Improving Academic Performance

How Children Succeed: Part Two

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Wed, Dec 07, 2016 @ 07:29 PM

In part one of this three-part introduction to How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character we are introduced the main theme of the book, that grit and character, not intelligence, is what drives academic performance and helps children succeed. We left off with the introduction of 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. 

The cognitive hypothesis, according to Tough, is actually somewhat recent, and resulted from a series of studies in the early 1990s, that traced the decline in academic performance of U.S. children on a lack of early exposure to words and numbers. 

According to the generally accepted principles of the cognitive hypothesis, the more you can stimulate a young child’s brain early on, the stronger their academic skills will be later on in life, and the more successful they will thus become in school.  For example, research shows that children born into poverty hear hundreds of thousands of fewer words by age 3 than children born into middle or upper middleclass families. If you follow the cognitive hypothesis, then this can clearly explain socioeconomically disadvantaged students’ lagging performance on tests of reading, writing, and general comprehension years later. 

The solution is to encourage the parents of these children to talk to, read to, and introduce counting games to their children as early and as often as possible. Interestingly, in the next chapter of the book, Tough spends a significant amount of time exploring a somewhat alternative view of how and why poverty impacts academic performance. It’s not that children born into poverty don’t hear enough words (though perhaps that’s part of it), it’s that they are systematically under significantly more stress from a very young age, and this stress impacts their ability to focus, pay attention, and stay on task.

Ultimately, Tough suggests that the cognitive hypothesis, while certainly true in some areas and on some levels, is attractive because it’s so easy to understand. It’s highly linear. Less early exposure to words and numbers equals worse academic outcomes. But, while researchers certainly value simple theories of how the world works, Tough notes that a growing number of academic researchers, from fields as widespread as education, economics, psychology, and neuroscience have been coming together and sharing evidence to question the underlying assumptions embedded in the cognitive hypothesis.  

It is at this point that Tough directly describes the main theme of this book, which is that success doesnt depend on how much stuff we can fit in our childs brains early in life (i.e., the cognitive hypothesis).  Instead, it depends on the ability to cultivate a set of qualities related to what you might call character or personality attributes, such as: persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence.

He concedes that for some skills and in some ways, what he calls the stark calculus of the cognitive hypothesis is entirely accurate. The more a 4th grader reads, the better he will become at reading and comprehending, for example. But, his main contention is that academic and general success in life is complex to understand, and character skills (perhaps because when strong, they allow you to be better at building cognitive skills) are at the core of what truly allows children to succeed.


In part three of our introduction, we’ll explore character in more detail, as well as offer an initial analysis and review of the book.