Friday, August 31, 2012

The Grit That Makes Good Schools Great

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

Every four or five years, another study comes out claiming that American schools have hit rock bottom. Seniors can’t find their hometowns on a map, name the elements that comprise water, or parse “Dick and Jane” grammar. Each time, a flurry of “reformers” manhandles the school system, kids’ experiences change little, and we wait for the next study. Surely there must be a better way.

Of course there is. Ex-New York Times journalist Paul Tough investigates several schools that have bucked the downward trend, producing upwardly mobile graduates from adverse circumstances. Avoiding the sort of moddish educational philosophy promulgated by professors who mainly work with graduate students, Tough goes in the field, and reports only what he can back with real-world results and scientific research.

He finds that the traditional academic disciplines seem to matter less than habits of character. Anyone who has taught will agree this seems obvious, yet so much educational theory has emphasized the memorization of subject matter. Standardized tests and the GED reward students for book smarts; but higher-order skills, like self-discipline and diligence, have more to do with students’ success in school, and in later life.

Researchers call these “noncognitive” skills, since they have to do with principles that cannot be quantified on cognitive tests. Having discretion cannot be measured like one’s ability to complete analogies; conscientiousness is not essentially similar to mathematical reasoning. Yet people who have these character traits are more likely to learn the academic skills in school, and more likely to apply them in work, family, and social life as adults.

Schools have been reluctant to teach character skills. In part, this is because character and ethics have often kept company with religion, which is dynamite in public schools. But also, character can be political: conservatives tend to favor traits like “individualism” and “self-reliance,” while liberals like “justice” and “equality.” Whose values do we teach, so we don’t offend others?

It turns out, many researchers have spent much time and effort finding values that transcend politics, religion, and history. They’ve successfully pinned down several that not only have clear definitions, but which teachers can incorporate into their lesson plans. The traits which researchers identify have different names—one list may include words like “ambition” and “professionalism,” another may name “courage” and “grit.”

But, no matter what we call the virtues, they share a few important traits: they transfer from the school out into the adult world, and they have concrete qualities which mentors can teach. In families where parents teach these virtues to their children, success seems to run in the family. That’s why the well-heeled seem to remain rich from generation to generation. But some parents don’t know these virtues, and thus can’t pass them along.

The bad news, then, is that character virtues, or the lack thereof, are generational. The good news is that conventional classrooms can close the gap when parents don’t know how to teach values. Transformational teachers do not convey information; they instill character. Paul Tough observes ways in which teachers successfully teach virtues, and follows the research on what we still need to learn. He does not bother with high-minded hypotheses; he shows where and how schools succeed.

This book is not entirely original. Tough not only cites Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he even revisits one of Gladwell’s sources. Much of what Tough says overlaps recent work by writers like Susan Cain, Jack Hitt, Charles Duhigg, and the disgraced Jonah Lehrer. Some of his final chapter recites claims John Taylor Gatto has made for two decades. Not that this is bad; it probably means these ideas’ time has come (I think it has). But be prepared to rewalk some roads you’ve traveled recently.

Tough also sometimes contradicts himself. For instance, he says high school GPA is a more reliable indicator of college success than standardized tests, then admits some high schools pass students who merely show up and stay awake. He says parents who soothe kids through stress empower them for the future, then praises chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel, whose blunt style seems stress-inducing, if not downright scary. So which is it?

Notwithstanding these limitations, Tough’s readable book combines the latest science of developmental psychology, with exposés of schools that actually turn disadvantaged youth into successful graduates. He gives we who teach real hope that our actions can make a difference, not just now, but throughout our students’ lives. It reminds us why we became teachers, and restores our hope that we can make a difference.

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