How Children Succeed: Rethinking What's Important (Book Review)

When listening to news coverage of education reform, and talking with parents and teachers, one hears a variety of views about what “The Best” approach to education is. While I’ve spent a lot of team learning about teams (of adults), and I have some opinions about what seemed to work best for me when I went to school, I realized that I didn’t really know much about research into education. To that end, I started reading How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, and in the process started to reconsider many of my preconceptions about what’s best for kids, and along the way I learned a few things that I can use to help the people I work with succeed.

A lot of the discussion around elementary (and earlier) education is around what children learn and when. How Children Succeed reminded me that learning isn’t all about academics, and that not all learning happens in school.

Some of the concepts and principles that the books discusses, like Flow, Grit, and the ideas of Seligman in Learned Optimism, are ones that I’ve come across while reading about how adults work, so I felt that many of the concepts, if not the details, are excellent ones to have in mind while working with my teams.

Paul Tough starts out the book with a description of a pre-kindergarten class using the Tools of the Mind curriculum. This approach, which my son’s kindergarten class followed, is about teaching executive function, a set of skills that helps someone interact with other and learn. As the book progresses, Tough describes the other traits that are more related to “character” than “academics.” The argument is that these “non-cognitive” or “character skills” – things like grit, resilience, and resourcefulness, are often a better predictor of eventually success than mastery of academic disciplines. The data Tough presents are compelling, and the related anecdotes are quite motivating, and the challenges to putting these lessons into practice are somewhat daunting,

There are challenges to teaching children these kinds of skills. Using the word “character” can lead to political issues. If you get past those questions. Evaluating character and non-cognitive skills is hard, and teaching these skills is more work than simply correcting an incorrect fact or algorithm. A more concrete issue is how to get past a culture where academic testing is the norm. A recent NPR story on changes to the SAT mentioned that some states are considering using college entrance exams as an assessment mechanism at the same moment as colleges are making them optional.

Character traits are not all there is to success. Academics are important too. The character skills that the book describes are not enough to master a discipline; mastery takes practice too. The character skills do enable you to learn academic (and other) skills though. Academics and character are both important but it may make sense to change our priorities from focusing primarily on academics.

If I think back over the concepts I’ve learned in school, the most useful were the ones that gave me the tools to learn new things. To be successful in my day to day work I need to be able to work to learn new things all the time. It was nice to be reminded of this in the context of my child’s education.

While there are essential skills that children need to succeed (reading, writing, and math at some level), I wonder if I should focus less on whether or not my child is mastering specific subject, than whether he is getting an exposure to a range of topics so that he can find something that he is passionate about. Perhaps he can then use that passion as a way to practice overcoming roadblocks and frustration when things don’t come easily. Those persistence skills are then applicable to the tasks that are simply “necessary” even when they are not compelling.

How Children Succeed is easy to read, with many pointers to places to learn more about specific concepts, and it’s broken into sections that are easy to read during small bits of idle time, such as during a subway commute. This is a great book for parents to read, in particular if you are inclined to get into discussions about education policy with your peers. I won’t assert that this book will make you a expert, but it should lead to some interesting dialogs (internal and external) which will help you reconsider any idea you had that what worked for you in school was that right thing for your children. And in as much as adults and children are different in the details, I think that anyone who leads or works with teams can gain some insights that will help you become a better leader. If you are a parent who has such as role, all the better!