#20. A Summary of ‘How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character’ by Paul Tough

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough

‘How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character’ by Paul Tough (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; September 4, 2012)

Table of Contents:

i. Introduction/Synopsis


Section 1: The Cognitive Hypothesis and the Holes Therein

1. The Cognitive Hypothesis

2. Challenging the Cognitive Hypothesis

  • a. James Heckman and the GED Program Study
  • b. James Heckman and the Perry Preschool Project

Section 2: The Power of Character

3. Self-Discipline

4. Conscientiousness

5. Grit


Section 3: Cultivating Character in Infants & Young Children

6. The Effect of Stress and Traumatic Events in Childhood

7. Parental Nurturance and Attentiveness

Section 4: Cultivating Character in Middle Childhood and Adolescence

8. The KIPP Academy

9. The Science of Good Character

10. Introducing the Science of Good Character at KIPP

11. Affluence & Character

12. The Role of Mistakes and Setbacks in Character Development

  • a. Character Development in the Chess Program at IS 318
  • b. Martin Seligman and Learned Optimism

13. Character Development in the OneGoal Education Program

14. Conclusion

i. Introduction/Synopsis

When it comes to a child’s future success, the prevailing view recently has been that it depends, first and foremost, on mental skills like verbal ability, mathematical ability, and the ability to detect patterns–all of the skills, in short, that lead to a hefty IQ. However, recent evidence from a host of academic fields—from psychology, to economics, to education, to neuroscience–has revealed that there is in fact another ingredient that contributes to success even more so than a high IQ and impressive cognitive skills. This factor includes the non-cognitive qualities of perseverance, conscientiousness, optimism, curiosity and self-discipline–all of which can be included under the general category of `character’. In his new book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character writer Paul Tough explores the science behind these findings, and also tracks several alternative schools, education programs and outreach projects that have tried to implement the lessons–as well as the successes and challenges that they have experienced.

To begin with, Tough establishes how studies have now shown that while IQ and scores on standardized tests are certainly highly correlated with academic and future success, that non-cognitive characteristics actually predict success better than cognitive excellence. For instance, the psychologist Angela Duckworth has found that students’ scores on self-discipline tests predict their GPA’s better than their IQ scores. Likewise, it has been shown that the related characteristic of conscientiousness is even more predictive of a student’s eventual success in college, and in their future earnings, than their scores on cognitive tests. Over and above this, it has also been found that both self-discipline and conscientiousness are highly correlated with all manner of positive outcomes, including in areas such as one’s likelihood of abusing drugs and alcohol; getting in trouble with the law; maintaining healthy social relationships—including getting and staying married etc. And the good news character traits do not end here. Indeed, similar results have been found regarding the personality traits of perseverance (or grit), curiosity and optimism et al.

Unfortunately, it has not been as clear just how we can cultivate these character traits in young people. Nevertheless, several promising avenues have been identified. To begin with, it has been shown that exposure to highly stressful and traumatic events in childhood can severely hamper the growth of character. However, it has also been shown that strong parental nurturance and attentiveness in response to these traumatic events can overcome the effect of the experiences themselves. In addition, the evidence is that the attentive and nurturing approach is effective even in the absence of traumatic events, as it is highly correlated with strong character development throughout the lifespan.

While nurturance is certainly the most important factor early on, Tough argues that the cultivation of character during later childhood and adolescence requires somewhat of a different approach. Indeed, while the field is quite a bit more speculative here, it would appear that what is needed at this stage is for a young person to have the opportunity to take risks (some of which will no doubt result in failure), and to learn how to manage their failures in a constructive way. Success has been achieved using this approach in such programs as Elizabeth Spiegel’s chess program at Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn (while it remains a challenge at schools that cater to the wealthy, such as the Riverdale Country School in New York—on account of the fact that wealthy parents are increasingly shielding their children from failure).

