heckman found that the GED holder performs similarly on standardized tests like the ACT and SAT, and has a similar IQ. However, when it comes to graduating from college, the GED holder is absolutely nothing like the typical high school graduate. Whereas 46% of high school graduates are enrolled or graduated from college by age 22, only 3% of GED holders are still in or graduated from college at that age. What Heckman found is that the GED in fact separates “bright but non-persistent and undisciplined dropouts from other dropouts.” Because the average GED holder is not good at staying focused on a long-term goal, planning ahead, or adapting to their environment (the types of things one must do to successfully get through high school), they tend to be unable to succeed in college.

Tough notes that what Heckman’s research doesn’t address is whether and how character attributes such as persistence, grit, curiosity, etc. can really be taught. He then introduces a student, who is discussed later in the book, Kewauna Lerma, who was born into a very difficult and disruptive family situation. Through her freshman year of high school, she was on her way to dropping out.  But, he describes how, during her sophomore year (after a series of discussions with teachers, grandparents, etc.), she completely turns her life around, and ultimately graduates from high school, and is accepted to college. He wraps up his introduction by reinforcing that this book is going to be all about understanding on a deep, personal level how character attributes enabled Kewauna Lerma to turn her life around, and on a macro societal level, understanding how a whole generation of children can be steered towards success and away from failure.

Initial Review and Analysis

This is a powerful book. The main theme, that academic success comes from character traits like grit and curiosity and not necessarily proficiency in math, reading, and writing, is counterintuitive and somewhat inspirational, regardless of whether it’s 100%, 75%, or 50% accurate. My personal view is that it’s much more true than false. Certainly, some people seem to be blessed with high IQs that help them succeed academically with a bit less effort than others, and you can also find examples of students that seem to excel in school as a direct result of lots of early “drilling” on reading, writing, counting, etc. by their parents. There are some good reasons why the cognitive hypothesis seems to be society’s current default belief about how to best educate children.

But, I think as a general rule, the average person observes someone who is successful academically without truly “seeing” the hours and hours of self-directed hard work that lies behind that success. They can’t see the “persistence” and “grit” that enabled the person to build their skills, and instead attribute their success to a high IQ or natural ability.

Where I think the book falls short a bit is around discussing the “how” of building character on an individual level. The book explores various theories, and the people and organizations that are testing those theories, for how to build character. But often, the discussion is at a relatively high level, and is very focused on the relationship between poverty and academic performance as a societal issue. Had an attempt been made at articulating a clear “top ten strategies for building performance character attributes” in yourself or your child, I would have found it even more valuable. In fact, this is something I’ll attempt to write about in future blog articles.

That said, it is powerful in and of itself to convince yourself that grit and persistence, not intelligence, drive success. Once internalized, this notion compels you to encourage yourself, your students, or your children to focus on building character skills and displaying grit, instead of assuming that something is hard because they “just aren’t good at math,” or whatever the subject or activity may be.