How children (and everyone else) succeed

by P

Paul Tough’s recent book “How Children Succeed” weaves together a broad body of research with stories of students, teachers, and principals to propose that there is hope for improving the disaster that is education in low-income communities. I am mostly convinced, but have been thinking a lot about the implications of his findings on my own work.

Tough finds that a set of non-cognitive skills, like grit and character, might be more important to help us succeed in life than IQ. The bad news is that traumatic experiences during early childhood can make it hard to develop these skills, which is where low-income kids have a special disadvantage. The good news is that there are ways to learn them later, unlike IQ which is pretty fixed at a relatively young age.

A lot of the research is not new, and for those working in low income communities some of the ideas might seem obvious. Traumatic family environments make it harder for kids to learn. Duh! But even if the problems may be obvious, the solutions have been elusive so far.

Tough describes the challenges, but doesn’t stop there. He argues that through a series of straight-forward interventions at home and at school, kids can develop non-cognitive skills and habits that will help them succeed in college and life. After many misguided attempts to improve education for those who need it most, Tough’s book may lead us in a better direction.

There is much in the book that rings true, based on what I have seen in the success of Ikamva Youth in South Africa. At Ikamva, young university graduates, who come from townships, tutor the next generation of high-school learners and help them enter and succeed in college. The academic support is important, but more important is the ability to imagine a better future, and seeing a clear path that leads there through committed hard work.

What is success?

The book mainly defines success as completing a college degree. A college degree is an ambitious goal for kids in low-income communities, and college degrees are correlated with better health, higher income, and other positive outcomes. Yet somehow, developing the character skills that help us graduate from college, doesn’t really seem enough. What about creativity, the arts, sparks of invention, or ethics that form our moral compass?

I feel ambivalent about bringing this up. Because, when I read about the aspirations of some of the kids in the book – being able to get a job, renting a flat, providing a safe space for siblings to grow up – my arguments why a college degree might not be enough sound hypocritical. I have a degree, and it has made it easier to take for granted things that these kids aspire to, like a job, a flat, and a safe space to life (I also have a pretty impressive track-record of academic dead-ends, but that’s for another blog post).

That path we travel to get a degree will often include steps that spark our curiosity, help us develop grit, and bring mentors and role models into our lives. Those are the things that count and I would have enjoyed Paul Tough unpack what’s in the degree a little more – maybe in his next book?

Beyond grit

Most conversations I have had about the book ended up returning to grit and conscientiousness, because it comes as such a surprise that those are the skills that determine success and not IQ. It worries me that some readers may hone in on grit as the *only* solution. I believe that grit can be a big part of the solution, but it is not enough (and I don’t think Paul Tough suggests it is enough).

Tough’s stories of kids who beat the odds are not just about grit. There is something special about the relationships that they have been able to form with mentors, be they parents, other family members, or teachers. Adults approached them with empathy and a true commitment to helping. As a result these kids received the feedback, the critique and the encouragement that they needed. It’s not grit itself that the book focuses on, but the structures and environments we have to create, to enable kids to develop their sense of grit.

Relating the book to my work

Peer 2 Peer University starts with an interest or a passion to learn something. It operates outside of many of the traditional carrot or stick mechanisms of formal education. And the Lifelong Kindergarten Group where I am visiting has a great track record or creating environments for creative and interest-driven learning. Real-world spaces like the computer clubhouses or the computing environment Scratch allow kids (of all ages) to build, tinker, make mistakes, and to learn from their mistakes. Developing grit hasn’t been an explicit goal of P2PU or these LLK projects, but I don’t think that means it isn’t there. In fact, I think kids and adults who follow their passions and interest, and operate in spaces that allow them create things, often develop extreme persistence. We just don’t think about grit when we are spending our evenings and weekends trying to solve a problem we deeply care about. We call it grit if it’s something we’d rather not do.

I was surprised however that in the book, chess turned out to be an example of something that kids seemed to find such passion for. One wouldn’t think of chess as very high on the list of interests of teenagers (especially in low-income communities). I’d be curious to find out more about this example – is it possible that the school created such a strong culture around its chess program (think football program at a major state college) that the kids were passionate about chess coming into the program, or was there an onboarding process that helped kids discover a passion for chess they may not have known they had? What is that spark – that ignites a passion for learning?

Fairly harsh critical feedback (coupled with the encouragement to try again) was described as one of the reasons for the success of the chess project. Translating this type of critique into online environments, or more creative learning environments is a challenge we are working on at P2PU. In the case of the chess project, there was a deep sense of trust that was developed over a period of time. On the foundation of that trust and empathy, even hard criticism was accepted and constructive. In online environments we lack many of the clues that signal empathy, and it’s harder and takes longer to develop trust. That’s one reason why we often focus on positive and supportive feedback, to help new users develop the confidence to take the next step. At what point does this approach fall short, and the positive feedback actually limits what students will push themselves to achieve?

There was one thing I found truly annoying about the book. While its main focus was on students from low-income communities, it occasionally detoured into the world of posh private schools. The argument was that even there, students sometimes don’t develop the important skills they need to live fulfilled lives. So what? I couldn’t really get myself to care about the rich privileged students who didn’t have enough opportunities to fail. If that drives them into boring careers in banking and law, so be it.

Acknowledgement – Almost nothing in here is just mine. Thanks go to the great folks in the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab whose ideas got all meshed up in my head. This blog post is a great example why the world will be easier (and maybe better) once Nate Mathias has figured out a way to make acknowledgement work on the web.