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"How Children Succeed" - A Profound Experience


I recently picked up a copy of “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough while flying through Chicago.  My goal was to use this book to further expand my knowledge on children’s learning, so I could add some more educational elements to TROBO’s storytelling app.  Instead my eyes were opened to a profound message that Paul uses to encourage us to make the world a better place, one child at a time.  It’s my favorite book this year; I don’t expect anything will top it.  I recommend it to anyone interested in childhood development around academics and general success in life.  I especially recommend it to anyone who knows or has children growing up in underprivileged circumstances.

Paul shows us how intellectual acumen and high IQ are not solid indicators of success, as traditional thinking has taught us.  i.e. high SAT scores does not guarantee graduating from college.  Though I personally know that not everyone needs college to be successful, it can certainly help one’s career get off to a solid start.  Paul’s book uses this as one example of success, since the years we spend in K-12 school are often intended to prepare us for college.  Instead, we learn that a child’s grit, self control, and curiosity, to name a few of the traits he discusses, have been shown to be stronger indicators of making it through the tough college years, landing a degree, and launching a career.

To make his case, Paul gives us a tour of several underprivileged school districts and introduces us to those remarkable individuals and programs that are consciously rethinking and implementing education to ensure the best possible chance of success at life (financial stability, happiness, career, etc…)  for those children who don’t have the stereotypical two parent, two and a half child, one dog household with a picket fence.  He contrasts those organizations with successful, higher-income institutions, and shows how some programs are working, and how some, even if well-intended, still need improvements.

We learn about Mischel’s marshmallow experiment on delayed gratification, where children try not eating one marshmallow, so that they can have two later.  We visit programs like KIPP Academy (Twitter:@KIPP founded by Dave Levin, @Dave_KIPP and Mike Feinberg, @kippbigdog), and wealthy institutions like the Riverdale Country School (@RiverdaleCS, with graduates like Joss Whedon, Chevy Chase, and the Kennedys), all with their own take on how to grow children’s character attributes.  We hear about a character report card, that doesn’t have grades for Math, but instead has grades for self control, etc…  We meet children at Fenger High School, who have grown up in single parent households in the hood, with violence, drugs, etc… all around them, and no one at home to teach them the value of education.  They get compared with children who have reasonably affluent parents, who nurture them.   We learn how it’s not the wealth of those middle and upperclass children that increases their odds for success; instead it is the nurturing, safety, etc… that increases their odds.

The exciting message that Paul reveals is that since it is not intellect that makes children successful, but instead character traits, those children that grow up in impoverished situations still have a chance of success at life. Those character traits can be retrained.  Children that once had no self control, grit, or internal motivation to overcome their home lives, could now do so.  They would just need the right mentors to help lead them.  One of the more memorable examples of a mentor like this is Elizabeth Spiegel from the IS 318 (@IS318Chess), a New York inner city school, a Title 1 program where more than 60% of it’s students were from low-income families. Once a high ranking chess player herself, she now coaches a middle-school chess team of these students that regularly wins tournaments against teams from affluent schools. IS 318 has even generated chess masters.  Spiegel (@elizspiegel) does so by teaching them extreme patience and evaluation during a game.   She teaches them a kind of cognitive self-control, so that they don’t make the same mistakes over and over.

This book struck a couple of personal notes with me, which is perhaps why it resonates with me.  One example is where Paul investigates the notion of one’s sense of how productive they are on page 131.  A couple of chess players discuss how mentally productive they felt when focused on chess, much more than on any other activity.  Matan Prilleltensky mentioned he feels like he is just “wasting [his] brain”, when he’s not playing chess.  I’m no  chess player; I’m barely good at checkers.  But I have a drive like no one else I know to be productive.  I need to create, and any time I am watching TV or engaging in any activity that is about consumption, I feel unproductive and guilty at having wasted those precious hours.

Paul continues to keep the book personal and human throughout by always telling us the stories of the children and mentors.  Near the end, he introduces us to Kewauna, a charming and inspiring girl in 12th grade and part of the OneGoal (@OneGoalGraduate) program.  She is focused on getting into college and overcoming her own poverty.  Paul writes, “…somehow Kewauna seemed able to ignore the day-to-day indignities of life in poverty and instead stay focused on her vision of a more successful future.”  He quotes her saying,  “Nobody wants a failure.  I always wanted to be one of those business ladies walking downtown with my briefcase, everybody saying, ‘Hi M.s Lerma!’”   She got into Western Illinois and is doing well.  She had focus on an end goal and was willing to delay gratification until she got there.

I’ve only touched on a small slice of where Paul takes us, as the journey is rich in this book.  Get a copy, prepare to be inspired, and at the end, have a marshmallow.

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