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Paul Tough, author of the new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. (Gordon M. Grant for the Globe and Mail)
Paul Tough, author of the new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. (Gordon M. Grant for the Globe and Mail)

Why kids need to fail to succeed in school Add to ...

How much influence do parents really have on their children’s success in life? My own view has always been: far less than they think, and far less than the experts tell them. I’ve always thought that how your kids turn out depends a lot more on their genes and their IQ than whether you played them Baby Beethoven or sent them to all-day kindergarten.

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Various experiments with education reform tend to confirm my fatalistic view. Every so often, some shiny new idea comes along – self-esteem! prizes for all! multiple learning styles! – that is supposed to turn every failing kid into a winner. None of these fads appears to have the least effect on student achievement.

At the same time, the problem of failing kids is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Children from stable higher-income families have a huge advantage over children from unstable, lower-income families. After 40 years of trying, we know how hard it is to narrow that gap. But we owe it to those kids to keep trying – and to ourselves as well.

Paul Tough is a realist about all this. But he is also an optimist. He has spent more time with disadvantaged kids than any journalist I know, and he has learned a lot about the factors of success. He has learned how two kids of equal abilities can have wildly different outcomes, and how kids with certain character traits can narrow the achievement gap.

His findings offer some surprising answers to the questions every parent asks: How much do test scores really matter? What’s the real difference between students who graduate from university and students who drop out? What role does parental encouragement play in children’s achievement, and what kind of encouragement do they need?

Mr. Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, combines compelling findings in brain research with his own first-hand observations on the front lines of school reform. He argues that the qualities that matter most to children’s success have more to do with character – and that parents and schools can play a powerful role in nurturing the character traits that foster success. His book is an inspiration. It has made me less of a determinist, and more of an optimist.

 

You argue, quite convincingly, I think, that IQ is not destiny, far from it. For kids to succeed in life, they need certain character traits – and one of them is what you call “grit.”

Yes, it’s a psychological category discovered by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania. She actually started out studying self-control and demonstrated that it has a huge impact on kids’ grade point average. But she came to think that there was some other skill out there that she hadn’t quite put her finger on – not just self-control but having a passion for something and a determination to stick with it, despite setbacks.

She named that grit, and she invented this thing called the “grit scale.” It’s a short little questionnaire about how likely you are to stick with projects. And she found that it’s incredibly predictive, that people are pretty honest about their grit levels and that those who say, “Yes, I really stick with tasks,” are much more likely to succeed, even in tasks that involve a lot of what we think of as IQ: She gave the test to students who were in the National Spelling Bee and the kids with the highest grit scores were more likely to persist to the later rounds; she gave it to freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania and grit helped them persist in college; she even gave it to cadets at West Point and it predicted who was going to survive this initiation called “Beast Barracks.”

So, in some ways, grit just means what we think it means – what John Wayne said that it meant – but it has something to do with academic persistence as well. It’s not just smarts, it’s the ability to stick with a task that makes a difference.

 

Resistance, persistence, perseverance, stick-to-itiveness ...

 

Yes, and I would add passion. It’s not just dutiful stick-to-itiveness. It’s people who really want to finish – not because someone has told them to, but because they’re dedicated to it.

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