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Curriculum Opinion

‘Helping Children Succeed': An Interview With Paul Tough

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 24, 2016 6 min read
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Journalist Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works And Why, was published today, and he recently answered a few of my questions about it.

You might also be interested in my interview with Paul about his previous book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.

LF: One of the key points you seem to make is the best way to cultivate some of the key non-cognitive skills that researchers have identified as essential to success is related more to creating conditions where they can flourish as opposed to explicitly teaching them. It reminded me of Sir Ken Robinson’s comment that “Farmers and gardeners know you cannot make a plant grow....The plant grows itself. What you do is provide the conditions for growth.”

Is that an accurate summary of what you’ve written and, if so, can you talk a little bit about what those “conditions” might look like in a classroom?

Paul Tough:

I like Sir Ken’s metaphor, but I worry that some educators might see it as an invitation to be entirely hands-off with their students - to simply let them sink or swim on their own. In fact, I think teachers, like gardeners, need to put in a great deal of work and care in order to help their charges grow and thrive.

Here’s how I would put it, perhaps a little differently from Sir Ken:

The conclusion I draw from recent research in neuroscience and psychology is that children’s non-cognitive capacities are mostly the product of their environments, both in school and at home. In the book I describe research that shows, for instance, that very stressful home environments make it less likely that children, as they grow, will develop the capacity to persevere at long-term goals, to focus for long periods on complex tasks, or to bounce back from disappointments and setbacks.

I think something similar happens in classrooms, where children’s motivation and their tendency to persevere are strongly influenced by the messages they receive from their teachers and from the school as a whole. Those messages are sometimes conveyed explicitly by teachers, in the way they talk to students about their work and their behavior and their ability. But they are also conveyed implicitly, through the assignments teachers give students, the homework they assign, and the way students are assessed and disciplined.

The research suggests that educators should work to convey to their students two big ideas: first, a sense of connection and relatedness - a sense that students “belong in this academic community,” as the researcher Camille Farrington puts it; and second, a sense of growth and potential, by giving them work that is challenging, rigorous, and meaningful, and by helping them recognize that they are getting better at it, even as they struggle through moments of frustration and failure.

LF: Another point you make is about how a school discipline policy can help and hinder towards the creation of those “conditions.” Could you elaborate on what you found?

Paul Tough:

Again, I draw on the neurobiological research that shows that kids who grow up in intensely stressful environments often adapt to that adversity by developing hyper-vigilant fight-or-flight mechanisms. Those hair-trigger responses might make sense in a chaotic and threatening environment, but they rarely serve students well in school, often rendering them wary and anxious and unable to effectively regulate their emotions and impulses.

What those students need most in school is a support system designed to help them better cope with their impulses and regulate their responses. But instead, in most schools, they are labeled as behavior problems and punished, often with out-of-school suspensions. Research from Chicago shows that students who grow up in concentrated poverty and students who experience abuse or neglect at home are much more likely than other students to be given out-of-school suspensions. Those suspensions, of course, do nothing to help them manage their stress, and they make it more difficult for them to keep up academically.

LF: You talk about the importance of intrinsic motivation and the repeated failures to make financial incentive programs - and other aspects of behaviorism - work in schools for teachers or for students. Given this history, to what do you attribute its continued popularity in individual teacher’s classrooms and in education policy discussions?

Paul Tough:

I think behaviorism - the idea that students will respond predictably and reliably to rewards and punishments - is the dominant theory underlying much of American pedagogy. It is so widely accepted that we often barely notice it; it’s like the air that students (and teachers) breathe.

For that reason, I think Roland Fryer’s research on incentives, though it produced few positive results, actually made a valuable contribution to the debate on motivation. It helped call into question a lot of our basic assumptions about what motivates students to work hard and learn more.

I don’t think it’s going to lead to a sudden revolution in our thinking on motivation, but it’s a start.

LF: You provide a critique (which I agree with) about efforts by a group of California districts trying to use non-cognitive skill assessments for school accountability purposes and contrast their efforts with the findings of researcher Kirabo Jackson.

Could you lay-out those distinctions and your opinions about them?

Paul Tough:

I don’t want to be too critical of what the CORE districts are doing, because I think it’s important to experiment with alternatives to accountability systems that rely only on standardized-test scores. But the concerns I (and others) have with CORE’s approach is that the self-assessments they are using may not be reliable in a high-stakes accountability situation. And there aren’t yet a lot of alternatives to self-assessments when it comes to measuring non-cognitive capacities.

The reason I find Kirabo Jackson’s work so fascinating is that he does a kind of end run around this dilemma, by showing that we may be able to measure the effectiveness of teachers at developing non-cognitive capacities in their students not by assessing the capacities themselves but by examining the practical results of those capacities. In the North Carolina study I wrote about in “Helping Children Succeed,” Jackson used as his non-cognitive proxy measure an index that combined students’ attendance, suspensions, and GPA - indicators of how engaged students were in school and how hard they were working.

Jackson’s specific proxy measure might have its own problems in a high-stakes accountability system, of course. But his work at least suggests that there are some new and different ways for us to think about assessing students and schools in this non-cognitive realm.

LF: Your book highlights several examples of schools - and school networks - that you think are creating the sorts of conditions that you believe encourage importance non-cognitive school development. However, and perhaps I missed it, I didn’t see the names of leaders of school districts, names of district-wide programs, or any state education leaders mentioned. In fact, the only time I saw a district mentioned was your critique of CORE’s questionable use of non-cognitive assessments for accountability purposes.

Are there any school districts or school district leaders you found that are trying to move their broader institutions in these directions?

Paul Tough:

It’s true that I haven’t yet encountered many district and state leaders who are doing really innovative work in these directions. I am sure those leaders are out there, but because these discussions are still so new, there aren’t a lot of national mechanisms for them to connect and share ideas. I hope that will soon start to change, and these pockets of experimentation will begin to turn into national movements.

LF: Thanks, Paul!

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