How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough (2012)

Genre: Nonfiction
Interest Level: Adult
How Children Succeed I have to admit this book set me back on my heels. Tough, a Canadian journalist/writer living and writing in the U.S., challenges the current thinking that has motivated educational reform for the last two decades. It’s all in the subtitle: Grit, Curiosity, and Hidden Power of Character. Tough makes the case that we are doing our children a disservice by focusing so much on the cognitive skills of critical thinking, math and reading, vocabulary development, etc. He’s not calling for us to toss these ideas out the window, but rather to balance them with an equal amount of attention on noncognitive skills to help young people persist in the face of challenges, ultimately succeeding because they won’t give up. Because they have the stick-to-itiveness that is the difference between the merely intelligent and the truly successful. In my position at UBC, I witness the transition young people have to make in their first year after high school, facing unexpected academic and social challenges in a large university. Some do spectacularly well, continuing their high school success. Others stumble, adjust and recover. A few fail, and some give up. All began with the same outstanding high school records that earned them admission. What is the ingredient that leads some to success and others to fail? Tough argues it’s grit – a persistence in the face of adversity, a trait that all the academic preparation in the world can’t provide.
This was difficult for me at times. My career as a youth services librarian has emphasized the importance of reading to children, helping them develop narrative skills and vocabulary, to prepare them with the knowledge they need to succeed in kindergarten and then beyond. I’ve encouraged parents to use language and song in play and bonding activities with their children. Children will learn when they feel secure and loved. They absorb more by listening to parents sing the ABC song than by watching it sung on TV. In a sense, Tough is echoing me in this, though he shifts the focus into a realm that I found occasionally discomfiting – arguing that schools need to provide education about ethics (bordering on morals), and that society needs to provide parents, especially new and poor ones, with better support in raising their children with character. He uses anecdotal evidence very effectively, and supports it with data, but I would like more emphasis on the empirical. I also remind myself he is writing for an audience that is confounded by the fact that nearly half of those who begin college don’t finish on time ( It’s hard to get comparable rates for Canada, but completion seems to be about Even so, this feels remarkably American to me – pushing the problem into realms of race, poverty and character. I don’t deny these factors contribute to a bunch of the obstacles these kids face in getting to and finishing college. However, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that if we just taught them to persist a little harder, they’d succeed. I think he overstates his case, minimizes so many factors in trying to argue for a shift in educational thinking. I agree it’s needed, especially in the U.S. However, I am not sure he has succeeded in writing the message that needs to be heard. Still, he got under my skin and made me think about the problem. That’s definitely a place to start.
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About Michelle Mallette
I'm just trying to keep track of the books I've read - what I liked and what isn't worth re-reading. My work as a librarian has included youth services so you'll find a wide range of interests from picture books and teen dystopia to adult sci-fi, road trip novels, and nonfiction. Comments and communication is always welcome.

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