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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiostiy, and the Hidden Power of Character

Several years back I read Paul Tough's Whatever It Takes which was about Geoffrey Canada and the founding of Harlem Children's Zone.  I had mixed feelings about the work Canada was (and still is doing), but I found the book to be compelling and an interesting read.  So when I found out Tough was coming out with a new book, I jumped on the bandwagon and picked up How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

In his latest, Tough gets down and dirty (in research) to examine what makes children succeed in school and in life.  Obviously some answers include self-regulation, grit, and determination, but the bigger question becomes, "How does one get these?"  Tough comes to the conclusion throughout that some of this is innate and for others it's taught through role models, through life experience, and through home.  Can children who have the deck stacked against them overcome their circumstances?  Can schools really teach you grit and steely determination, thereby improving your character?  And can chess really make you smarter?

While Tough doesn't call it this, this book is the classic nature/nurture debate that will never go away.  Tough uses some analyses of studies published over the years but, as any good non-fiction writer knows to do, he uses anecdotal evidence to support his conclusions.  While this makes a feel-good book it is also what makes me as an educational psychologist in-the-making go, "Hmmm..."  The stories of the handful of young people overcoming adversity (read: poverty, low parental education, and low socioeconomic status) are stories that I believe fully, but I fear that when they are put into a book like this that it gives so many ammunition to bring back the boot-strap mentality: "These five people made it against all odds, why can't other people?"

Of course this misses Tough's point in the book, which is that these young people (and many others) have been given support and an I-believe-in-you attitude from many organizations and people (such as the KIPP schools and OneGoal discussed in the book) who believe that with said support that these kids can make it though college and beyond.  It's a point that should be heeded and I appreciate Tough's writing; I hope that this is the point that comes through more strongly than the boot-strap mentality.

Tough is strait-forward in his writing and he has a way of inserting soul and care into his narrative.  This book is well worth a read if you care even the slightest bit about ensuring education and lifetime success for every young person in the United States, not just those who can afford it. 

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