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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
The famous Stanford marshmallow experiment showed that a preschooler's ability to delay gratification can lead to higher SAT scores later in life.

When we started ASCEND, the K-8 school in Oakland, CA., that I've written about here at Edutopia, we asked our students to practice six habits. We called them the "Ways to Ascend," although later students remembered them as "the rules." They were:

  1. Take charge of your own learning
  2. Be kind and considerate
  3. Help each other
  4. Persevere
  5. Be responsible for yourself, your family and your community
  6. Be reflective

We built lessons around these traits, included them on the report card, and offered rewards when we saw students exhibiting them. As a middle school teacher, I knew that it was critical that our students internalize these habits; sometimes I even wondered if they were more important than mastering a grade level standard.

Our first class of 48 students graduated from ASCEND in 2004. I'd taught these kids for three years -- I was very attached to them and needed to know how they'd fare after leaving our cocoon. So I tracked them for years, occasionally popping into their lives and asking about their reflections on ASCEND. "What do you remember?" "Of what you learned at ASCEND, what's been most helpful?" "What suggestions do you have for me as a teacher?" Over and over, year after year, they talked about the Ways to Ascend. Sandra wrote this in response to my question:

"What really stuck with me is the ASCEND RULES. I use that through life, like taking charge of your own learning and perseverance, etc. I felt ASCEND prepared me a lot educationally and just life in general, to think more out of the box."

When I looked at the trends across our graduates in terms of who finished high school, who made it through college, and who extricated himself from dangerous situations, I saw patterns that all indicated high social and emotional intelligence. The success stories did not point to GPA or cognitive intelligence. But what do you do with that kind of "soft" data in this day and age?

A Long-Awaited Validation

Along comes journalist Paul Tough with his new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which I'm telling you: order immediately. It is engrossing, easy to read, full of stories, relevant to teachers and parents, and epiphany-producing.

As I read, I kept feeling grateful to Paul Tough for having done this work -- gathering the stories of kids like Keitha Jones, the traumatized Southside Chicago teen who reminded me so much of a handful of kids I've taught; connecting Keitha's experience to research on neurochemistry and infant psychology, and situating these elements in both a socio-economic context and in the landscape of an education world focused on developing children's cognitive (and testable) skills. I kept having that feeling of -- I know what he's talking about, I've lived it for years as an urban educator -- but I've never seen anyone make such a clear argument for the fact that schools need to focus on developing students' social and emotional skills. I felt validated.

I also felt very hopeful reading this book. There are ideas upon which we could act immediately -- tomorrow -- in our schools and classrooms (and in our homes -- lots of ideas for us middle class, educated parents). There are success stories that seem replicable and depict transformational change in education, not just "reform," or improvement. The suggestions that emerge from Tough's research don't mandate more standardized tests or longer school hours or vocabulary development for preschoolers. They do require more funding for counselors, mentors, conflict mediators, and initiatives like the mindfulness program that has been so successful at reducing stress in a San Francisco middle school.

Perhaps the most powerful, and indisputable, argument in Tough's book is that poverty matters. Again, this is something I never doubted -- but I know there are many in this country that seem to believe as long as we "hold high expectations," add hours to the school day, deliver rigorous lessons and insist that students rise to the challenge, they can overcome everything and go on to college and the career of their choice. Well, yes, and...they need a lot more than that. Many children (not all, of course) who grow up in poverty also experience chaotic environments, instability, and stressful relationships with adults. This impacts their brain development. Which affects how they learn and how they respond to other stressful situations later in life. Tough has found schools and non-profits that have developed strategies to mitigate these circumstances; it can be done -- it's just going to require funds, and a lot more.

There's so much more in this book. I fear I haven't done it justice. I plan on reading and discussing it with colleagues, with parents at my son's school, with my former students who are now in college and heading into the field of education. This is one to read over and over, in many contexts. So go -- buy this book now. And while you're waiting for it to arrive, or if your local bookstore has run out, then WBEZ's radio show, This American Life, aired a "Back to School" episode that centers on Tough's book.

The Educational Benefits of Grit
The character traits of determination, adaptability and reflection add up to a critical 21st century skill.

Comments (14)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kim's picture

These rules seem like a great way to give students the tools they need to work through emotional set backs. As a adults, we all face problems that affect us emotionally. We learned this somewhere growing up. If students need this support at school, we need to give it. I woiuld love to larn more about this program.

Chhaya Patel's picture
Chhaya Patel
4th grade teacher from Phoenix, Arizona

I truly believe that teachers should not only focus on academic achievement but also regard social and emotional competencies as achievement. I want my students to become autonomous, self-regulating, intrinsically motivated individuals. When I see my students solving their own problems with their teammates, I celebrate it! This is an important life lesson that our students need to develop. I am constantly saying to them, "take responsibility for your leaning." I am very eager to read this book that you recommended. I teach children from poverty and I am looking forward to reading about Tough's insights and strategies for the demographics of children I teach everyday.

