The premise of Paul Tough’s excellent new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character—that cognitive ability matters, but character traits like tenacity, curiosity, and optimism matter more—is a strong challenge to my long-held notion that, when students struggle, whether in high school or college, much of that is attributable to their lack of academic preparedness. How Children Succeed largely argues otherwise, but there is a brief but fascinating account late in the book that suggests we shouldn’t be too quick to worship at the altar of grit alone.
The first half of Tough’s book unpacks clinical research that demonstrates the importance of parents protecting children from adversity in the first years of life. But it is the ability to persist in difficult tasks that ultimately seems to lead to success. Tough’s book, broadly speaking, makes the case that, insofar as there is any formula for success in life, it starts with a child’s need for protective, nurturing parenting, followed by independence and challenge to develop resiliency and “grit.”
A chapter entitled “How to Think” describes in vivid detail the remarkable success of the chess team at IS 318 in Brooklyn, New York and the uncompromising approach of teacher Elizabeth Spiegel. At the end of the chapter, she takes on the challenge of preparing James Black, one of her star chess players, for New York City’s specialized high school test—the entrance exam for Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and other super-elite public secondary schools. Under Spiegel’s tutelage, James, an African American boy from Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, had become a national chess champion and achieved “master” status in the game, one of only three African-American masters under age thirteen.
John Galvin, the vice principal, told her that she had given herself an impossible mission, that there was no way a student who consistently scored below average on statewide standardized tests could ace the specialized-school exam. But Spiegel had seen James absorb chess knowledge astonishingly quickly and she had faith in her own teaching ability. As she put it to me in an e-mail message in April, ‘I figure with six months, if he’s into it and will do the work, I can teach a smart kid anything, right?’
Wrong. By mid-July, Tough writes, James’s progress was minimal. Still, his teacher tried to keep him motivated:
When James would get downhearted and say he just wasn’t any good at analogies or trigonometry, Spiegel would reply cheerfully that it was just like chess: a few years earlier, he had been no good at chess, and then he got specialized training and worked hard and mastered it.
Is school just like chess? Perhaps not. UVA cognitive scientist Dan Willingham points out that, at the elite level, chess becomes in part an exercise in memory. You and I look at a chess board and must painstakingly evaluate endless permutations of attacks and counter attacks as we try to think several moves ahead. James and other masters see patterns. “For some kids their learning curve is rapid. They get good quickly in ways that most people do not,” says Willingham.
But broad, general knowledge is different, Willingham notes. “Academic knowledge and skills are wide ranging and accumulate over a very long time.” It is nearly impossible to “get good quickly.” Spiegel's principal might have been exactly right.
Tough writes that James “represented for me (and for Spiegel, I suspect), a challenging puzzle. Here was a young man clearly possessed of a keen intelligence. (Whatever intelligence means, you can’t beat Ukrainian grand masters without plenty of it.) And he seemed to be a case study in grit.” Yet despite his own and his teacher’s clear and obvious efforts, James failed to win entry into Stuyvesant, New York’s most selective high school, whose best chess players, Tough ruefully notes, James “will no doubt crush.” Why?
When Spiegel talked with me that fall about studying for the test with James, she sometimes sounded shocked at how little non-chess information he had been taught thus far in life…“He’s at the level I would have been at in second or third grade. It feels like he should have learned more.”
“The specialized high-school exam is, by design, difficult to cram for,” Tough writes. “Like the SAT, it reflects the knowledge and skills that a student has accrued over the years, most of which is absorbed invisibly throughout childhood from one’s family and culture.” [emphasis added]
Tough is undoubtedly correct that much essential knowledge is indeed family driven. There are clear benefits to growing up in a home filled with books and college-educated parents who engage their children in rich dinner-table conversation, museum visits, travel, and other enriching cultural experiences. But even without knowing a thing about James’s schooling, it’s not hard to surmise that Spiegel is precisely right. James should have learned more and it’s his failure to accrue a young lifetime’s worth of academic content, background knowledge, and vocabulary—not his grit or raw intellectual talents—that likely doomed his effort to get into Stuyvesant.
Family background matters. But it doesn’t follow that schools cannot or should not make a concerted effort from the very first days of Kindergarten to provide as much rich content knowledge across the curriculum as kids need to be successful. This is especially true for “school-dependent” learners who are less likely to be exposed to it, like second-hand smoke, through their daily lives, contact with educated adults, or via what the renowned sociologist Annette Laureau termed “concerted cultivation.” Paul Tough hints at this when he observes,
It might not have been possible to turn him into an elite student in six months, as Spiegel had hoped. But how about in four years? For a student with his prodigious gifts, anything seems possible—as long as there’s a teacher out there who can make succeeding in school as attractive a prospect as succeeding on the chessboard.
Paul Tough has written an outstanding book, and one that will no doubt be deeply influential on parents and educators, and deservedly so. But I fear the takeaway—through no fault of Tough’s—will be “it’s all about character” or “grit trumps cognitive ability.” Not quite right. As James’s experience shows, grit matters a lot, but it’s not sufficient to compensate for a lack of knowledge if we expect kids to clear the high academic bars we place in front of them.
Robert Pondiscio is vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. A version of this editorial was originally published on the Core Knowledge blog.