Posting in Education
Author Paul Tough explains that character traits like perseverance, confidence, and curiosity are the true predictors of life success, not test-driven academic achievement.
I.Q. tests have been proven to predict a lot in terms of life success, especially in the realm of academic achievement. And we might tend to think that academic achievement is a main route to all successful lives. So many parents spend countless hours and dollars sending their children to as many cognitive-based activities as possible, from early pre-schools to after-school tutors—all to get them to become the best they can be. But this approach might be completely wrong, according to the extensive research and reporting that Paul Tough completed for his book, "How Children Succeed."
Tough replaces the cognitive approach with what the research is showing to be a much more reliable predictor of success: The character approach or "character hypothesis." Traits like persistence, curiosity, self-control conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence are proving to be the true keys to a successful life.
SmartPlanet caught up with Tough to dig a bit deeper into this notion of a "character hypothesis" and learn how we can instill such valuable traits in our own children, and perhaps even ourselves.
SmartPlanet: What is your definition of success?
Paul Tough: I think that the kind of success that my research points to is pretty general, including some material indicators, things like educational attainment, salary, but it also includes things that are harder to measure, like satisfaction, fulfillment, happiness, and connection.
What is new about this research is two things: One is the path we take in order to reach that level of success, and the other is whether we should be measuring success in the short term or the long term.
I think for when we talk about children and success we tend to think of it in terms of short-term success, so how kids do on the standardized statewide tests. But what’s striking to me about this research is that once you start look at those longer term goals like graduating from high school or getting a college degree, the skill that helps reach that goal tends to be quite different than the skills that lead to short term success as we measure it on standardized tests.
In order to put this finding in the context of your book could you explain the cognitive hypothesis and the character hypothesis?
Sure, so the cognitive hypothesis is this phrase that I made up for the book. It’s my phrase for the conventional wisdom that the one quality that matters most in a child’s success is his or her IQ.
And science educators who I’m writing about have identified this different set of skills including things like curiosity, conscientiousness, self-control, optimism, that they say are better predictors of how well kids will do, especially in the long term.
So IQ may be better for predicting short-term success and the character traits like curiosity and self control are better at predicting long-term life success?
One thing that turns up I think in a lot of research is that cognitive skills really do matter in terms of standardized tests. We may think of college as being the ultimate place where IQ really matters. In fact it’s striking that it’s character strength that matters much more in terms of which kids graduate, especially from public university.
There’s a book that came out a couple of years ago called Crossing The Finish line that did some really interesting research around who graduates from colleges and who drops out. One of the things they found was that students’ GPA tends to be a better predictor of who graduates than their SAT or ACT scores. But the SAT and the ACT were invented because it was thought that GPA was unreliable, that it was an objective measure by teachers. But it turns out the GPA is a better predictor of which kids will graduate. And the theory behind this is that character strengths make a bigger difference in GPA. So if you have grit, perseverance, self-control, and social intelligence, you can do well in GPA even if you don’t have the most fantastic test scores. And it turns out that that makes a difference not just in high school, it also makes a big difference in college and it makes a big difference in life beyond college. These are the skills that we call non-cognitive skills or character skills.
Do you think character is partly innate or mostly learned?
I think that the kind of character that I’m talking about is something that can be learned and developed in kids.
How can one develop strong character?
The reality is two things: One, we don’t know all the answers and it’s more complicated than teaching cognitive skills. But I do think that we have learned some important things.
One thing is how much of what we call character is related to things that happen to us in infancy. That’s the science that is most surprising to me, how things like the amount of stress that kids experience has a huge effect on the development of these skills, what kind of relationship the child has with their parents, their other caregivers. What kind of attachment they have with their parents that then in adolescence and adulthood expresses itself in what we think of as character.
One of the ways to develop character in kids is to improve their home and family environment, especially in the first years of life. And if we can provide for kids both better attachment relationships with parents and less of what doctors call toxic stress, that can make a huge difference, especially to kids growing up disadvantage.
Can you unpack that just a little bit just so we understand what good attachment is versus a toxic environment?
There are these two factors that are interrelated in terms of the kind of environment that kids grow up in, and one is stress. The other is attachment.
The development of the stress response system is one of the most important processes that happen in early childhood. Every infant undergoes stress…they get tired, or hungry, or lonely. And for the most part that’s a positive experience that helps develop the stress response system.
But when kids are surrounded by stress that is intense and chronic, that’s what doctors call toxic stress. That can include trauma, instability, chaos, noise, and violence. When kids grow up in that kind of environment their stress response system develops poorly, it gets damaged and there is a lot of research that can trace how those experiences lead to problems as adults.
Attachment is a term from the field of psychology. It tries to measure and track the effect of infants’ relationships with their parents. So it’s really about the first twelve to eighteen months of life. When kids have what psychologists call a secure attachment, meaning a close, in tune relationship with a parent or another caregiver, this has positive effects that last a lifetime. And when they have an anxious attachment it has negative effects that can last a lifetime.
Well to be optimistic too about it can we talk about the idea of malleability and the fact that character can be built later on. So even though some of these influences also happen before children reach kindergarten, there is hope that we can repair let’s say, a poor attachment later on in life.
Yes. When kids do not grow with a developed and secure attachment it just means that we need to do extra work, that those children or adolescents need more intervention, more help, more support. But absolutely, there are interventions that can help them overcome that early disadvantage.
How do you instill good character? Especially with someone overcoming a bad childhood.
We still don’t have the answers but there are some systematic programs. I think when these programs work they tend to do two things: One is they tend to work in this realm of character strength and non-cognitive skills even if they don’t use those terms.
