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'Helping Children Succeed' Starts At Birth


"I'm giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them."

In one of the many experiments cited in Paul Tough's new book, Helping Children Succeed, a group of middle school students received this message on a Post-it note, attached to a paper their teachers were handing back.

The message of support and high expectations had a small positive effect on white students.

But for black students, the impact was massive. Seventy two percent who saw that single sentence voluntarily revised their papers, compared with just 17 percent who received a generic message about feedback. And not only did they revise them, they improved their grades.

The implication, Tough says, is not that Post-it notes are some kind of magic bullet. It's that students who may be — because of their experience with racial stereotypes — "anxious about their ability or their sense of belonging" in school can respond to the right kind of encouragement.

The book is packed with these types of research-based insights into addressing students' core social and emotional needs.

For the past decade or more Tough has been one of the pre-eminent reporters translating education research for public consumption. His new, slim book is no exception, and it contains some surprises for fans of his previous work.

Your 2012 book How Children Succeed was a New York Times best-seller, and it probably did more than any other single book to get the wider public thinking about the importance of grit and other noncognitive skills. But in this new book you really change the frame to talk about the environments children encounter that can foster or diminish these skills. Can you talk about your evolution on this point?

What I think happened in How Children Succeed is that I and others were responding to all this fascinating and solid research that shows that these noncognitive capacities really matter.

No one really knew that the researchers, who were so clear on the importance of these skills, were absolutely NOT clear on how they're developed.

It was frustrating for teachers. They didn't know what to do. And a lot of them responded by trying to use the tools that teachers naturally have, which is to teach, assess, measure, name these skills.

Was that drive to test for noncognitive skills really led by teachers? Because I saw it coming more from policymakers.

You're right. I do think a lot of it happened on the level of policy.

I think the push towards taking noncognitive skills seriously met up with the push towards holding teachers and schools accountable. And I think that has created some intersections where people are understandably anxious.

And so Angela Duckworth and David Yeager and others have written that the measures they developed experimentally are not ready to be used to evaluate noncognitive skills.

And I would go further to say that whole concept of holding teachers and students accountable for these skills doesn't make sense and isn't supported in the research.

Wow. OK. So what are people who care about noncognitive skills supposed to do, if not test for them?

I don't think that means we have to throw up our hands.

It was only after [How Children Succeed] came out that I felt I wanted to go back and try to figure out, what do we know about how these skills are developed?

And that pushed me towards this quite different understanding of how these emerge. Instead of thinking about how we teach, it makes a lot more sense to think of them as the product of children's environments both at home and at school.


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