The Case for Character

Written by New York Family on . Posted in News Our Town, News West Side Spirit, Our Town, West Side Spirit.


A new book reports on the surprising ways that traits like grit and curiosity can improve success in school and—even better—in life

By Tali Rosenblatt-Cohen

A journalist with long-time gigs as an editor at Harper’s and the New York Times magazine, New York City dad Paul Tough has spent much of his career thinking, reporting and writing about education. In his first book, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, Tough chronicles the challenges and triumphs of the famous Harlem Children’s Zone.

His new book is called How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. In part, it grew out of his reporting on kids from low-income neighborhoods. But it also became personal. “I had my son, Ellington, who is now 3,” said Tough, “and I found myself wondering about this question as a parent as well: What do you do to help your child succeed?”

Your book makes the case that noncognitive skills (which you call “character”), even more than academic achievement, are the key to long-term success. Can you define noncognitive skills?

The phrase comes from economists and, in particular, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from the University of Chicago, James Heckman. He started using this phrase about 10 years ago to explain what he was seeing in his data. He found that there were certain kids who scored low on IQ tests but would go on to succeed, or who would score high on IQ tests but not go on to succeed. As he looked deeper into the data, he identified these other skills that seemed to determine success. Some of the skills have to do with self-regulation, like conscientiousness and self-control. Some of them have to do with optimism, curiosity, zest—basically wanting to explore new things. And grit and perseverance are another set—they’re about intensity, sticking with something, bouncing back from failure. In lots of ways, I find “character” a more accurate or evocative term for these skills because it gets at how important they are. They are a really deep part of what it means to be human.

You place a lot of importance on the first few years and parent-child attachment. Should we be worried about a kind of backlash against trends like early enrichment programs, where everyone shifts from an extreme focus on academic performance to an intense anxiety about connection?

I do worry about stoking parental anxiety, but I hope the book will encourage parents to relax rather than freak out. To me, what the research on attachment implies is that most children need a basic level of love and security and nurturance. Studies on attachment indicate that 60 percent of American 1-year-olds display a secure attachment with their parent or parents. That’s a pretty big group. Attachment, the way I see it, is not a way to produce super-children; it’s about providing enough love and attention that your children wind up in the secure 60 percent. You can make a lot of mistakes as a parent—as we all do—and still get it right. And if you get it right, your child has a big advantage starting out.

You talk about adversity and how experiencing some adversity in childhood or early adulthood can make for a more well-adjusted and successful adult. If a child is lucky enough not to face much adversity, are there ways parents can challenge them?

It’s important to note that the kind of adversity many kids are experiencing in the South Bronx or in Harlem isn’t good in any way. It does real damage. But for affluent parents, it’s about a bigger shift in how you think about childhood. As we all know, kids in high-achieving, high-pressure schools are working incredibly hard. They are often burned out, stressed out. But at the same time, people like Dominic Randolph [head of the Riverdale Country School] are right—these kids are not experiencing real failure; they’re not open to real adversity or taking real chances. They’re not even enrolling in classes they might be interested in if it might pull their GPA down. But you can make the case that those are just the kind of classes they should be taking.

In some ways, the advice I would have for parents in that situation is to expand their definition of successful to include [the word] “challenge” much more than it is included now. The big message is to give kids the opportunity to take on more serious challenges, to go off in strange directions sometimes and have the opportunity to fail.

Why write a chapter about chess? Could children learn whatever skills chess helps them develop from an art program, a musical instrument or sports?

I think so. Chess was there to show how far kids could go with this type of noncognitive training. We think of chess as such a cognitive skill. But the most amazing thing to me going on at I.S. 318 [the Brooklyn middle school in a low-income neighborhood that won the 8th grade national chess championship] was that the chess teacher, Elizabeth Spiegel, was able to use noncognitive techniques to increase her kids’ skill level. Those skills can absolutely come from something other than chess. Sports, when they’re done right, develop the same things.

Kids learn that they can exceed what they think of as their limits—that they can keep pushing themselves. When you’re practicing piano, you get that same kind of instant feedback that you do in a chess game. When you’re playing chess and you make a mistake, an opponent takes your pawn; when you’re playing piano and make a mistake, you sound terrible. That sort of feedback, if you have the right kind of teacher, can lead to much bigger success.

Going back to optimism, zest and curiosity—how does one get those? Can they be taught?

One thing that was really striking to me in the research was how much those skills correlated with good parenting. When parents in the first few years were able to create strong attachment, a real sense of security in kids, those kids were more optimistic and more curious and were happier and psychologically healthier as a result. Those skills are really built very early on.

And what if they’re not?
Schools can do a lot. [But] the way we run our schools is not focused on curiosity. When you’re focused on tests, you’re focused on a single right answer. Successful scientists, though, are ones who go beyond the right answer and look for alternative solutions. There are ways to teach that and it involves a more open approach to learning than traditional public schools typically offer.

Optimism and happiness are definitely related. Some of these techniques that [the charter school group] KIPP is using—positive psychology and cognitive behavioral techniques—are designed to help kids with optimism and psychological well-being. I was really struck by the way these interventions helped kids reorient themselves in adolescence. At that age, they can think about things in a much more self-reflective way: Why do I feel this way? Why do I do this? Why do I keep making the mistakes I’m making? I think schools can really help kids reframe things and think in a broader way.

We keep hearing that American education isn’t up to par with learning in many other industrialized nations. As someone who has covered education for much of his career, how do you feel about the state of education in this country?

I’m very concerned about the achievement gap and the fact that, in some ways, it’s getting worse in terms of class and race. In terms of the education of the majority of kids in the United States, I tend to feel more optimistic. There are lots of schools I visit where kids seem to be getting a great education from Pre-K all the way up through high school. I do feel like this issue of high pressure in schools, the emphasis on tests and not enough on character, does make a difference. But part of the reason I feel less concerned about this in well-off communities is that parents in those communities are really good about responding to research, saying, “Aha! We did go a little too far in this direction.” On the whole, my concern continues to be kids at the bottom and how we still have not designed an education system that allows them to succeed.

After years of lots of love and attachment, New York City mom of three Tali Rosenblatt-Cohen now plans to make sure her children face a lot of adversity.

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