Can Kids Be Taught Persistence?

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By Jennie Rose

In his new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, author Paul Tough makes the case that persistence and grit are the biggest indicators of student success. Being resilient against failure, he says, is the fundamental quality we should be teaching kids, and he gives examples of where that's being done.

Dominic Randolph, the headmaster at the elite Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, New York, who believes students don’t know how to fail, is one of the sources in Tough’s book who has set out on a road to change an “impoverished view” of learning. Rather than producing students adept at “gaming” the system, “we have got to change the educational system to think about different outcomes and different capacities,” he says.

Another primary source in the book is David Levin, co-founder of the charter KIPP Academy, who developed a student character report card to cultivate this resilience and self control in his students. With Levin’s KIPP Academy as a case study, Tough tracks persistence among low-income kids who aim to go to college, taking special note of those who have the skill in

engaging with people who are different from them, or what educators refer to as “code switching.” Tough's research indicates that students who possess this “code switching” ability, as well as self control, optimism, and curiosity, also show an ability to recover from setbacks.

At KIPP Academy, kids wear school spirit sweatshirts with pro self-control slogans like “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow!”-- a nod to Walter Mischel’s renowned cognitive psychology study on self control. But it's hard to teach kids how to be grateful, how to demonstrate self control, so KIPP teachers use character language to show kids how to slow them down, to understand the mistakes they're making.

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Tough, who wrote Whatever It Takes in 2008, about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone, said in an interview that these intangible qualities -- self-control, perseverance, and grit -- are far more important than letter grades in accounting for student success.

"Until recently, most economists and psychologists believed that the most important factor in a child's success was the IQ. This notion is behind our national obsession with test scores. From preschool-admission tests to the SAT and the ACT—even when we tell ourselves as individuals that these tests don't matter, as a culture we put great faith in them. All because we believe, on some level, that they measure what matters," he said. "But the scientists whose work I followed for How Children Succeed have identified a very different set of skills that they believe are crucial to success. They include qualities like persistence, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control. Economists call these non-cognitive skills. Psychologists call them personality traits. Neuroscientists sometimes use the term executive functions. The rest of us often sum them up with the word character."

Critics have argued that what Tough is really talking about are life skills that can't be taught. But a report released recently by the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science in Washington suggests that recognizing the intangible qualities is an important part of education. The report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century describes "important set of key skills that increase deeper learning, college and career readiness, student-centered learning, and higher order thinking. These labels include both cognitive and non-cognitive skills- such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, effective communication, motivation, persistence, and learning to learn."

It's that idea -- whether kids can learn to learn -- that concerns both parents and teachers.

"What I think is important on the road to success is learning to deal with failure, to manage adversity," Tough said. "That's a skill that parents can certainly help their children develop—but so can teachers and coaches and mentors and neighbors and lots of other people."

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Watch Paul Tough in an interview about his book at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

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