Book Club: Intro and Chapter One in “How Children Succeed”

Welcome to the real-time Parent Book Club chat! To have access to all the comments and replies, please click on the title of this post; the post will go to a new page, and comments will be located at the bottom of the post. To see new comments/replies, just hit your refresh button from time to time. For more discussion, follow me on Twitter here or on Facebook here. Thanks!

Sooooo — how did you like the intro and first chapter to How Children Succeed? Is it what you expected? I had read the original NYT Magazine piece this book was based on, titled “What If The Secret to Success Is Failure?”, so I kind of knew where Tough was headed. He writes early on that we are a culture fully immersed in the “cognitive hypothesis” – or, “the belief, rarely expressed aloud but commonly held nonetheless, that success today depends primarily on cognitive skills – the kind of intelligence that gets measured on IQ tests, including the abilities to recognize letters and words, to calculate, the detect patterns – and that the best way to develop these skills is to practice them as much as possible, beginning as early as possible.” Yet he then unravels the hypothesis, backed up by lots of research that suggests the opposite: it’s character traits like grit, perseverance, persistance, and curiosity that are better predictors of future success.

Why don’t more kids develop these character traits that put them on the road to success? Two large factors are poverty and stress – or, really, how our bodies react to deeply stressful situations, which many kids face every day. Particularly upsetting to me is the research on what early stress and poverty does to a child’s brain – as Bruce McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist at Rockefeller University, tells Tough, “the process of managing stress, which he labeled allostasis, is what creates wear and tear on the body. If the body’s stress-management systems are overworked, they eventually break down under the strain.”

Yet even though research shows that the effects of early stress can last a lifetime, there is also hope. Tough writes in Chapter One: “But there is also some positive news in this research. It turns out that there is a particularly effective antidote to the ill effects of early stress, and it comes not from pharmaceutical companies or early-childhood educators but from parents. Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing relationships with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment.” He reiterates,”The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical.”

The Book Club will re-convene next Monday night, October 2, at 8:30 PM CST, to discuss Chapter Two: How to Build Character, and Chapter Three: How to Think. It’s about 60 pages, and shouldn’t be too tough to tackle in a week. Come back and join us, would love to hear your thoughts!


Tonight’s Talk: A subject that is often left out of conversations about education is the stressful, unstable lives that children live at home. As Finnish Education Minister Pasi Sahlberg recently told American educators, academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority when the Finns were redesigning their world-class education system; equality was. Yet we Americans shy away from talking about equality when it comes to children. Why? Leaving politics at the door, please, why do we so want to not face this reality: that improving the home lives of poor children has been shown to improve their chances for a lifetime of stability and success?

And, what’s more – what can WE do about it? (One of the things I choose to do about it is keep this blog – I feel that informing parents about issues like these is paramount!)  

The “Finnish Miracle” in Education: We Are the 47%

Recently, I found this incredibly thoughtful piece in The Atlantic called “What Americans Keep Ignoring About the Finnish Miracle.” Finland has scored at or near the top on the international-standard PISA test since 2000, with the likes of Shanghai, China, and South Korea. Their Westernness has Americans all-aflutter as to what they’re doing so well that we’re not. We’ve been speculating here and here and here. But the real answers, according to the Finns themselves, may surprise you.

According to the Atlantic piece, Pasi Sahlberg, “director of the Finnish Ministry of Education’s Center for International Mobility and author of the new book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?,” recently came to America to describe Finland’s reform efforts and present success to our education leaders. Sahlberg talked about what we may know by now: teaching is a highly respected career in Finland, and very prestigious (grad students in education get picked from the top 10-13% of applicants; here in the states, the majority of teachers are supplied from the bottom 1/3 of graduates). Finland gives no standardized tests (until you are ready to graduate from high school), or maintains lengthy formal report cards – each teacher designs individual assessments for their class. All of these are well and good, and Americans should take note, but that wasn’t the core of Mr. Sahlberg’s message. As the article’s author, Anu Partanen, put it, “Academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority” to Finland when they reformed their school system; equality was.

There are no private schools in Finland, no magnet schools, no special-entrance lottery charter schools; there are a handful of independent schools, but they receive their money from the government. The first priority of the now-famous “Finnish Miracle” was that all students have the same opportunity to learn in a well-resourced school. They feed them nutritious, free meals at school. Pre-school and college are also free, so parents aren’t stressed out about resume-building to get into a name-brand school that provides a superior opportunity. Parents don’t have to stress because their kids’ school is falling apart, or the teachers don’t care, or the state test is dumbing down their child’s opportunity to learn. Because every kid is offered a superior opportunity to learn. All the schools, regardless of neighborhood, rural/city environment, and income bracket are excellent. This is why they are doing so well.

Critics of the Finnish system say that Finland is very homogenous with little immigration and no language differentiation, making their children easier  to educate. But Finland does have immigration, and, according to the PISA score, even neighborhoods that are highly diverse, with lots of immigrants and income disparities, still do extremely well on the test. Why? Because the schools of immigrant children are just as good, just as well-staffed and cared for, as the schools in homogenous neighborhoods.

Critics have also attacked Finland’s social-democracy model that favors an equality where no one stands out, but everyone does well. (One blog commenter said something to the effect: Who is Finland’s Steve Jobs? Famous musicians? Scientific geniuses? We can’t name one.) Finland’s system couldn’t work here, detractors argue, because America’s obsession with outliers and competition is too precious. Competition is what makes us who we are.

