Sunday, September 9, 2012

Being Tough on Tough


Though I haven't read it, I honestly don't get what the big deal is about Paul Tough's new book, How Children Succeed. From what I gather from various reviews and interviews, Tough's Big Idea is that persistence and curiosity matter more than IQ does for success. But was there ever a time or place when this statement wasn't obvious? Of course IQ means little if you don't apply yourself; of course intelligence leads nowhere interesting if you lack curiosity. Does anyone--especially in this Emotional Intelligence-obsessed world of ours--really think that the successful people out there--even the genuises--achieved what they did primarily because of their IQ scores? Didn't Malcolm Gladwell already write a book back in 2008 on the findings that what makes an expert is 10,0000 hours of practice? What is it about Tough's book that's garnering so much attention?

A slightly different take on Tough's Big Idea is voiced by Joe Nocera in yesterday's New York Times:

Tough argues that simply teaching math and reading--the so-called cognitive skills--isn't nearly enough, especially for children who have grown up enduring the stresses of poverty. In fact, it might not even be the most important thing.
Notice how quickly Nocera slips from the obvious--that teaching teach math and reading isn't nearly enough--to the ridiculous. To say that learning to read and do math might not be the most important elements of success is like saying that adequate food and shelter might not be the most important elements of staying alive (after all one must also breathe oxygen). When it come to essential elements, it's pointless to quibble over what's most important.

In interviews Tough is careful to admit that, while schools need to do more to encourage persistence and curiosity, there are no clear studies on how to do this. Refreshing though this caveat is, it, too, raises the question of what this book has to offer that's new and plausible, or at least useful.

There is one disturbing answer to that last question. To the careless reader who approaches the book from the perspective of the dominant educational paradigm, it offers yet another reason to water down academics in favor of "the whole child." The connections between grit and academic rigor, and between curiosity and well-taught academic subjects, should be as obvious as inherent importance of grit is. Indeed, I'm guessing these connections are obvious to most people. But they clearly aren't obvious to many of those wielding the greatest power over whether or not our children succeed.

1 comment:

Mike G said...

Great blog post!