Beyond this, we find that results have also been achieved among some young people simply by steeping them in a culture of character, and by informing them of how certain character traits can lead them to greater success, and allowing their own ambition to take over from there. Indeed, this type of approach is practiced both at the KIPP family of schools, and in the OneGoal education program in Chicago. While the approach itself may not be a silver bullet, early indications are that it can indeed have a very positive effect.

What follows is a full executive summary of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough.


Section 1: The Cognitive Hypothesis and the Holes Therein

1. The Cognitive Hypothesis

In recent times, a strong belief has emerged that a child’s future success depends first and foremost on the development of their mental skills— “the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests, including the abilities to recognize letters and words, to calculate, to detect patterns” (loc. 54). What’s more, it has been believed that the best way to cultivate these skills in children is to expose them to as much cognitive stimulation as possible—and to begin as early as possible. Tough refers to this belief as the cognitive hypothesis (loc. 51). The growing appeal of the cognitive hypothesis has been responsible for a boom in early childhood education products (including everything from activity gyms to Baby Einstein videos [loc. 60]), as well as early childhood education programs (such as the Kumon franchise [loc. 48]).

Now, Tough grants that the cognitive hypothesis is not without evidence in its support. Indeed, it is clear that cognitive intelligence (as reflected by IQ tests) is strongly correlated with success in grade school, college, and future employment (loc. 1281). What’s more, several studies have shown that there are strong correlations between the amount of cognitive stimulation that a child is exposed to early on, and their future success in school and in life (though the degree to which these studies correct for genetic effects [if at all] is not made clear) (loc. 63-69).

2. Challenging the Cognitive Hypothesis

The idea that cognitive intelligence is an important ingredient in contributing to success is not in dispute. However, evidence accrued over the past few decades suggests that there is in fact a more important ingredient here. As mentioned in the introduction, this factor includes the non-cognitive traits of perseverance, conscientiousness, curiosity, optimism and self-discipline—which traits may be harbored under the general category of ‘character’.

a. James Heckman and the GED Program Study

Evidence that something is wrong with the cognitive hypothesis begins with a study of the General Education  Development program (GED) by the economist James Heckman, now at the University of Chicago (loc. 95). The GED is a program that allows high school drop outs to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma by way of passing a test that measures whether they possess the knowledge and skills of someone who has graduated from high school. As Tough explains, “the GED… was founded on a version of the cognitive hypothesis: the belief that what schools develop, and what a high-school degree certifies, is cognitive skill. If a teenager already has the knowledge and the smarts to graduate from high school, he doesn’t need to waste his time actually finishing high school. He can just take a test that measures that knowledge and those skills, and the state will certify that he is, legally, a high-school graduate, as well prepared as any other high-school graduate to go on to college or other post-secondary pursuits” (loc. 127).

Now, all of the evidence indicates that a GED recipient is indeed just as intelligent as any high school graduate: “according to their scores on achievement tests, which correlate closely with IQ, GED recipients were every bit as smart as high-school graduates” (loc. 133). However, what Heckman found is that, unlike high school graduates, 46% of whom went on to graduate from college by age 22, only 3% of GED recipients had managed the same feat. And that’s not all. As the author explains, “Heckman discovered that when you consider all kinds of important future outcomes—annual income, unemployment rate, divorce rate, use of illegal drugs—GED recipients look exactly like high-school dropouts… despite the fact that they are, on average, considerably more intelligent than high-school dropouts” (loc. 136).

In other words, it looks a lot like those who graduate from high school by way of persisting in course work have something other than just intelligence that allows them to succeed in college and later in life. Heckman concluded that “what was missing from the equation… were the psychological traits that had allowed the high-school graduates to make it through school. Those traits—an inclination to persist at a boring and often unrewarding task; the ability to delay gratification; the tendency to follow through on a plan—also turned out to be valuable in college, in the workplace, and in life generally” (loc. 145).

b. James Heckman and the Perry Preschool Project

Still, Heckman’s conclusion is more speculation than anything. However, Heckman soon came across an experiment that would allow him to put his hypothesis to the test. The experiment is known as the Perry Preschool Project (loc. 154). It began in the 1960’s in Ypsilanti, “an old industrial town west of Detroit” (loc. 149).

