Who Will Succeed? Why Smarts Matter Less Than You Think
We’re all familiar with the American ritual of opening a report card to check how little Susie did in reading, math and science. But what if instead of just measuring her GPA, parents, teachers, college administrators and employers also eagerly perused her CPA, or Character Point Average? In his new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough makes the case that certain character traits can determine whether kids will be successful in college, careers and their personal relationships.
Tough pulls together research from academic studies and data from innovative educational programs to explain how so-called non-cognitive traits such as self-control, optimism, gratitude, curiosity, and grit – or stick-to-it-iveness – are often more accurate predictors of which kids will wind up finishing college than conventional entrance exams aimed at testing cognitive skills.
Perhaps the most exciting revelation in Tough’s book is that these character traits can be learned and strengthened throughout childhood, and possibly throughout life. He also reports that improving character can increase scores on intelligence-based tests. And Tough highlights the ways in which some of today’s common child-rearing practices, such as overly protective “helicopter” parenting, can do more harm than good by shielding kids from experiencing and learning from failures that help them develop grit and confidence.
How Children Succeed offers insights into how children are motivated to learn and complete tasks, but the book does more than provide instructions for middle- and upper-class families eager to groom their kids for the Ivy League. Tough, a journalist who has written for the New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, takes the research, which can be applied to kids everywhere, and specifically looks at how the power of character could guide education reform and shrink the achievement and income gaps for severely underprivileged kids.
Taxpayers and charitable foundations are spending millions of dollars on programs to better train teachers, shrink class sizes and reinvent instruction, but often with limited returns. Tough argues for a widespread overhaul of education and social policy that incorporates the character-based approaches that already are being tested in small-scale programs across the country with positive results. Tough provides real-world examples of how these programs are working through the stories of disadvantaged kids who are striving to escape the morass of poverty into which they were born.
Whether you aspire to far-reaching education reform, or simply are seeking scientifically proven strategies to help your own kids or students succeed, Tough’s book provides inspiring and often surprising ideas for reaching those goals.
How are you defining success?
When I think about the kind of success that I’m writing about, I’m thinking about the success I want for my own 3-year-old child. If you look at test scores and grades from high school and college, those are useful markers in a big way, for measuring success across the population, but for any individual kid it’s much more personal. When I think of my son, I want him to be happy and have a meaningful life and a fulfilling life, and have challenges that he overcomes. On the public policy level there are some useful yardsticks we can use, on the personal level it’s a lot more complicated.
Can you explain how character correlates to success?
Character is obviously a word that I use in this book, but I feel like part of what I’m trying to do is embrace a new definition of character. We think of character as this unchangeable, immutable force in children’s lives, in people’s lives, something you’re born with or not. Researchers I’m looking at view it as a set of skills that come from a child’s home environment, school environment, mentors, coaches and sports teams.
There is lots of evidence that straight IQ does not correlate that well with the kind of success that we care about. Some of these character strengths are actually highly predictive of how well kids will do in life.
The idea that character is a better predictor of success than IQ seems somewhat commonsense. How controversial is this theory?
There is a funny divide. When you talk to individual people, especially parents and teachers, they get this immediately. We have all seen smart people who aren’t able to make their way in life, and people without great intelligence achieve amazing things.
Especially in an academic setting, institutions really struggle with this, because it’s really easy to measure a cognitive skill and it’s hard to measure a non-cognitive skill, and we teach what we can measure. Educational institutions are stuck. They don’t know how to teach this stuff. They think they can’t have any impact on it at all. There is this real divide when it comes to education policy and other policy that really has us stuck.
Why in recent decades has there been such an emphasis on IQ as the predictor of academic success?
Historically, we’ve always gone back and forth between how important we think character is and how important we think intelligence is. In the ‘80s and ‘90s there was a lot of new and convincing evidence about the importance of early cognitive development for young children. That research was all valid, but I think we over-interpreted it and took it to mean that IQ was all that mattered. And we concluded – foolishly, I think – that if kids were struggling, it was entirely because of a lack of cognitive skill.
If you’re a parent who wants to push back against the emphasis on test scores and put more attention on character development, what can you do?
I have a child who is three and I’ve been thinking about early childhood development. In those years, there’s lots of evidence that we can help a child develop by being warm, supportive and loving and creating a nurturing, stable home environment.
