Thursday, March 07, 2013

Paul Tough on poverty :'How Children Succeed - grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character'.

Schools these days seem to becoming focused on closing the ‘achievement gap’ by means of tests centred around literacy and numeracy  ‘but what’,  Paul Tough asks,’ if we’re wrong?’
‘How Children Succeed’ introduces us to a new generation of educators and researchers who are finding that  links between childhood stress and success and provides new insights into the best way to help children growing up in poverty.
It is a provocative and profoundly optimistic book which, if implemented, will change the way about raising and educating disadvantaged children. For teachers with a creative bent it provides an antidote from current directions to help such students based on improving cognitive skills in literacy and numeracy.
What matters, current research is saying, is that children’s success depends on whether we we are able to help them develop a set of qualities that include persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness grit and self-confidence. 
.Minds are changed by trauma and stress
These qualities include such things as being able to persist, the ability to delay gratification and the ability to follow a plan; it is the development of such ‘soft skills’ that need to be developed rather than obsessing on literacy and numeracy testing.
The book focuses on how to help students ‘trapped in poverty’  by exploring how childhood experiences make young people the adults they become for better or worse. What is it that children who are able to transcend harsh beginning have? Why do some children thrive?
How does poverty affect children’s ability to learn? The correlation between poverty and negative learning outcomes is powerful.  A consensus in the past decades has shown that stress in early childhood cause damage to children’s brains. Overloading of stress in early childhood produces all kinds of serious and long-lasting effects.
Such stress is a feature of those trapped in poverty. ‘As a result children who grow up in stressful environments find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointment and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school’.
 The biggest problem of such children (the one in five failing) is not poor maths and reading it is that they ‘don’t know how to manage their tempers or calm themselves down after a provocation’. It is improving their ‘executive functions’ that now seem the most promising vehicle for narrowing the achievement gap between poor kids and middle-class kids’.
The book explores that it is not poverty that is the issue it is the stress that goes along with it.
 The exciting thing is that these ‘executive functions’ to develop positive behaviours to learn can be taught.
The first area to help young learners develop positive attitudes is in the home. Nurturing relationships with parents or caregivers fosters resilience that can protect the young from the worst effects of a harsh early environment.
The effect of good parenting is biochemical. Effects in mothering styles create huge behavioural differences. Mothers who are responsive to their young create a buffer for their children – good parenting makes a real difference. The trouble is that  many parents trying to survive in poverty are just too stressed to provide their young with the nurturing time they need.  The book covers a variety of interventions that successfully help mothers.
.Minds chemically changed by experiences
The most effective vehicle for improving children’s outcomes is not the school, it is the family or, if necessary, creation of substitutes.
Many American schools have become involved with character education to help the at risk students. An earlier emphasis on improving academic success through a push on tests has been shown not to persists when student leave the school environment.
 Successful students it was found possess other qualities such as ‘optimism, resilience and social agility’. These have been identified as ‘character strengths’ and once again research has shown that are learnable.
Character can mean different things to different people but they have been defined as a set of abilities or strengths that are very much changeable – skills you can learn – skills you can teach. An important realisation is that studentsonly achieve such qualities if the ‘child knows what he or she wants’. Engaging learners is a key challenge for all teachers but vital for students coming from difficult home circumstances.
With engagement students develop persistence, work harder and show at is called ‘grit’. Encouraging findings for creative teachers! When learners find something they’re passionate about this provides the motivation for applying effort to prove themselves. And part of this is being able to learn from failure, to persist and show ‘grit’.
This reminds me of a quote from educationalists Jerome Bruner who said that ‘teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation.’ All this is in opposition to the excessive pressure for schools to show success through comparative test results so loved by populist politicians.
The character qualities relate to research on meta cognition - thinking about one’s own thinking. William James, the American psychologist wrote that ‘habits and character are the same things’. Some kids have good habits and some have bad habits those with bad habits need to learn that bad habits can be changed. All students can succeed and have their gifts and abilities developed ‘as long as there’s a teacher out there who can make succeeding in school attractive to the learner.
Tough also refers to Carol Dwecks research where she writes that students do much better if they believe intelligence is malleable. Dweck divides students into two types – those who have a fixed mind-set and those who have a growth mind-set – the latter believe that intelligence can be changed. Mind-sets can be changed.
Successful learners have both ‘cognitive flexibility’ and ‘cognitive self-control’. The first allows learners to think outside the box and see alternatives and the second is to resist habitual responses and substitute a more successful ones. By this means students begin to learn through their mistakes – focusing new learning to improve on errors .Part of this is not rushing in but to go slowly to consider options.
Teachers need to help their students to help them think through their actions encouraging them to think more deeply, to try new ideas but most all by taking them seriously, believe in their abilities, and challenge them to improve themselves-  to teach them grit.
I particularly liked the idea that true learning has an aesthetic dimension – an ‘opportunity to create ourselves through our actions…celebrating freedom above utility’. About wonder and joy.  Students who achieve at the highest level have been shown to put in the time and practice. In his book ‘Outliers’ Malcolm Gladwell brought to our attention that it takes 10000 hours to achieve mastery – real self-discipline in pursuit of a goal. Teachers need to involve their students in authentic in-depth studies - doing fewer things well.
I have skipped over many important ideas in Tough’s book but the essential message is that the so called ‘achievement gap’ can be bridged by good nurturing and teaching. Students’ brains are chemically shaped by their experiences for better or worse but he makes the point ‘chemistry is not destiny’. To achieve this we need to protect children from serious trauma and chronic stress. Parents, caregivers and teachers need help to create positive learning environments. The idea- the importance of learning how to deal with and learn from your own failure – runs through the book.
It was interesting to read that in recent decades the conversation about poverty has changed. More children now live in poverty (the one in five failing school) but today but today it is all about the ‘achievement gap – that children who grow up in poor families do badly at school. The focus (wrongly according to Tough) is on the schools to solve the problem. The achievement gap between the rich and the poor is widening – and schools are now seen by politicians as solving the problem!
So far there is no evidence to show schools can solve the problem. Schools do well with the most able low income children and don’t work very well with the least able (the one in five)
What Tough’s book shows is that for children growing up in the most stressed poor income homes it is only by improving the nurturing relationships within the home that buffets the effects of stress and trauma.
In classrooms such students need help in developing non cognitive qualities required to ensure success. By providing challenging programmes  and by deliberately teaching the mind-sets to cope with learning – the habits of mind – grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism, those children will learn.
Tough points out that we now know enough to influence the development of all children; we know enough about the kinds of interventions that will help children develop those strengths and skills, starting at birth and going all the way through schooling.
But only, it seems, if we change our own minds first.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful blog - what a great message. Thank you for sharing the book.

Allan Alach said...

Excellent, Bruce. Politicians interested in the common good, as opposed to fostering business opportunities, should read this. I've included this in my next Educational Readings, due to go out tomorrow.

Unknown said...

YES! YES! YES! This is exactly what is needed for a stable and sane life, for security and adaptability, and for meeting the challenges of life. My son is naturally very impatient as am I - it has impacted my life greatly (negatively, as you would imagine). I did not want this for mu child, so I started researching. All the research told me the best thing I could ever do for him is to teach him persistence, self reflection, and so on, and although he is only 4 it is already working so well. As always you share sensible, useful and honest information for parents and teachers. Thank you.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Thanks Allan and Diane. Appreciate your feedback