The second thing is: When kids are able to make those sorts of transformations in adolescence it invariably involves a close connection with one caring adult, whether that’s a family member, or a teacher, or a mentor, or a coach.
I’ve never met a kid who had that sort of disadvantage beginning who went on to success without having one person that they can point to that has had a transformative effect on them.
And so I think a lot of the programs that I’m writing about in the book are based somehow on something that looks like mentoring or coaching.
And typical modern education systems are not set up to have many individual mentors or coaches.
Yes that’s not generally what teachers do. I mean, it’s what some individual teachers do in the classroom, just in the sort of instinctive way, but it’s not the way the whole school system is set up.
What do you think about the fact that technology and digital learning is increasingly inserting itself firmly and deeply into the education system from kindergarten all the way up to university? Will that further remove this idea of mentorship and coaching?
I think that those technologies have great potential to transform education. For some kids they’re going to provide a huge opportunity. But for kids who have grown up with disadvantaged circumstances and need help in with personal strength and non-cognitive skills, I think the technological solutions are not the right answer. Because when these positive changes happen with these kids they happen through very close relationships with adults. I worry about some of these credit recovery programs that I’ve seen in high schools in low income neighborhood where kids who have failed a math course will then go in a computer lab and take this online course in math where in three weeks they take a number of tests and they’re graded by somebody in another state. At the end of three or four weeks they’ve officially passed ninth grade math.
Clearly those kids are the ones who really need more support, more connection, more one on one time. That’s hard work. It’s really frustrating work. It’s also really expensive work. So I think for any school system if their two options are to spend a lot of money to find the perfect mentor for a student or put them in a room with a computer to get their high school diploma, there’s going to be a real temptation to use the latter option. In terms of what those kids needs, it’s clear they need more of the former and less of the latter.
Dec 13, 2012
Some years ago I developed a hypothesis that aiding education by encouraging CQ (Curiosity Quotient) development through technology-aided education, primarily Internet web-based syllabi leading to refined linking to multiple resources at ever-increasing depth was the path to educational nirvana for MOST, not all, children (See "They Can All Be Geniuses!"). In the context of the article, it is doubtful that the personal interaction needed to build the character traits necessary will EVER be available in great numbers from the so-called disadvantaged households that are driven by intractable social issues. It is, however, to be hoped, and planned for, that population management programs will stabilize or reduce the numbers of poor and minority children that only add to the growing-rapidly growing-deficit of resources with which to pursue solutions. Stable or reduced populations with the highest demands on scarce resources leads to more per-capita resources available for those who need them-simple economics, AND good societal imperative.
Excuse my sarcasm, but thanks for reminding me of what was systematically trained out of me as a child. It's not just what happens to you, but who you are allowed to be.
I would not define success as simply as getting a degree. I would define it by achieving the station in life you desire and being happy with it. I know some very happy people who do well with a high school diploma especially in the trades. Many celebrities end up self destructing for example Judy Garland or Michael Jackson. Lawrence Welk lived to be an old man, highly successful, with a fourth grade education.
Your character is built genetically at birth. Some people can make minor, often temporary changes to their character, but adding a character trait which you are not born with is just not possible at this time. Magically developing Character Traits like perseverance, confidence, curiosity, problem solving and visionary qualities is just not possible. Believe me, because I have spent the last 30 years in the problem solving and educational area trying to do just that, with only limited success. You can help a person improve these skills or traits if they are already there, but if they are not present, good luck. The difference between someone with these skills or traits and someone without, is the difference between night day. 100 years ago traveling Medicine Shows sold an alcoholic beverage that gave you these traits, It still works just as well as today's methods. RonG
He said " I think that the kind of success that my research points to " wasn't the research meant to show the factors that led to success? If so, then he needed a clear idea of what he meant by success before he started. Most of his answers skirt round the questions. He is a self promoting charlatan.
It's cognitive AND character. To concentrate on one without (or even just more than) the other is to omit important elements from child rearing.
"It is, however, to be hoped, and planned for, that population management programs will stabilize or reduce the numbers of poor and minority children that only add to the growing-rapidly growing-deficit of resources with which to pursue solutions." It appears that you don't know that many who have made positive contributions to society have come from "disadvantaged households." A world of your making would be missing Beethoven and Trollope. What a sad world that would be.
I think maybe your frustration is due to your limited ability to intervene. The military does an amazing job of instilling desirable character traits in young people. How? It has total control over the trainees' lives. In Pavlovian fashion, good/bad behavior brings immediate good/bad consequences. And tremendous peer pressure can also be brought to bear, by punishing/rewarding an entire group for the behavior of one member. OTOH, I see your point about traits being set early in life (maybe even genetically). Even the military can't succeed with some people. But is that genetics or free will? Isn't it possible that some people are simply unwilling to do what is right, even to help themselves?
Although I do believe that a percentage of personality may be driven by genetics, I wholeheartedly dispute the notion that "character" is defined at birth. I'd argue that childhood experience and parenting are far more determining factors. Over 70% of people in prison come from broken homes. Coincidence?
"self promoting charlatan" - he might be, but I think you're a bit premature to come to that conclusion on the basis of this short interview. Read his book first. I see hints of strongly valid points in what he says, but they can't be brought out properly in this format.
Perhaps, those people come from broken homes because their parents are genetically predisposed to providing them? It is impossible to say based upon valuing a data-set based upon just one or two generations. Perhaps criminals will be shown to have a genetic predisposition to such things. Saying that would automatically assume their parents and grandparents had them also.