Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, opened his talk by discussing rats. In an audience of Harvard education students, this set the expectation of a talk about what science can teach about the nebulous concept of character education.
While engaging and provocative, his talk only briefly discussed hard science. In his introduction to the book, social scientist Robert Putnam praised Tough's recent book for its ability to generalize and tell stories. Indeed, Tough succeeded on this front. To his credit, a book talk should aim to engage and inspire, and serves primarily to get people excited enough to purchase a hardcover copy. In addition, Tough's topic of scientifically discussing non-cognitive traits is in its infancy. Here I will show why taking the science seriously matters, and how to do this.
Tough set out to explain that non-cognitive traits such as grit, curiosity, and determination shape a child's future as much as IQ. To do this, he contrasted two schools, a high performing, wealthy Riverdale County School, and Kipp Infinity, an inner-city charter school known to produce great results. He posed the question "What produces success in children?" with reference to traditional theories of child development.
Should we make sure that students have high self-esteem? Or do children develop character through responding to adversity? Conventional wisdom says the former. Tough claims the latter. He tells the story of students at PS 138, who consistently dominate in national chess competitions. Their success, he claims, derives from a hard-nosed approach of the instructor. In contrast to praising students consistently, this instructor pokes holes in their reasoning, and even forces them to replay matches, pawn for pawn and rook for rook to discover error. If only inner-city schools could measure and harness the power of these seven non-cognitive skills (the remaining include optimism, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, and self-control), they may become more successful than their suburban counterparts. There are a number of looming questions, both scientific and policy-related, about this approach.
First, the scientific questions. Are these traits at all heritable? Scores of experiments in psychology show that the big five measures of personality (openness, neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness) are heritable. It would be reasonable to assume that a character trait such as self-control would be, at least in part, biological.
Within the new model of non-cognitive skills, one's self-control would likely be correlated with how extroverted, agreeable, and conscientious you are. One can think back to a recent family reunion to visualize the remarkable similarity in temperament between relatives.
A similar scientific question is: how stable or malleable are these traits over time? While Tough claims that such non-cognitive skills can be adapted, this should be the starting point, not the conclusion of the discussion. Which cognitive traits are most malleable over time? Similarly, do traits differ across race and socioeconomic class? If so, what are the implications of these differences? Finally, what is the connection between stress, non-cognitive traits, and success?
Tough eloquently describes research on the connection between poverty and increased stress (measured via high cortisol levels). Higher levels of poverty lead to increases in stress hormones. At the same time, he points to evidence that in very affluent communities, students rarely ever encounter real adversity, and thus may not develop the deeper traits of grit and self-determination.
As a former student of an affluent school, and then as a teacher in a poor community, I can attest that different stresses exist between those in the different institutions. While the anxiety of cramming for many advanced placement tests is qualitatively different from my students' persistence in the face of abuse, neglect, and hunger, they are physiologically similar. And on a basic level, Tough would say "no pain, no gain." In other words, it is only through anxiety and struggle that we learn lifelong skills of success. How much stress and adversity does one need to become successful? And does it matter if this adversity comes from the streets, or from the chess club? I look forward to seeing how the book addresses these questions.
Second, the policy questions. To what extent should the current research on character inform educational practice? Putnam brings up the interesting point that perhaps schools should not be the primary locus of intervention. After all, an after-school football coach or band teacher can undoubtedly influence one's grit and self-control, on par with an algebra teacher. This brings up an interesting question of social capital and the fluidity of social roles.
On the one hand, my inner-city students had more grit, tenacity, and curiosity than anyone I encountered in the suburbs. And yet their public education did not give them the skills to translate these non-cognitive skills into middle-class institutions. In other words, you can have character all you want, but without the social capital attached, your chances for success dwindle.
How seriously should we take character education as a prescription for ailing schools? A first step would be a firmer understanding of the heritability, malleability, and even neurobiology of such traits. A second step would be comparative effectiveness between models of character development in different settings. A third step would be to acknowledge that discrimination and poverty have real effects on low-income student's success, in spite of equal, if not more inspiring, grit and determination.
Photo by mattcameasarat, via Flickr Creative Commons.