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'Helping Children Succeed' Starts At Birth; A Case For The Power Of Nurture

Mart Klein
Getty Images/Ikon Images

"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 Succeedwas 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.

Author Paul Tough
/ Mary McIlvane
Mary McIlvane
Author Paul Tough

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.

Let's talk about the home environment for a minute. The ages zero to 5, and especially zero to 3, are traditionally outside the scope of education policy, and yet you spend a good deal of time talking about them. Why?

There's this big disconnect in how we think about education in general and this solid body of research that shows how important these early years are. We've known for a while that the foundations of reading and math skills, number sense, are laid in early childhood. And it's becoming really clear that the most important foundations are on this emotional level.

The back and forth that children and parents have, the level of fear and stress in the community, how parents manage stress and deal with it, it matters in ways we can measure very precisely at the neurobiological level. And we also know that you can change it.

This was part of what I found most poignant, the idea that with home visit programs and other types of coaching, even poor, and very stressed parents can be motivated to change how they treat infants and toddlers.

I find this really profound. When I was in Queens with a home visitor working with a foster parent to rethink how they interacted with their child, what struck me is how eager all parents are for that kind of help. As a parent, I am often Googling questions late at night. And especially for parents who don't have the same resources, a warm, comforting, supportive home visitor who says here's what you're doing right and here's what you can do better, it's no surprise that it has a tremendous impact.

If you change relatively simple things about parent behavior, it changes the climate in the home. And it seems like this tremendous opportunity to intervene in this area that I and others are seeing as really important.

You talk about creating supportive environments in school, too, but it's not just hugs. What struck me is that you also talk about what kind of pedagogy develops students' social and emotional capacities to the fullest. What develops their autonomy and mastery as well as their sense of belonging? What brings out the strongest motivation and effort in students? It turns out it's a very challenging, progressive approach.

Yes. This was something else that was new to me in the reporting I did for this new work. Like a lot of people in this realm, I had been thinking about the idea of kids needing support on that "hug" level. If there's one adult in the building who cares about that child, you can make a difference.

What my experience with Expeditionary Learning [now called EL] and deeper learning suggests to me is that is not enough. It's not going to make them do the kind of academic work that they need to be able to do to be well educated.

When they have the academic atmosphere in the classroom that more well-off kids are getting, they get more excited and connected. They have exactly the kind of experience that I want for my kids and that every parent wants for their kids.

This is really interesting to me. The type of learning you're describing, with open classroom discussion, a lot of choice for students, inquiry-based learning, projects, it seems at odds with the kind of call-and-response, very teacher-directed style that you see at a lot of so-called "no excuses" charter schools that produce high test scores with disadvantaged populations.

Mostly I agree with you, yes. I and a lot of other people are drawn to the idea that there's no excuses over here and deeper learning over here. But schools like Achievement First's Elm City Prep are complicating that division.

There's no reason to think this [kind of learning] should be the province exclusively of well-off kids. The kids growing up in poverty, who are more likely to be struggling with motivation, it can turn them around from unmotivated to really motivated.

Is the danger that we see a return to a 1960s-'70s style of progressivism, which was very student-led but sometimes didn't have the same sense of rigor?

Well, there's the easy kind of autonomy and the hard kind. If you're just throwing up your hands and saying every child is as good a teacher as I am, they can figure it out for themselves, when kids don't have the knowledge base every child needs, that's not enough. You need to do more.

But I think the schools like the Expeditionary Learning schools I visited are really rigorous, not just about what happens in the classroom but about the professional development. At its best, this kind of teaching is harder than traditional American pedagogy.

I've had differences with the No Excuses charter folks but I do feel like most of them are really great at self-correcting by looking at their own data. The more they are experimenting in this realm the better. My guess is that they're going to approach it with the right combination of rigor.

It seems to me that a lot of the excitement around noncognitive skills comes from middle class and upper-middle class parents who want to know how their children can be as successful as possible in an ever more competitive world. AndAngela Duckworth's new book Grit, for example, seems in some ways explicitly pitched to parents like those, and to the business world as well. But with your new book you are refocusing the discussion on low-income kids. Can you talk about why? And, are you worried that interest in the topic will fade if noncognitive skills become an issue for "other people's kids"?

I'm trying to focus this research where it's most necessary. Well-off kids are less of my passion.

It's certainly possible that interest will wane. My hope is instead by giving more precise, evidence-based strategies for kids growing up in poverty, it's going to move this discussion to another, more productive level.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.