Book Review: A Case For Struggling Students

Sep 21, 12 Book Review: A Case For Struggling Students

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 LifeDaniel 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.


  1. john myers /

    I am currently working with some colleagues from the USA to make these non academic learnings more prominent in day to day teaching. The insights from this book have been around since William Glasser in the late 1960s-80s and currently embedded in the Ontario Learning Skills assessments.
    Paul Tough notes that these things are necessary in our current era since the world in which a majority or sizable minority of students could get simple jobs after high school so drop outs did not matter.

    The bar for success in work and life is so much higher now and attention to these “soft” skills vital to help that sizable minority of students who need help to step up.

    • My take away is not exclusive to minority students (unsure if that’s your sentiment, only a point I’d like to reinforce). Tough tells the story of Riverdale Country School, an exclusive private institution catering to affluent New York City families. He describes their program as “not intending to raise the ceiling on a child’s potential achievement in life but to raise the floor. What Riverdale offers parents, above all else, is a high probability of nonfailure”.

      My sense in that we live in an era when institutions are increasingly less able to provide cradle to grave security (see adjustments in union pensions, corporate downsizing, et al). Consider rising levels of obesity, apathy and indebtedness, and a general tendency towards consumer-oriented behaviours, and I really wonder if Learning Skills assessments are an indication that we’re preparing young people for the lives they will experience. Developing the capacity to make choices in the face of uncertainty comes through experience in making decisions, and in the high school classrooms I visit, I meet a lot of idle teenagers.

      Seligman’s work and the broader field of Positive Psychology gives us insights into the conditions that allow people to thrive, yet our classrooms continue to adopt prescribed, top-down approaches to learning.

      On my end, I am interested to participate in programs that encourage student initiative, but my experience has been one where those in charge say, “That’s nice, now please put your toy away so we can get down to what’s important.”

      • Ah, John. I’ve had a chance to re-read your response, and see that you were speaking in ‘percentages of students’, rather than ‘ethnicity of students’. My misread.

        That said, Tough does spend a considerable amount of time describing the implications of non-cognitive skill development in regard to alleviating poverty.

        I wonder what you could suggest to an educator who wants to become involved in a broader effort to develop best-practices around non-cognitive skill development, who has his own experience facilitating these skills in teens, and is finding a lack of opportunity to participate in such communities of practice.

        • Heather Lye /

          I second Eric’s call for suggestions that can be used in the classroom for this.

          One of the things I push in our Grade 9 course is teaching students to gain research skills. I don’t really want it to be about the content. Of course there is an end piece that is evaluated but these are the things I push (and hope they get from it)
          – jot notes from research, i.e. finding what is really important
          – effective internet searches (it is the internet era, but a large percentage to students don’t really know how to use google effectively)
          – finding valid internet sources (i.e. being able to ask themselves “how do I know this is true? where is the information coming from” because I hate the thought that we are raising a generation that reads things/statistics and takes them at face value)
          – bibliography (i.e. I want a student to learn to use a resource and follow it, it is amazing how difficult this seems to be for them)

          But maybe I am stretching the idea of non-cognitive a little too much here. But I think the effective internet search and knowing valid information is relevant to most aspects of the internet ridden world our kids live in now. If we don’t teach them, who will.

          • Heather,
            I’m now exploring platforms that help involve my students in designing the course program. The basic premise is to explain the paramaters of KTAC

            Knowledge – what information you’ve gained
            Communication – evidence of summaries and other efforts to share that info
            Thinking – evidence of your own opinions and research to support those opinions
            Application – what you do with the information and skills you’re developing

            On top of KTAC, I help students recognise the basic frameworks of the class (enduring understandings) For instance,;
            Math – Pattern and Relationships
            Business – Creating Value and Making Exchange
            Language – Mediums of Communication
            And then simplify the curriculum targets for my course into student friendly language.

            At completion of Unit 1, I then use these tools to deconstruct the classroom activity, talk about how the text/test/assignment linked to KTAC, the framework and the specific expectations, and then lead a brainstorm on other ways students could have demonstrated the same learning. Now they’re in position to help design classroom programming.

            Additionally, I do some work to help them recognise their own productive inclinations (you are not lazy, just bored with the classroom prescription) and foster space in the classroom where they incubate their productive inclinations by setting SMART goals and developing projects of their own design.

