‘How children Succeed’-its not just about cognitive skills

Character is what leads to lasting success


If you do well in exams and pass the tests you are set to succeed in life. Not necessarily. Until recently, most economists and psychologists believed that the most important factor in a child’s success was his or her IQ. This notion is behind the obsession with test scores. Tests, of course, are important, but there is much in a child’s education and learning  that cannot be reliably tested.  It is also the case that confidence in  the testing regime, certainly in England,  is at an all time low.And an individual’s non-cognitive abilities are now assuming  much  greater importance to employers who need them in the workplace

Education policymakers here and in the States have been driven by the need to promote more rigour and robustness in academic standards. Test-based accountability measures have been enacted with the intention of holding schools accountable for reaching these higher standards, measuring pupils cognitive skills. Its nearly  all about content knowledge and testable academic skills.  But in How Children Succeed,  Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter most for students have more to do with character: skills like perseverance, 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’. Tough offers the revolutionary concept that character, unlike DNA, is not fixed or completely innate in a person. It is, in a word that recurs throughout How Children Succeed, malleable.

This is what Tough says’ … the conventional wisdom is that the big problem for low-income kids is that they don’t get enough cognitive stimulation early on. In fact, what seems to have more of an effect is the chaotic environments that many low-income kids grow up in and the often stressful relationships they have with the adults around them. That makes a huge difference in how children’s brains develop, and scientists are now able to trace a direct route from those early negative experiences to later problems in school, health, and behaviour. The problem is that science isn’t yet reflected in the way we run our schools and operate our social safety net. And that’s a big part of why so many low-income kids don’t do well in school. We now know better than ever what kind of help they need to succeed in school. But very few schools are equipped to deliver that help.’

Tough talked about character in a recent interview, citing the KIPP chain of not for profit  charter schools and its dedicated founder, David Levin. KIPP schools produce report cards for academic performance but also  character assessment. “Dave is doing new and important work,” Tough said, adding:  ‘He has a new vision for character and it’s quite scientific in that he’s trying to figure out which character strengths make a difference in a kid’s success. And at the root of his research and thinking is the assertion that character is… a set of qualities that [enables] kids to change themselves and qualities that parents and teachers can instil.’  The schools Tough  writes about in “How Children Succeed” that are collaborating on a character initiative are those KIPP charter schools in New York City, which serve a mostly low-income student population, and Riverdale Country School, a private school in the Bronx that serves a mostly high-income student population. Together, they have come up with a list of seven character strengths they are trying to encourage in their students. KIPP had discovered that  their most successful students were not necessarily those that came top in tests but those, instead,  that were the most resilient .

Tough points out that protective parents, with the best of motives, might well be harming the longer term prospects for their children: ‘By not giving them the chance to learn to manage adversity, to cope with failure, we produce kids who have real problems when they grow up. Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.’

In the words of a recent academic study  (see below) ‘… there is still much to be learned about how to leverage  non-cognitive factors to transform educational practice from its current focus on content knowledge and  testable academic skills to the broader development of  adolescents as learners.’

The Consortium on Chicago Schools Research report titled “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Non-cognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance: A Critical Literature Review.’ June 2012


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s