Teaching The Intangibles: How To Ingrain 'Grit' In Students Author Paul Tough's book, Helping Children Succeed, lays out what he calls the tools for helping children succeed, particularly through attributes like perseverance and grit.

Teaching The Intangibles: How To Ingrain 'Grit' In Students

Teaching The Intangibles: How To Ingrain 'Grit' In Students

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Author Paul Tough's book, Helping Children Succeed, lays out what he calls the tools for helping children succeed, particularly through attributes like perseverance and grit.


If you are interested in education at all, then you're probably familiar with the new push to encourage grit. The idea is that one of the most important ways children succeed in life is by mastering certain character traits like perseverance, self-control, conscientiousness. One of the people who helped popularize that idea as much as anybody is Paul Tough, the New York Times best-selling author of "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity And The Hidden Power Of Character."

In the wake of that success, a lot of people started asking Paul Tough, OK, so grit matters, but how do you teach it? His answer is in his new book, "Helping Children Succeed." It's out May 24. And he's also adapted from the book in the June issue of The Atlantic. And Paul Tough is with us now from member station WPLN in Nashville. Paul Tough, welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

PAUL TOUGH: Thank you. Good to be here.

MARTIN: So how do you teach this stuff? I take it that you actually believe you really can't.

TOUGH: Exactly. I think that a lot of educators over the past few years have tried to find a curriculum or a textbook that is somehow going to help kids become more perseverant and more self-controlled. And I think the reality is that that just doesn't exist. And I think it's because these non-cognitive skills, when you look at them more carefully, are not really skills.

MARTIN: If they're not skills, what are they?

TOUGH: It's tough to find exactly the right word, so the phrase that I use a lot in this book is non-cognitive capacities. Part of the problem with the word skills is that it suggests something that you just learn and then you've got. Like, if you learn how to read, you learn how to ride a bike, you don't really forget, right? Whereas the researchers who are looking at when and where students persevere - it's much more scattered, you know?

So a student can, in math class, be really perseverant and really stick with problems and, you know, in the same day in history class, they don't persevere at all. And that, I think, is because they're responding to the environment within that classroom.

MARTIN: One of the things that you point out in the book is that a number of the interventions that people have tried in recent years don't work, like the idea of paying kids to show up or, you know, paying kids to read a book. Why is that?

TOUGH: I think very much an economist's way look at the world. But especially for kids - and especially for kids who are growing up in adversity and difficult circumstances - what is much more motivating to them is not getting extra stickers. But if you want someone to really stick with a project over a long period of time, you need to make them feel they have a sense of purpose and that they're getting somewhere and that they're getting better at things. And those are not things that you can do with simple material rewards and simple punishments.

MARTIN: What does work?

TOUGH: Well, I think there are two things that work. There are two toolboxes that I talk about in this book. There's lots of evidence out there that suggest that one of the most intensely motivating factors for children in general, but I think especially kids who are growing up in adversity, is a sense of connection. You know, I think we've known this anecdotally for a while. But the schools, I think, that are the most successful in this realm are actually trying to systematize that, to create discussion groups and advisories. And in one set of schools, they have something called crew; groups of kids with a teacher leading them who stick together and meet every day for, you know, years on end.

The second toolbox that I talk about is work and particularly challenge. So I think another thing that we do with kids who are growing up in adversity is we think, like, well, we don't want give them work that's too hard. It's going to, like, ruin their confidence. But actually, I think the schools that are most successful really know how to give them the right kind of support but give them projects and assignments and work that is going to take them out of their comfort zone and prove to them that they can do things that they didn't think they can do otherwise.

MARTIN: You know what you're describing to me? Private school.

TOUGH: (Laughter).

MARTIN: If you look at any advertisement for a private school, it's small classes, strong relationships, challenging work, right?

TOUGH: Yeah.

MARTIN: So how come poor kids can't have that?

TOUGH: That's a great question. You know, I do not think that that is what makes private school expensive. I think well-off parents insist on those things because they know that they help kids succeed. But we don't insist on it for students in public schools and especially students in low-income public schools. But the same psychological principles apply. If anything, I think they're more intensely needed for kids who are growing up in difficult circumstances. They need that same kind of connection. They need that same kind of challenge. There's no reason that we can't do that in public schools.

MARTIN: Well, the question I'm really asking is why don't we do that in public schools?

TOUGH: Well, I think there are a few reasons. I mean, I do think that there's clear evidence that when kids grow up in really difficult circumstances, they arrive in kindergarten less able to focus and concentrate, you know, with these amped-up fight or flight responses. And so those kids, especially if you're not trained to work with them as a teacher, they are harder to deal with. And we don't right now have a system for helping kids who arrive in the school system stressed out with all of the effects that that has on their ability to make it through the day, so we're not using the right kind of tools to help them.

MARTIN: Paul Tough is a journalist. His latest book is "Helping Children Succeed: What Works And Why." He also has a major piece adapted from the book in the June issue of The Atlantic. He was with us from Nashville. Paul Tough, thank you so much for speaking with us.

TOUGH: Thanks very much.


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