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Is grit something that can be taught?

Noted education journalist and author Paul Tough doesn’t believe standardized tests are capturing traits that actually predict a successful life – things like grit, curiosity and zest.

Tough discussed research for his latest book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, at an event Monday evening hosted by A+ Denver at R.A.F.T. Colorado, a warehouse of hands-on teaching and learning supplies available to teachers at low cost.

“I continue to believe in accountability. I think we need better trained teachers,” he told the crowd of teachers and education reform advocates.

“I do think a system that emphasizes cognitive tasks … is missing a big dimension.”

The event also served as the official launch of a Colorado chapter of Young Education Professionals or YEP. The group aims to connect teachers online so they can share job tips, teaching strategies and ideas.

“Our national obsession with test scores”

Tough said the so-called “cognitive hypothesis” has driven thinking over the past two decades about how and why children succeed.

Basically, it boils down to a perception that IQ is the be-all, end-all indicator of who will make it, and who won’t, he said. This is the “narrow band of cognitive skills that get measured on standardized tests.” Tough called this thinking “misguided.”

Tough, also author of the book Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, said this thinking is at the root of “our national obsession with test scores.”

Tough sought out neuroscientists, educators and psychologists to understand what characteristics or indicators could be used to predict a child’s ability to overcome challenges. His “grit” book also brings together research on infant brain chemistry and adult psychology in a new way.

He talked about one character in the book, a pediatrician, who started a clinic for low-income children in San Francisco. Nadine Burke Harris focused her research around the biology of stress. She found that trauma and stress in her young patients’ lives – noise, violence, chaos, instability – were causing health issues and other problems.

”She felt more like a battlefield surgeon than a primary care pediatrician, patching up her patients and sending them back to a war zone,” Tough recounted.

When children are surrounded by this kind of “disadvantage and trauma,” they experience “toxic stress” that “damages the stress response system.”

Parents are “secret weapon” to combat stress

However, Tough said there is a “secret weapon” to combat toxic stress – parents.

Author Paul Tough
Author Paul Tough

He discussed a study involving rats in Montreal that found that stressed-out rats soothed by their mothers with licks fared better than their agitated rat peers that did not get that kind of slobbery support from mom.

Once the baby rats became adults in three months, the licked ones were braver, more curious, healthier and were even better at mazes.

Tough said research confirms that this same kind of coddling and protecting of young children has lifelong benefits. And while he didn’t recommend licking your child, he did say research shows that early childhood and adolescence are two periods in a person’s life when the brain is especially malleable and able to change.

That’s where KIPP Infinity Charter School and Riverdale Country School come in. KIPP is a public charter school in West Harlem. Riverdale Country School is an exclusive private school in the Bronx that costs $40,000 per year.

Yet both school leaders felt something was missing in the education they were providing. Kids aced tests and could get into colleges, but too often when they encountered difficulty, they were ill-equipped to cope.

Students from both schools would “meet with a setback and get totally derailed,” Tough said.

KIPP, private school and a “grit test”

The two school leaders worked with psychologists and came up with list of character strengths that seem to point to future success, including optimism, zest, curiosity, social intelligence, gratitude, self-control and grit.

The kids who make it are “dedicated to a dream or goal, they don’t let anything stand in their way, they don’t get distracted,” Tough said.

They learned that a simple 12-question “grit test” developed at the University of Pennsylvania was remarkably predictive of future success.

So KIPP created a character report card that is an integral part of meetings with students, teachers and parents. Students are evaluated on the seven traits.

“That’s not a conversation that happens very often at our schools,” Tough said. “Normally if that happens, (the student has) just tried to burn the school down.”

Riverdale did not create a report card, fearing well-heeled parents would quickly hire $400 per hour curiosity tutors for their children, Tough said. Still, character education is a fundamental piece of the school’s culture.

The adversity gap – some kids have too much, some not enough

Tough also talked about what he sees as an “adversity gap.”

“There are some kids who simply have too much adversity in their lives, “ he said. “What they need is protection from that adversity.”

Meanwhile, there are plenty of kids in affluent, hard-driving communities who “don’t have enough adversity in their lives.”

Facing adversity gives a child an opportunity to learn how to manage failure. But that isn’t necessarily true for all kids.

“In lots of neighborhoods, we’ve been letting kids fail for far too long, “ he said.

Tough said all is not lost for a child raised in a tough situation considering the research showing that children’s brain chemistry can literally be reshaped.

Tough said he hopes his book inspires hope among teachers and parents that they can reach all students:

“My hope is this will not make you want to give up but make you want to help even more.”

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