George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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

October 4, 2012
Photo credit: myopics via flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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.

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