Washington Education Innovation Forum presents Paul Tough

Washington Education Innovation Forum presents Paul Tough

When: 
Friday, September 21, 2012
Where: 
Seattle, WA

Presenter: Paul Tough
Moderator: Robin Lake

The September Washington Education Innovation Forum featured critically acclaimed journalist Paul Tough, author of the new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough has contributed significantly to the national dialogue around poverty, education, and child development through publications in the New York Times Magazine, Harper's Magazine, This American Life, and The New Yorker.

How Children Succeed explores interventions in the lives of children suffering from adversity, and proposes that schools should go beyond cognitive development to root out and address the full needs of each child. Tough writes that psychological and non-cognitive issues play a more significant role in a child's development than intelligence and test scores. Tough discussed these themes from his book with 60 policy makers, think tanks, researchers, and leaders at the Washington Education Innovation Forum.

Cognitive Hypothesis
Tough said that conventional wisdom for the past two decades has been that the one quality that matters most in a child’s success is his or her IQ. “This is displayed in a national obsession with test scores and a belief that what they measure is what matters most,” he noted. However, scientists and educators are now finding that non-cognitive skills—sometimes called personality traits, executive functions, or character—are equally if not more important than the cognitive skills.

Licking and Grooming
“Something else happened just as I was starting this reporting that changed my perspective somewhat,” Tough explained, “my wife and I had our first child. My son Ellington just turned three. So I had the strange experience as I was starting this reporting of spending my days in my office reading complex neuroscience papers about what was going on in the first year of life and then rolling around with Ellington on the carpet in the evenings, and trying not to let myself get too self-conscious about this and think of him too much as my experimental subject. But it was hard not to. The research about what’s happening in the brain in the first couple years of life and how important and influential that is in the rest of a child’s life is really powerful.”

Tough explained that one of the most important developments in the first year of a child’s life is their stress response system. Development of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that regulates stress is crucial to a child’s success, mental and physical health, and ability to organize thoughts and do well in school.

McGill University neurologist Michael Meaney conducted a study to measure the amount of licking and grooming (LG) mother rats did to calm their pups, and what the long-term effects were of this idiosyncratic behavior. Some mother rats did substantial LG, and some did very little. When the pups reached adulthood, researchers did a series of tests and found that the high LG rats were braver, more curious, better at mazes, lived longer, were healthier, and had differences in the size and shape of certain parts of their brains.

“I’m very nervous about the day when Ellington reads this book and realizes that when I was playing with him I was mostly thinking about rats,” Tough joked. “So I spent a lot of time…thinking about what it might mean to be a high licking and grooming human parent. I want to reassure you I did not actually lick my son. And if you look at pictures of him from that first year you’ll notice that my wife and I didn’t really groom him much at all. But I do think there’s a human equivalent to licking and grooming, and I think it’s about that same sort of soothing ritual: helping kids learn how to calm themselves down—just through talking, singing, comforting.”

Although development of IQ is also important, what is more critical is the interaction with parents and other adults, which creates character in early childhood when the brain is developing.

The second window of opportunity to work on non-cognitive skills is in adolescence, when students develop meta-cognition and are able to “think about their thinking.” In other words, they begin to reflect. Educators and parents can take advantage of this stage to train students in different behaviors and ideas.

7 Character Strengths
Tough’s book examines a partnership between KIPP Infinity Charter School (a public middle school in West Harlem) and Riverdale Country School (a private school in northwest New York City). These very different schools were experiencing success with students in cognitive areas, but their graduates were lacking the inner strength, self-discipline, and grit to help them deal with challenges and setbacks they met in college and life outside school. Educators in these schools worked with a team of psychologists to develop a list of seven key character strengths to address this gap:

  • Optimism
  • Zest
  • Curiosity
  • Social Intelligence
  • Gratitude
  • Self Control
  • Grit

Grit, as Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania defines it, is perseverance in the pursuit of a passion. Duckworth studied the concept of grit and, through a simple, eight question test, found it to be a better predictor of success than IQ.

KIPP developed a report card using grit and the other six character strengths to assess each student four times a year and help them move their focus to college and life. Riverdale chose not to develop a report card out of concern that students would begin hiring tutors and adding testing expectations to their character evaluations. Riverdale instead found that their students were overly protected from the failures and challenges that would help them develop these character strengths. Tough said that character traits are born out of failure, and in high-achieving schools in the US, no one is allowed to fail at anything.

The Relationship Between Adversity and Happiness
There is an adversity gap, Tough explained. Some children have too much adversity in their lives—which hurts them—and therefore need protection from that adversity. Other children, especially in affluent neighborhoods, are overly protected from adversity and need to learn how to deal with challenges and failure.

A team of psychologists at the State University of New York in Buffalo gave two tests to 2000 adults: an adversity checklist with experiences like “parents getting divorced” or “losing a job,” and a psychological test to measure happiness and mental health. They found that, predictably, those who had suffered many of the adverse experiences were also not measuring high in happiness and mental health. However, they also saw that 200 adults who had not checked off a single adverse experience were doing equally poor on the psychological test. Those who were happiest and best adjusted had experienced a moderate amount of adversity in their lives. Tough described the relationship between adversity and happiness as an inverse U-shaped Quadratic Equation. In other words, experiencing some failure helps us manage failure.

Citing his experience with Ellington, Tough discussed the challenge of transitioning from being a very responsive, loving, and attentive parent to giving children a moderate amount of adversity so they can learn to fight their own battles. He explained that as children get older, the right thing to do is not to come every time your child cries, and that by coming every time they call you actually make your child’s life more difficult. “If we want him to succeed, we first have to help him figure out how to fail.”


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The Washington Education Innovation Forum is hosted by the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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