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Paul Tough: The Best Ways to Transform Your Schools

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Paul Tough: The Best Ways to Transform Your Schools

In his follow-up book, Helping Children Succeed, the author discusses how to welcome children into school and put them in charge of their learning.

By Jennifer L.W. Fink

Grit. Perseverance. Self-control. Author Paul Tough highlighted the link between these so-called non-cognitive traits and success in his 2012 book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Since then, scores of schools have initiated character development programs to teach children these essential skills. But instilling grit and character takes more than a few well-planned lessons, Tough says. In his new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, Tough explores the importance of a child’s environment.

In this book, you write “If we want to improve a child’s grit, or resilience, or self-control, the place to begin is not, after all, with the child. First, we need to change the environment.” Can you explain that?

A lot of the new initiatives schools have put into place are great. But what I am getting from the research since How Children Succeed is that thinking of these noncognitive skills as skills we can teach, the way we teach math or reading or history, is probably not the best approach, because what the science suggests is that these are qualities in children that develop out of the environment in which they are growing up. That suggests that there is another set of strategies that administrators and teachers can use to help children persevere, persist, and bounce back from disappointments and setbacks. The place to start is classroom and school environment.

What are some things administrators can do at the beginning of the school year to establish a supportive environment?

For kids to feel deeply motivated about school in a way that makes them more likely to persist and display perseverance, they need to be motivated on an intrinsic level. They need to feel a sense of connection, competence, and autonomy in the classroom.

I would start with connectedness and relatedness. The best schools do a great job of making kids feel welcome and that absolutely begins on the first day of school. That’s a moment when kids are most anxious and least connected, so when educators formally and informally give kids the message that this is a place you belong and where you’re welcome, it can have a tremendous effect on how kids feel.

At the same time, I think there’s another set of tools that administrators can use that give kids a sense of challenge. Student-centered learning techniques allow kids more autonomy in the classroom. They give kids a chance to ask questions and participate and to work on long-term projects. These methods involve more work for educators, but can be enormously meaningful for students.

How can administrators facilitate these kinds of changes within their schools?

Administrators have a huge role to play in supporting teachers and guiding them as they learn new ways of teaching and interacting. Teachers need a whole lot of professional development, support, and communication among peers in order to figure out how to make these deeper learning methods work in the context of their schools. If a school is going to head in this direction—and I think any school can and should—it means a big change in the culture. Administrators have to take a really strong leadership role in guiding staff through that transition.

What are some of the issues surrounding assessments to measure noncognitive-skill development?

The really big issue is we don’t know how to measure noncognitive skills. A paper by Angela Duckworth and David Yeager makes the case that all of the existing tools we have to measure noncognitive skills are insufficient for gauging student development in any high-stakes way. We have some decent diagnostic tests that can help us get a sense of how students are doing, but they only work if they’re not high stakes, simply because the tests are so easy to game.

One of the things I discuss in Helping Children Succeed is a new approach to measuring noncognitive-skill development using proxy measures such as attendance, discipline, and GPA, because those things are a reflection of how hard students work and how likely they are to participate in class.

The reason we care about noncognitive skills is because those capacities tend to make students work and connect to school in a way that’s going to benefit them over the long term. My hope is that we not push toward trying to find the perfect standardized test for self-control and grit, but instead try to find more creative and innovative ways to measure how students feel about school and how motivated and connected they are.

Photos: Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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