When they’re young, “lick and groom” them, and when they’re teenagers making “pathetic” moves on the chessboard, be sure to tell them so without mincing words.
That might be the formula for preparing the young to succeed, according to Paul Tough, a journalist and author who has caught the nation’s attention by challenging the traditional notion that intelligence—especially as measured by testing and grading—is the best predictor of success.
Last Monday evening, at the height of Hurricane Sandy and just as the city began enforcing its storm curfew, Tough spoke at the Patterson Park Public Charter School. It was a stop on Tough’s tour promoting his book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.”
In seriousness, both the “licking and grooming” and the harsh chess-game criticisms were the actions of caring adults, as witnessed by Tough in his research. He says that such relationships foster the development of “character,” a quality that may be more crucial than IQ to future success and happiness.
Tough’s book endorses a set of “executive functions”: optimism, zest, curiosity, social intelligence, gratitude, self-control, and grit.
“Educators tend to think of them as character,” he said.
Where does the licking come in? Tough’s research led him to believe that early childhood is one of two crucial points at which an individual’s character can be developed. He studied the work of Dr. Michael Meaney, a McGill University professor who has extensively studied the relationship between stress and maternal care. Lab rats are under lots of stress, Meaney observed. Those pups (rats in the first weeks of life) that are licked and groomed by their mothers after being handled by graduate students fared better.
“Rats that were licked and groomed as pups did better on all sorts of tests,” Tough said, “all because of one small, idiosyncratic behavior that their mothers did in the first weeks of life.”
Which is where grit comes in. Researcher Angela Duckworth of Penn State observed that self-control is a better predictor of GPA than IQ, but she began to think that there was something limiting about self-control.
“[Self control] is just about not doing things,” said Tough, describing Duckworth’s search for a more “proactive” quality.
Grit, by Duckworth’s definition, is “perseverance in pursuit of a passion.” Students with grit push through adversity to accomplish their goals.
Problems arise when there is too much adversity—similar to the “toxic stress” that can harm infants’ development—or too little.
“I think I, and a lot of parents, are starting to have this feeling that, by protecting our kids, we’re doing them more harm than good,” Tough said.
Tough allowed that in the course of his research, he has “tried to connect a lot of different disciplines that don’t get connected.” He pulled chess into the mix, describing how most winning high school chess teams come from the elite, affluent private schools.
Not so Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn, an ordinary public school whose chess team made the front page of the New York Times earlier this year. Tough noted that the chess coach, Elizabeth Spiegel, gave the students a “way to manage failure” that also seemed to build character.
While many students confronted with failure often either laugh it off (“Chess is stupid anyway.”) or wallow in it (“Woe is me.”), “Elizabeth guided them through those two temptations,” Tough said.
She didn’t tiptoe around the issue, either.
“She was kind of mean,” Tough said. “She would say things like, ‘That was pathetic.’”
But most important, she cared.
“She was definitely able to convey that she cared very much for her students,” he said. “She cared what they were going to do, but she wasn’t going to play the game for them.”
Caring is key, according to Tough.
“Really, a lot of this is about love,” he said, “which is a really hard thing to talk about in an educational context.”
by Erik Zygmont