Chhaya Patel's picture
Chhaya Patel
4th grade teacher from Phoenix, Arizona

I truly believe that teachers should not only focus on academic achievement but also regard social and emotional competencies as achievement. I want my students to become autonomous, self-regulating, intrinsically motivated individuals. When I see my students solving their own problems with their teammates, I celebrate it! This is an important life lesson that our students need to develop. I am constantly saying to them, "take responsibility for your leaning." I am very eager to read this book that you recommended. I teach children from poverty and I am looking forward to reading about Tough's insights and strategies for the demographics of children I teach everyday

Theresa's picture
Theresa
Language Arts, Grades 6,7,8. Catholic Cathechist Grade 6

At schools in the Toledo Diocese of Ohio we focus on lifeskills and lifelong guidelines introduced by Indiana Public School Educator, Susan Kovalik. There are 18 lifeskills. We focus on a particular lifeskill for two weeks at a time. Sometimes this means direct instruction and activities. Othertimes we just encourage reflection all the while recognizing any time we see students exhibiting these lifeskills daily. There are so many teachable moments throughout the day. As a Catholic school we also connect these lifeskills to virtues, and fruits of the Holy Spirit. We look for role models of the lifeskills in the Saints.

Alyson's picture

I believe that teachers need to have a balanced instruction. Students need to learn academic content and important life skills. The six skills outlined are essential to teach students. I am in college, majoring in education, and I will incorporate these skills into my lesson plans. I believe teachers need to help students develop in all areas. These tips will help teachers to facilitate student growth in all domains.

The Dixie Diarist's picture
The Dixie Diarist
Teacher, Writer, and Artist

I think I've figured out how we become educated. A teacher gathers his students in a classroom, shuts the door, and starts informing his students in the way he thinks the students will retain the information. The teacher's ultimate hope is that the students will use the information, too. As the teacher teaches, he also demands that the students use their manners with him and each other.

The teacher's principal, from time to time, pats the teacher on the back and tells him he's doing a great job and how much we value your work here. From time to time, the principal tells the teacher where he could improve an area or a technique or something else he might try that worked for her when she was a teacher for so many years. The principal knows how a teacher is performing because she walks into his classroom from time to time and sits in a desk and watches him do his job. Principals are constantly asking their teachers in conversations here and there ... Tell me what's happening in your classroom these days. They get pacing guides and curriculum schedules, but the great principals love to see your face light up when you explain what great things are happening in your classroom these days.

The parents of the students constantly stress the value of education and good manners, sometimes not in that order, because a great parent knows that people notice if you have good manners long before they can tell if you're educated. Great parents are not afraid to say the right thing and they are not afraid of the reactions of their kids. Great parents, when it comes to school issues and feelings and attitudes and desires, hand out tough love when needed. Great parents do not distract great teachers by pestering them with unreasonable and idiotic e-mailed requests, or conversations, or by sneaking around the teacher and going to the principal with their unreasonable and idiotic requests.

Students have to be tested in some way to see if they retained the important information. There's no other way. It's going to be some kind of test ... some kind of quantification. A number that's produced, or a letter: F, D, C, B, or an A. Plus or minus or right there in the middle. After that, it's really up to the student to keep that information in their brain, not the teacher's, although we sort of never forget because we love the information and it makes us happy to think about it every waking moment.

Becoming educated is a state of mind: the student's. Becoming educated is always and ultimately up to the student and always will be.

www.adixiediary.com

Evelyn Krieger's picture
Evelyn Krieger
Author of YA novel, special educator

Dixie Diarist says: "I think I've figured out how we become educated. A teacher gathers his students in a classroom, shuts the door, and starts informing his students in the way he thinks the students will retain the information. The teacher's ultimate hope is that the students will use the information, too. As the teacher teaches, he also demands that the students use their manners with him and each other."
I thought you were being facetious. How is this education? Students can get information anywhere these days. It is what they do with that information, the questions they ask, the skills they develop that will matter most to their future. They have to know how to find answers, too. I think the "sage on stage" model you present is outdated for today's world. Part of the problem is this idea of "shutting the classroom" door. The world is now, and should be, our classroom. "Students are not vessels to be filled, but candles to be lit."

Rick Ackerly's picture
Rick Ackerly
Author, speaker, consultant

Evelyn, I would have written a similar comment if I hadn't slept on what Dixie Diarist wrote.
DD made me consider Mark Twains "I never let my schooling interfere with my education" more deeply. DD is telling it like it is. I have been railing against the sorry state of most schools and how so many teachers are not educators.
His last line is the stinger: "Becoming educated is a state of mind: the student's. Becoming educated is always and ultimately up to the student and always will be."
I now have a new focus: Stop trying to change schools. Help students to learn from anything. it will show up on my next blog post on www.geniusinchildren.org next wednesday (that's when I post).
Thank you Evelyn and thank you Dixie Diarist.

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