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01 May 2013

Book Review: How Children Succeed

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of CharacterHow Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Paul Tough wrote the "biography" of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone I read a couple of years ago.  So when my boss asked me to read this, even though it's outside my frame of responsibility, I quickly consented.  I love a good theory book about how better learning and education can change the world.

Except this book is not that.  It's about how better people can change the world.  And it turns out that the things most of us think make better people may not necessarily be so.

If I had to summarize this book in one, terribly convoluted sentence, it would be, "Stress is bad except when it's good."

Tough spends a lot of time outlining how stress negatively affects our bodies; our stress-response system is mammalian, designed for short, acute bursts of stress, like running from a lion.  Our current society has translated that stress into a low-bubbling, constant flow.  Our bodies are not equipped to handle that.  And when you overload the stress system, there are serious and long-lasting negative effects.  When you overload a infant's or a child's stress system, it's even worse.

So keep your kid away from stress.

Except having no stress at all, no opportunity to fail, no situations that could result in a poor result, has a negative impact as well.  If you never have to really "try" and never really "fail" then you don't develop "grit" or what I call "sticktoitiveness" that's necessary to survive in the world.

So our privileged kids don't do well because we've made things too easy for them. And our challenged kids don't do well because we've made things too hard for them.

According to the KIPP schools, there are seven traits that predict achievement;  grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.  These schools even give their students "character report cards" that grade on these seven traits (a system that doesn't work in schools of privilege; a headmaster of one of those schools says, "With my school's specific population, as soon as you set up something like a report card, you're going to have a bunch of people doing test prep for it.  I don't want to come up with a metric around character that could then be gamed.")

OneGoal has winnowed it down to five and calls them "leadership principles";  resourcefulness, resilience, ambition, professionalism and integrity.

But success cannot be predicted solely by these character traits or leadership principles.  Motivation has to be there too.  And, what do you know, there's a metacognitive strategy for that; "Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions" or MCII.  Being an optimist doesn't work.  Being a pessimist doesn't work.  What works is something in between.  I always say "Plan for the worst, expect the best and the reality will fall somewhere in between."  Turns out this is the exact strategy MCII encourages;  "mental contrasting concentrates on a positive outcome while simultaneously concentrating on the obstacles in the way.  Doing both at the same time creates a strong association between future and reality that signals the need to overcome the obstacles in order to attain the desired future."

This is much more complex than "Dream and you can Do!"  And much more realistic.

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