Tuesday, September 18, 2012

This American Life on Tough

Of all the warped messages I've heard emerging from Paul Tough's ubiquitously referenced new book, How Children Succeed, the worst one so far comes from this past week's This American Life. The hour-long show, normally divided up into distinct segments, devotes itself entirely to Tough's "findings" and what to do about them, with interviews with Tough and with James Heckman, the economist whose research informs some of Tough's conclusions.

Heckman, equating "cognitive skills" with IQ scores, argues that the latter are relatively stable throughout a person's life and therefore resistent to intervention. Schools, he says, should be focusing on "noncognitive skills," which are much more malleable. These include social skills, impulse control, resilience, optimism, and grit--all the things Tough talks about as being more important than "cognitive skills" in whether children succeed.

Heckman may be right--at least about some of these skills--and here the This American Life episode is quite interesting. There seems to be some evidence that problems with impulse control result from stressful home environments in which children don't form secure attachment with parents, and that impulse control can be improved, even in stressful home environments, if home visitors coach parents in how to "attach" to their children. A combination of early parental attachment and encouragement, and parental tolerance of children trying new things and sometimes failing at them, seems to encourage resilience. Positive stories about the ability of similar peers to overcome adversity and achieve success seems to encourage optimism.

My background in autism has me questioning the teachability of the most fundamental aspects of social skills, but social skills training conducted by trained social skills professionals (as opposed to K12 teachers) seems somewhat effective.

But what about grit? Nowhere do Heckman or Tough make any mention of how one teaches grit, and in the earlier interview I blogged about, Tough admits that the data here is lacking.

The bigger problem is the warped message I mentioned earlier, which is this: it's easier to teach non-cognitive skills than cognitive ones, so schools should mostly be focusing on the former. Schools, as suggested above, aren't the most appropriate venus for much of this "noncognitive skills" development. Furthermore, to most people, "cognitive skills" include much more than IQ scores, and much of this can improve, assuming effective learning environments. Here, schools are (for many children) the most appropriate venues. But unless they start carefully qualifying exactly what they are and are not saying, Tough and Heckman risk giving schools even more reason to continue abdicate their responsibility to provide such environments.

11 comments:

cranberry said...

social skills, impulse control, resilience, optimism, and grit

Is there any proof that these are more malleable than cognitive skills? I don't think they are. I think temperament is pretty hard wired from the start. When I look at my kids, their relative levels of energy and optimism seem stable from infancy on.

We don't set out to teach non-cognitive skills in school, but that doesn't mean they can be taught.

How would you teach grit? Isn't it possible the things one thinks teach grit are really a sorting mechanism?

bky said...

I once heard a principal use the word "grit" -- I thought it was idiosyncratic at the time, but maybe she was using "grit" as professional jargon.
Last year when my previously homeschooled boy was in 7th grade, I talked to the principal about having him switched from one section of algebra to another. The teacher he had seemed to be one of those teachers who make kids who are pretty good at math hate it. She was willing to switch my other son like that, because he had identifiable learning difficulties. So I thought, why not try to get both my kids in with the better teacher? No, she said, sometimes kids need to learn "grit"; so, how to learn when you have a mediocre teacher, that's grit. I can see her point, but I would still rather my kids have the good teacher.

AmyP said...


"Is there any proof that these are more malleable than cognitive skills? I don't think they are. I think temperament is pretty hard wired from the start. When I look at my kids, their relative levels of energy and optimism seem stable from infancy on."

That is a very good point.

Is the message, "We have trouble teaching A. Let's teach B!" without first figuring out if they have any better shot at B?



Anonymous said...

You can't teach "grit" if by teaching you mean direct instruction using words. You can teach it by example (mostly in the home and the community) and you can reward it in school, which is another way of teaching by example. But I think that part of what Tough and others who talk about grit are getting at, is that kids who grow up in chaotic environments don't get a chance to develop whatever grit their constitution has provided them with.

AmyP said...

"But I think that part of what Tough and others who talk about grit are getting at, is that kids who grow up in chaotic environments don't get a chance to develop whatever grit their constitution has provided them with."

Is it because those chaotic environments do not reward kids' efforts and persistence?

cranberry said...

You can teach it by example (mostly in the home and the community) and you can reward it in school, which is another way of teaching by example.

I doubt it. I don't think we know enough about how to measure grit to have any idea if it's possible to teach the ability to continue in the face of difficulties.

