Improving Academic Performance

'How Children Succeed'  Book Summary: Part 1

Posted by Mark Skoskiewicz on Wed, Dec 30, 2015 @ 10:28 AM


MyGuru is launching a new book summary program where we summarize and analyze books that discuss recent research on what drives academic performance and leads to success inside and outside the classroom.

This blog article discusses the first chapter (actually, the introduction before the first chapter) of Paul Tough’s insightful book, How Children Succeed: Grist, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

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.

The book is ultimately about how 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.

In this blog article, I’ll do two things:

  1. Summarize Tough’s introductory chapter
  2. Provide some brief initial overall analysis

Summary of the Introduction

The introductory chapter of the book uses a description of a scene at a unique early childhood education center, as well as a description of 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, writing and reading comprehension

Tough starts by sharing with the reader 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 quickly moves on to describe 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 no explicit reference to this logic is made in the book, you can imagine that the creators of Tools of the Mind believe that for very young children, focusing first on building the “non-cognitive” skills necessary to actually fully engage and focus on learning academic skills will lead to stronger academic skills in the long run (even though you don’t focus on explicitly teaching those academic skills until a few years into a young child’s education).

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 America today, because it doesn’t embrace what Tough calls the “cognitive hypothesis," which 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 to a lack of early exposure to words and numbers. According to the generally accepted principles underlying 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. One often used example to support this theory is that children born into poverty hear hundreds of thousands fewer words by age 3 than children born into middle or upper middle class families. This can then explain their relatively poor performance on tests of reading, writing, and general comprehension years later.

Ultimately, Tough suggests that the cognitive hypothesis, while certainly true in some areas and on some levels, is attractive because it’s 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 doesn’t depend on how much “stuff” we can fit in our child’s 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. Character is the more fundamental driver of success, and it too can be nurtured and developed. He 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 those skills.

Brief Initial 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 early on in life. 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 extremely valuable. In fact, this is something I’ll attempt to do when I summarize the final chapter of this book.

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