I just finished reading Paul Tough’s book ‘How Children Succeed. It’s been all over the press; the Labour Day issue of The Globe and Mail, NPRs This American Life, Daniel Pink and other sources of thoughtful media.
The basic premise is that non-cognitive skills, abilities other than intelligence, are keys to realising personal success. Citing a range of social psychology experiments and neuropsychology research, Tough builds a case that scholastic focus on testing and academics miss the target when it comes to fostering capacity to live the ‘good life’.
In an attempt to define the ‘good life’, Tough cites the work of Professor Martin Seligman as “beyond an adherence to a particular set of virtues… to strengths that represent a reliable path to a life that is not just happy but meaningful and fulfilling (as well)”. These characteristics include bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom, integrity, love, humour, zest, social intelligence, kindness, gratitude, and appreciation of beauty. Seligman’s research looks at the common elements across cultures and eras, and focuses not on morality but on personal growth and achievement.
Most compelling is the discovery that these characteristics can be learned, practiced and taught. The research shows that, unlike intelligence, which is fixed at a relatively young age, brain development continues throughout our lifetime. This suggests an opportunity for all people to develop capacity to lead a more flourishing life. This book cites a handful of cases where students who pushed through adversity later found themselves in position to thrive.
I have noted several passages in my own notebook, though I’ll share just one, from Melissa Roderick’s 2006 paper on behalf of the Consortium of Chicago Schools research: “When the current high-school system was developed, the primary goal was to train students for the (industrial) workplace. High school was never intended to be a place where students would learn how to think deeply or develop internal motivation or perseverance when faced with difficulty – all skills needed to persist in college (and beyond). It was a place where students were rewarded for just showing up and staying awake. An unwritten contract between students and teachers that said, ‘Put up with high school, do your seat time, and behave properly, and you will be rewarded.’ The world changed, but high school didn’t.”
As a substitute teacher, I’ve had the chance to visit hundreds of classrooms in dozens of high schools, and Tough’s book paints a pretty accurate picture to me. Students are hungry for some sort of genuine experience, to thrive in a context that holds personal meaning, but instead they’re asked to jump through hoops designed by policy makers. Not only does this experience foster a predictable level of apathy among students, it incubates them from the sort of struggles through which we develop the skills required to succeed in life.
If you’re familiar with any of my writing, you’ll know that I advocate for autonomy in education, working to help young people take ownership of their learning. Paul Tough’s book is more fuel for that fire, and is another indication that the path to success flows from someplace other than the current high school experience.