Has Paul Tough found noncog skills’ marathon & swimming pool?

I usually don’t comment much on works I haven’t read fully, mainly because I don’t think it’s fair to authors’ larger arguments and efforts. However: after reading the excerpt from Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, on Mind/Shift a couple days ago, I just couldn’t resist.

I’ve had a lot to say, after all, about Tough’s precursor work, 2012’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Chapter six of my Education Is Upside-Down, in fact, riffs on the title of Tough’s 2012 book (it’s called ‘How [Schools Should Help] Children Succeed’), explains some significant effects Tough’s book has had on the education enterprise, and suggests what I consider a crucial both-and approach to the binary his book sets up. I’ve also given talks related to these ideas to US and UK audiences (download presentation deck here).

All that said, I was happy (and a little annoyed, frankly) to see that, after having done more research, Tough’s finding basically the same things. See these two passages from the Mind/Shift excerpt:

But in my reporting for How Children Succeed, I noticed a strange paradox: Many of the educators I encountered who seemed best able to engender noncognitive abilities in their students never said a word about these skills in the classroom.


among the skills [Elizabeth Spiegel, an exemplary character-building chess instructor spotlighted in How Children Succeed‘s] students were mastering were many that looked exactly like what other educators called character: the students persisted at difficult tasks, overcoming great obstacles; they handled frustration and loss and failure with aplomb and resilience; they devoted themselves to long-term goals that often seemed impossibly distant.

And yet, in all the time I spent watching her teach, I never once heard Elizabeth Spiegel use words like grit or character or self-control. She talked to her students only about chess. She didn’t even really give them pep talks or motivational speeches. Instead, her main pedagogical technique was to intensely analyze their games with them, talking frankly and in detail about the mistakes they had made, helping them see what they could have done differently. Something in her careful and close attention to her students’ work changed not only their chess ability but also their approach to life.

So, pretty much, good teachers like Elizabeth Spiegel ready kids for a marathon using only a swimming pool. (Again, see my book or my talk slides for a more elaborated version of the marathon-swimming pool thing. Or, you know, reach out and ask me. Whatever works.) Glad, you know, it occurred to Tough before schools/districts started getting soaked by vendors hawking grit curricula and building students’ noncognitive skill (sic) growth into their instructional planning and assessment.

In fairness, Tough should not be held anywhere near 100% responsible for our enterprise-wide idiocy around his book’s ideas. Indeed, we tend to get pretty stupid once ideas like his get our blood pumping. Seeing Tough speak shortly after How Children Succeed came out, as a matter of fact, all the Q&A-ers’ reactions (e.g., ‘THIS is what we must be working on in our schools, not all this reading and math and testing!’, ‘What programs would you recommend to start teaching these things to kids?’, and on and on) made me nervous bordering on queasy. I could just see, I guess, where we were all going to run with these kinds of messages, and I hated the idea of yet another enterprise-wide misunderstanding, misapplication, and over-correction. And, well…here we are. At least Tough (like Carol Dweck on growth mindset and Angela Duckworth on grit before him) has the courage and decency to qualify his initial takes in light of his continued study.

A big lesson in all this, Ed Cases: If you’d rather not have your professional development, evaluation, and operations constantly disrupted-corrected-dictated by cycles like Tough’s (and Duckworth’s and Dweck’s and and…) proclamation-clarification, make a point to examine the evidence you see — no matter how compelling — more critically on the front end. Tough, remember, is a reporter, not an educator or a learning scientist of any kind. I’m not saying that his line of work means we should discount him fully. Much to the contrary, we should listen hard to him and other education writers because we need all the help we can get. (And in all honesty, I think How Children Succeed contains a lot we should be paying attention to.) These writers’ jobs, though, are to bring fascinating items about education into the light, not necessarily to consider all the items’ angles and/or potential clashes with various teaching/learning principles, system priorities, etc. However many great ideas Tough and writers like him bring to the ed-improvement conversation, they’re ideas we must consider carefully before integrating, not just prioritize highly and make operational without understanding where/how/even if they can fit.

In sum, it’s on us — not education writers — to be better researchers, decision-makers, and gatekeepers. As frustrated as I might be in Tough for his arc and progression of understanding, we should fully own that our swallowing-whole is more our enterprise’s problem, not his.

(And I’ll read the new book, I promise. With the interim years’ additional research, I’m hoping it’ll build some much-needed nuance and sense onto the messages of How Children Succeed. Two days into summer, though, I’m too deep in a bunch of good fiction to get around to it.)


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