One of the tricky things about parenting is at a certain point, children need a challenge. It’s hard to figure out how to give your kids a challenge and make that transition and stop giving your kids everything. There are lots of parents who are not getting that balance right right now and not letting their kids be challenged enough. There is so much emphasis on test scores, and college admission feels so competitive, that providing your kids with the kind of challenge that can be really valuable can be risky, and might mean that they fail.
They might take a class that they fail, and that might be great for their character, but not great for their GPA. It takes a little courage and a little thinking long range to encourage a child to do things they’re not cut out for, even if that means they’re going to fail.
What’s the biggest mistake that educators and parents are making when trying to foster success in kids?
We often confuse pressure for challenge. Especially in competitive, high-performing schools, our kids are often under enormous pressure. They have plenty of stress and plenty of homework, and they’re often completely burned out – but at the same time, paradoxically, they are not truly being challenged. A lot of what today’s students do is just busy-work. It doesn’t push them to try things they don’t know how to do. Trying to figure out that distinction is important for teachers and, even more so, for parents.
If you were appointed U.S. secretary of education, what would you change first?
To me, what is most broken in American education today is our system of education for low-income and disadvantaged kids. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, cares a lot about this issue, and he has taken some steps to help disadvantaged kids. But there is still something deeply and institutionally wrong in our educational system in terms of how we’re approaching low-income children. For the kids at the bottom end of the scale of disadvantage, classroom interventions alone are not enough. Retraining teachers, firing principals, firing teachers – no matter how ambitious Duncan gets with those tools, it won’t be enough to help those kids.
If I was secretary of education, I would push for finding ways to get teachers and administrators better tools, and that might mean going out beyond the confines of education and getting those families services and support that can be integrated with the education system.
Are you optimist that these ideas about building character will take hold?
I try not to see everything through the lens of class, but when you’re looking at education, it’s hard not to. When I look at the educational system for the middleclass and affluent, I do think something is out of whack and we have created this system of meritocracy that is not working well, but I’m optimistic that it’s self correcting because a lot of people are feeling the same way. Upper-middleclass parents are a powerful social force, and I feel like we’re figuring this out and it’s not going to be one simple answer but we’re moving in the right direction.
In terms of what is going on at the bottom of the spectrum, I go back and forth between being optimistic and pessimistic. There are a lot of problems for kids who are growing up in disadvantage and we really do need government to be a big part of that solution. Right now the system is not working and there’s not the right conversation about how to fix it. There are not the same forces working to bring about change.
What will you look for when picking a school for your son?
I live in a small town with only one school that goes from pre-K to 8th grade. I hear from other parents that it’s a really good school. I feel like these could be words that I could end up eating, but my feeling now is I like the idea that I don’t have a choice about which school to send him to.
There is something about all of the choices that parents have now. Obviously there is a lot that’s great about it, but there’s something about it that detracts from the idea of public education. There is something about a public school, about the idea that this is where you go, and there are some good teachers and some bad teachers, and good students and bad students, and there is something profound about it. Like, this is the hand you’re dealt, and we’re all in this together trying to make the school better. Looking at education more as a consumer item, there is something that detracts from the whole educational experience. For me, at least right now, I feel like being able to opt out of that choice seems like a real positive.
The book focuses on developing character in children. Because of your research, have you tried to change any of these traits in yourself?
Writing, like chess, is something that is very much associated with intellectual skill. But I’ve come to believe that just as in chess, what makes the biggest difference in how successful a writer will be is his or her character. When I think about trying to write another book, it’s those character strengths I wish I had more of: being able to deal with disappointment; caring about your work but at the same time not beating yourself up when you don’t succeed. All that stuff is really difficult. Part of what I’ve found so valuable about this research and reporting is it gives you a different lens to think about. Like writing – I thought it was something some people were good at and others weren’t. So much of what goes into being a successful writer is not just crafting a sentence, but finding different solutions and being creative, and it’s been transformative for me. It gives me a language and lens to help me say this is something I can get better at and can learn.
Any advice to parents, besides going out and reading your book?
My only boilerplate advice is this idea that dealing with challenge and handling adversity is a skill that is just as important as any other skill you can teach your child. But there’s not a class to take or tutor you can hire to learn how to manage challenges, it’s something you have to learn by actually doing it. It’s an abstract idea but it’s also really concrete.
There are lots of moments when you can make that choice to let your kid be challenged.