am 8. September 2012
*A full executive summary of this book will be available at the website newbooksinbrief dot wordpress dot com, on or before Monday September 17.
When it comes to a child's future success, the prevailing view recently has been that it depends, first and foremost, on mental skills like verbal ability, mathematical ability, and the ability to detect patterns--all of the skills, in short, that lead to a hefty IQ. However, recent evidence from a host of academic fields--from psychology, to economics, to education, to neuroscience--has revealed that there is in fact another ingredient that contributes to success even more so than a high IQ and impressive cognitive skills. This factor includes the non-cognitive qualities of perseverance, conscientiousness, optimism, curiosity and self-discipline--all of which can be included under the general category of `character'. In his new book `How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character' writer Paul Tough explores the science behind these findings, and also tracks several alternative schools, education programs and outreach projects that have tried to implement the lessons--as well as the successes and challenges that they have experienced.
To begin with, Tough establishes how study after study has now shown that while IQ and scores on standardized tests are certainly highly correlated with academic and future success, that non-cognitive characteristics actually predict success better than cognitive excellence. For instance, the psychologist Angela Duckworth has found that students' scores on self-discipline tests predict their GPA better than their IQ score. Likewise, it has been shown that the related characteristic of conscientiousness is even more predictive of a student's eventual success in college, and in their future earnings, than their scores on cognitive tests. Over and above this, it has also been found that both self-discipline and conscientiousness are highly correlated with all manner of positive outcomes, including in areas such as one's likelihood of using drugs and alcohol; getting in trouble with the law; maintaining healthy social relationships--including getting and staying married etc. And the good news character traits do not end here. Indeed, similar results have been found regarding the personality traits of perseverance (or grit), curiosity and optimism et al.
Unfortunately, it has not been as clear just how we can cultivate these characteristics in young people. Nevertheless, several promising avenues have been identified. To begin with, it has been shown that exposure to highly stressful and traumatic events in childhood can severely hamper the growth of character. However, it has also been shown that strong parental nurturance and attentiveness in response to these traumatic events can overcome the effect of the experiences themselves. In addition, the evidence is that the attentive and nurturing approach is effective even in the absence of traumatic events, as it is highly correlated with strong character development throughout the lifespan.
While nurturance is certainly the most important factor early on, Tough argues that the cultivation of character during later childhood and adolescence requires a somewhat different approach. Indeed, while the field is somewhat more speculative here, it would appear that what is needed at this stage is for the young person to have the opportunity to take risks (some of which will no doubt result in failure), and the ability to manage these failures in a constructive way. Success has been achieved using this approach in such programs as Elizabeth Spiegel's chess program at Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn, and at the KIPP family of schools (while it remains a challenge at schools that cater to the wealthy, such as the Riverdale Country School in New York--on account of the fact that wealthy parents increasingly shield their children from failure).
Beyond this, we find that results have also been achieved among some teens simply by informing them of how certain character traits can lead them to greater success, and allowing their own ambition to take over from there. Indeed, it is this very approach that is practiced in the OneGoal education program headed by Jeff Nelson--and the impressive results of this program in preparing underprivileged high school students for college speaks to the success of the approach.
Tough's writing style is very readable, honest and unpretentious, and he does an excellent job of supporting the scientific evidence that he introduces with interesting and powerful anecdotes (indeed, many of these are enough to bring you to tears). This is a strong argument in favor of paying closer to attention to cultivating character in young people, both in our personal lives and in our public policy. A full executive summary of this book will be available at the website newbooksinbrief dot wordpress dot com on or before Monday, September 17; a podcast discussion of the book will be available shortly thereafter.