I fear that this book will lead to a resurgence of emphasis on school-based attempts to teach "character." It will be the new-old thing; there are any number of packaged programs schools can purchase. It won't have anything to do with Paul Tough's book, but I'm certain there will be chapters on grit added to the materials.

I've seen different schools define, and teach, character in very different ways. In our children's public school, character was called citizenship. It wasn't defined, but there was a mysterious rating which would appear on the report card for "citizenship." Three categories: poor, good, excellent.

One year a friend's son received a poor rating. No one would tell her why he received that rating. It was a mystery, wrapped in an enigma. How could he improve his citizenship, when the school refused to tell the family the basis for his grade? His mother didn't even know who had given him the grade.

I would define the functioning definition of citizenship in the public school as "serve on student council, or have a parent on the school committee."

cranberry said...

Oh, and the subject of rewards in school is ticklish.

Our kids' former school tried to reward good behavior. Gold stars were given out at school assemblies for students caught behaving well, especially those helping others.

HOWEVER, the school chose to reward almost exclusively the students who had, ah, spotty discipline histories. Whereupon, every other student who behaved better (and knew they behaved better) than the honorees felt gipped.

I have no idea if the program led to a better climate in the school. It was dropped at the next administrative change.

Anonymous said...

Cranberry brings me back.

I think the phenomenon of only giving the stars to such trouble cases has to do with the teachers' subjective investment. I remember more than one teacher who was most enthusiastic about poorly behaved students and his attempts to 'turn them around.'

Some of those teachers may have crossed a few normative lines themselves in their zest to be the teacher who made the difference in the students' life story. Perhaps attempts to make 'character' part of the curriculum inevitably devolve into inherently prurient interest in the students' interior life. I always found teachers getting into my feelings to be thoroughly creepy treehouse.

And don't get me started about the idea of a high school guidance counselor giving me career advice.

AmyP said...

"I doubt it. I don't think we know enough about how to measure grit to have any idea if it's possible to teach the ability to continue in the face of difficulties"

Well, one way to do it is to make sure that the difficulties continue only as far as the child is currently capable of dealing with, and that there's some sort of pay-off at the end of it. You can then raise the bar systematically as the child improves.

Anonymous said...

AmyP: yes. In a chaotic environment, either you never get to continue doing anything for very long (so you don't get the benefit of that experience), or continuing doesn't get you the intrinsic reward because then the "goal posts" shift. I believe this is why a structured school environment, with a high degree of predictability, is important for children who live in chaotic environments -- whether because of poverty, death of a family member, frequent moves (as in the military), or any other reason.

cranberry said...

Anonymous @7:37

The gold-star effort was a whole-school effort. I think the adults thought they could discreetly influence the self-esteem of the children they worried most about, but of course, the children knew their peers better than the adults knew the children.

Our children's private schools do very well at teaching character, but it's easier to do that when one may select the children who attend, and when there's a free hand with penalties and rewards. At the extreme, a child who goes too far could be expelled. For smaller infractions, privileges can be revoked, and extra work details assigned. Good behavior can conversely be rewarded by privileges.

I've now listened to the podcast. Our kids' private schools all assign advisors. The advisors are teachers or school employees, who advise students on how to function in and out of school. In the elementary and middle years, the advisor meets with his group of advisees. He/she also reports to the parents. In high school, the advisors are a resource for the teens. They advise on schedules, and help the teens brainstorm ways to deal with the schools' bureaucracies and teachers.

Such a program could be instituted in all public schools. I think it would help all children. As I think about the advising program, a fair amount of it is coaching children to understand adults, and teaching them explicitly how to comply with the school's expectations.

However, this bit about non-cognitive skills and training. The basis for personality traits does have a genetic component, which can be influenced by parenting and environment. See David Dobbs' article in the Atlantic on orchid vs. dandelion Children: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/12/the-science-of-success/307761/. So, would non-cognitive training potentially show results because one can teach self-control, etc., or would it show results because a continuing bond with a reliable adult can transform a chaotic environment for the better (and thus influence which genes are switched on or off in at-risk students)?

If you can teach it to anyone, it could be a universal program. If it depends upon one's genotype, well, good luck. It'll work for some kids, but not for others.

None of which, of course, will do anything to head off the silly packaged programs purporting to improve students' character on a school-wide basis.