Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why by Paul Tough

Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why by Paul Tough book reviewSummary: Helping children from difficult backgrounds succeed, is more about creating the right environments for them to be successful than it is teaching them success strategies.

My paying job is to manage data for an after school program that works in low income areas and targets low performing students at low performing school. I am always interested in the latest theories and practices that seem to be successful. But I have been working at this job for nearly 15 years. And my wife has been a teacher for even longer. I have seen trends come and go. Solutions are never fast or simple because the problems have been long in coming and are infinitely complex.

Paul Tough is a journalist, a writer for the New York Times and a contributor to This American Life. This is his second book on this theme (the first was How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character). This is a very short book, 145 pages, less than 4 hours of audio. And in that short number of pages there are still 23 chapters. Tough opens by charting out why children from difficult backgrounds have difficulty in school and life. Adversity, stress, trauma, neglect, low attachment and other adversities all impact development. Some of these can literally change DNA, but all impact development of young children, which has a very long term impact on future development.

Helping Children Succeed is more than diagnosing the problem, Tough also attempts to chart out some of the failed solutions and some of the potential viable solutions. There is no pretense that solving problems of education is easy. But because of differences of demographics, population trends and birth rates, the majority of children in schools are now poor, minority or from other difficult to educate subgroups.

Where I think Tough is right is that character issues, internal motivation and ‘grit’ is more important in the long term than base intelligence. The question is how to develop the internal, and often precognitive, skills that allow kids to do the hard work that is necessary to overcome their educational difficulties.

Tough is not particularly easy on the education system. The culture of control and zero tolerance of students, especially of minority students does not help students develop internal motivation. Traditional external behaviorist motivations (rewards for good behavior) often undercut internal motivation. Assessment, which Tough agrees is important, is difficult. So we often measure what is easy to count, not what is important.

There are a variety of examples, but one study that Tough cites took a very large dataset of students and teachers. Traditionally teachers are rewarded for improving test scores. Those teachers are fairly easy to identify. But one study was able to track students that seemed to have changes in motivation and then correlated them to teachers. Teachers that were able to help students learn internal motivation were almost never the same teachers that showed significant improvements in test scores. But students that had teachers that helped them improve in their motivation improved over the long term, not just in that one class.

The larger message of the Helping Children Succeed is that we can help student succeed. But what is most effective isn’t the particular method of teaching grit to the one student. But creating institutions and systems where success is more likely to occur. Early intervention (and he details a number of early intervention programs that do not help), school environments (especially relationships with teachers and other students) and pedagogical systems that are focused deep learning, student focused problems solving and challenge seem to be effective. But changing systems and institutions is long term and difficult compared to rolling out another short term program.

Helping Children Succeed is a broadly helpful book. It has real research and science behind it. Because I am fairly widely read in the area, there was not a lot that was completely new. But as a short introductory primer, this is a very good place to start a discussion. I can see this being a great book for small group discussions among educators or parent groups. In many ways though, this is also a discouraging book because the problems of scale, time and culture are all working against long term change.

Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why by Paul Tough Purchase Links: 
Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

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