            Though it involves a bit of upfront investment (most good things usually do), I’m learning that there are a few early adopters within the class that will become more enterprising, and it really activates the decision-making capacity among their peers. I’ve developed a couple of concrete platforms (1 Double-Entry ‘Allowance’ System 2 ‘Investment’ Portfolios) that eliminate some of the openness of possibility.

            While I imagine there are many ways to help get kids accept agency for themselves, I see the classroom as a remarkable space to do so. It is relatively safe, the consequences of falling are limited, and yet we seem eager to prescribe the path and resist ‘failure’ as often as possible.

  2. The book is hit with parents, especially the parents with the ‘challenging’ child. That said, about time the soft skills are taking more seriously with the educator crowd.

    What I like the most, from the interviews and articles, students are no longer seen through the SES window, to which I have always deplored. The students are taught the knowledge where soft skills become far more important. The first link, is a radio interview and well worth the time. In the second part, knowledge that might very well be passed unto a student by parents who have the background and experience – “Hey Suzie, you need to introduced yourself to the professor. Let him know you exist.” Other families, not true for various reasons, but it can be taught. I bumped into earlier studies regarding learning disabilities, and the trip to the resource room. It came just in time, because my kid was not overjoyed going into the SE math class. I decided she was going to own her dyslexia. What I mean by owning it, is to embrace it, and its very much embracing the ‘gayness’. Not to be ashamed of it. The school thought otherwise, and berated me for informing my child on what she had, what could be done, and she needed to hold her head up with pride. They said that I should have kept it a secret. I thought otherwise, and in the long run, I was correct. She was the only one to get out of the SE resource room, and why it took 2 years, I have no idea why since the SE math class represented no challenge to her. Even, at home I give her a lot more tougher math problems and concepts to taxed her brain.

    “Our story picks back up with the question of how non-cognitive skills can be taught to older kids — who have gone much longer without learning things like self-control, conscientiousness and resilience. Ira returns to the story of Kewauna, the Chicago teenager, who talks about the dramatic ways in which she changed her life. They discuss an intervention by Kewauna’s family, and the programs that have helped her thrive. Economist James Heckman then discusses they ways in which this shift in emphasis could change the way we practice education and the way we think about learning. (11 minutes)”

    In a news article – “He has a new vision for character and it’s quite scientific in that he’s trying to figure out which character strengths make a difference in a kid’s success. And at the root of his research and thinking is the assertion that character is… a set of qualities that [enables] kids to change themselves and qualities that parents and teachers can instill.”

    What is even more fascinating, is that the researchers in various fields are starting to put together the cognitive skills + non-cognitive skills (+ -) knowledge content. Knowledge content becomes just as important, as the instruction to improve the weaknesses or strengths of cognitive and the non-cognitive skills.

    As for finding best practices, why doesn’t anyone check up the dyslexia research, the LD field, the ADHD field, and other fields lying outside the public education system. A whole world out there, where learning and how it is thought of, is turned on its ear.

  3. John Myers /

    if you check out the social and emotional development work
    beginning with
    you see possibilities for specific in-class work that also promotes academic achievement and can be assessed and also has a developing supportive research base that may be easier to see than vague notions such as “grit” and “character” which while important may take years to be seen.

    My interest is in helping busy teachers move in this direction one practical, concrete step at a time.
    The Ontario Learning Skills support this work though they are still somewhat of a “sell” to teachers. How do I know? I ask them from time to time.
    They are NOT a hard sell to employers.

    I noted above how I am working with others on this.
    In addition to a book we are writing a couple of articles based on our experiences and those of others.
    One in particular is using the Ontario social studies curriculum gr 7-12 for our examples.

  4. John Myers /

    I like the KCTA format, especially as it is combined with self assessment (Assessment AS Learning is the current phrase favourite).

    I wonder if it would be useful to distinguish the teaching of non-academic learning as a school wide (K-12) or cross-curricular approach (K-6)
    and approaches for gr7-12 within the teaching of academic content, since that is an overwhelming concern of teachers in those grades?
    In these grades, teachers too often feel that “these ideas are great, but I have to ‘cover’ the curriculum
    and make sure I have grades for the report card.

    I have some thoughts on this based on my work and the work of others such as Maurice Elias from the US.

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