The Perry Preschool is “a high-quality, two-year preschool program” (loc. 152)—to all eyes a dream for parents who subscribe to the cognitive hypothesis. In the experiment, researchers took a group of three and four-year-olds of “low-income, low-IQ parents from the town’s black neighborhoods” (loc. 149), and then split this group of toddlers into 2 cohorts: one that would be enrolled in the Perry Preschool, and one that would not (loc. 152). Both groups would then be tracked well into their adult lives to see what effect (if any) the Perry program had at the various stages of their lives (loc. 154).

What the researchers found is that the Perry program did indeed have an immediate effect on the students’ IQ’s (loc. 157). Sadly, they later found that this effect had entirely worn off by the 3rd grade (loc. 158). Nevertheless, as the researchers continued to track the subjects into their adult lives, they noticed something interesting. While neither group turned out to be smarter than the other, there was a significant difference in how much success each group experienced later in life. As Tough explains, “compared to the control group, the Perry students were more likely to graduate from high school, more likely to be employed at age twenty-seven, more likely to be earning more than twenty-five thousand dollars a year at age forty, less likely ever to have been arrested, and less likely to have spent time on welfare” (loc. 161).

Given that these results could not be reduced to a difference in cognitive intelligence, Heckman decided to do a bit of probing to see if he could identify the key variable(s) that had made a difference. When he looked into the data, Heckman found something that was very significant indeed. Specifically, he found that the two groups differed to a large degree in terms of how their elementary teachers had rated them in such things as personal behavior, social development and curiosity (loc. 164). Heckman “labeled these noncognitive skills, because they were entirely distinct from IQ” (loc. 167). By the time Heckman and his team had finished crunching the numbers, they “were able to ascertain that those noncognitive factors, such as curiosity, self-control, and social fluidity, were responsible for as much as two-thirds of the total benefit that Perry gave its students” (loc. 167).

Section 2: The Power of Character

While each of the studies just mentioned suggest that character is indeed a crucial ingredient in success—and also hint at precisely which character traits are important—neither makes the connection as directly or explicitly as we might like. However, a number of other studies and experiments have done just this. We will begin with the evidence regarding the character traits of self-discipline, conscientiousness and grit.

*For prospective buyers: To get a good indication of how this (and other) articles look before purchasing, I’ve made several of my past articles available for free. Each of my articles follows the same form and is similar in length (15-20 pages). The free articles are available here: Free Articles

10 thoughts on “#20. A Summary of ‘How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character’ by Paul Tough

  1. Greetings from Ohio! I’m bored to death at work so I decided to browse your site on my iphone during lunch break. I really like the information you present here and can’t wait to take a look when I get home.
    I’m shocked at how quick your blog loaded on my mobile .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .
    . Anyways, good site!

  2. I found this article from your book comment at the Chapters/Indigo site and this summary was beyond my expectations! The video clips offered powerful support to the message. As a librarian in an elementary school I would like to focus on promoting these character traits through literature and hopefully to help the students connect to their potential for success. Thanks for the inspiration!

  3. Thanks a lot. My favorite quote is about the the Harvard undergraduate’s:

    “the typical contemporary Harvard undergraduate… ‘is driven more by fear of not being a success than by a concrete desire to do anything in particular.’

    As a soon-to-be graduate with an accounting degree, I feel the pressure to work for a big firm because it is seen as a prestigious job in the accounting world. But, I know that if I work for a big accounting firm, I will most likely remain an accountant for years to come. I’m working on starting my own business in hopes I don’t get stuck in an accountant bubble.

    • Thanks Holden. I thought that was a pretty funny (and insightful) quote myself. To be fair to new graduates though (including yourself), I think it’s entirely understandable and forgivable to just want to land a good job at first (or any job–especially in this economy). If you can manage to start your own business, though, I agree that’s probably the best way to professional bliss. I wish you luck in your efforts!


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