Yet we willfully choose to ignore one important fact about our American need for unrelenting competition: in order for there to be winners, there have to be losers. In order to reform American education, we have to talk about the losers, and we need to put ourselves in their shoes. We already know that many who score at the bottom are poor; we know schools in poor neighborhoods don’t get the same resources as the ones in better neighborhoods. Yet, in American reform efforts, we have made competition for great schools the cornerstone anyway. As Sahlberg puts it, in the States, “parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”

Competition is great for business (the Finns have a capitalism-based business economy, too), but terrible for an education system. When we talk about competition, what we enjoy talking about is the winners. The success stories. But what Americans hate talking about is who loses in the competition. Who doesn’t get into the charter-school lottery. Who doesn’t have the opportunity to move out of the neighborhood. And the numbers show that the kids from these environments are more likely to drop out of high school, not finish college, or, at worst, end up in prison. Is this how we see ourselves?

This is a model we explicitly accept when we accept the school choice, competition and accountability model. (Sahlberg tells a group of Columbia Teachers College students that the word “accountability” doesn’t exist in Finnish: “Accountability is what’s left when you remove responsibility,” he is quoted in the piece.)

What do you make of this? From what I can tell, Finnish education looks a lot like Waldorf education. Children learn to play and get along first and read later, and there is as much thought and focus put into recess, nutritious food, creativity and making learning fun as hard work and doing well. But it’s the distinct lack of competition, and making sure that all children have equal access to resources, according to Minister Sahlberg, that has created its success.

Book Club: Intro To “How Children Succeed”

So glad you joined my real-time book club chat! To have access to all the comments and replies, please click on the title of this post; the post will go to a new page, and comments will be located at the bottom of the post. To see new comments/replies, just hit your refresh button from time to time. For more discussion, follow me on Twitter here or on Facebook here. Thanks!

Welcome to the first meeting of this year’s Parent Book Club! I’m excited to begin discussion on Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed. This book has created quite a media stir, perhaps because of the success of Tough’s last book, Whatever It Takes, or perhaps because people (like me) are connecting with what they understand to be the message: in our ongoing efforts to stuff more information into our children at earlier and earlier ages, the results aren’t exactly what we thought they’d be. Tough indicates that focusing solely on “cognitive skills” like smarts, IQ, grades and test scores does a disservice to kids at all income levels, although for different reasons. We will get into these disservices, and their reasons, and what scientists have discovered we can do about it, as we dive into the book.

If you are new to the book and want to know more about it, I recommend these commentaries about it at the New York Times, NPR, and here’s a book excerpt at Slate if you want to get a taste of what’s in store.

The Book Club will re-convene next Monday night, September 24, at 8:30 PM CST, to discuss the Introduction, Chapter One: How To Fail (And How Not To), and Chapter Two: How To Build Character. It’s about 50 pages, and shouldn’t be too tough to tackle in a week. Come back and join us, would love to hear your thoughts!


Tonight’s Talk: What does the word “grit” mean to you?

Before we even begin reading the book, I thought it might be interesting to ask what associations you make with one of Tough’s favorite words: “grit.”

The night I met my husband, one of the first things we discovered about each other was that we both had serious car accidents while we were in high school. It was hard not to fall into that conversation; as we sat at a small table with a mutual friend, I noticed instantly that two fingers were missing from his left hand. As we talked about car accidents – how I missed half my junior year basically re-learning how to walk; how he endured eleven surgeries to repair and rebuild his damaged hand – it became clear that we both had hardcore survivalist instincts. But, we also had dedicated families and friends who helped us get our lives back together after the accidents. After my husband’s accident, he turned his meandering school life into a successful bid for college and an impressive career in the arts; after mine, I was determined to get my legs back and sing and dance my way to New York City, which I did. We laughed about the connection we made, and how, since our respective accidents, we always seemed to search out others who had been through hard times and persevered through them. That is what “grit” means to me: the power to take the adversities that come your way, and make them a part of who you are, without letting them define you.

What are your experiences with grit? How would you define it? Do you know “grit” when you see it?

Education is for Empowerment

A few months ago, I read an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution by college freshman and passionate education reformer Mpaza Kapembwa, and what he wrote resonated with me so much, I wrote a blog post about it here. In the piece, he called for students to be more involved in their own education, and more responsible for their learning. I contacted him, and we began talking via Skype – conversations about his immigration from Zambia back in 2007, how he and his mother and sister were homeless for a while, and about the scholarships he earned from Coca-Cola, the Bill Gates Foundations, and others. He now attends Williams College, and wants to go into education. One of his high-priority passions is the inequality he saw in his Atlanta high school, with its large poor and immigrant population.

When I asked him to make a video for the What Is Education? Project, he happily said yes and enlisted some of his friends in the Education Department to help him. This video of Mpaza and fellow senior Carrie is over nine minutes, but quite moving (even with a pesky weed eater buzzing in the background!). They both study at Williams, and work in the Experiential Education Project, developing hands-on curriculum for kids. There is a moment about halfway through the video when Carrie speaks about how education is something that cannot be taken away: “In my life, I have experienced many things taken away from me, but no one can take my education away from me; it’s mine,” she says. Mpaza, who immigrated from Zambia, sees education as a key to helping others and making change: “Sometimes, in order to make large-scale change, you have to be part of the 1%.” A very moving and intimate talk from two college students answering – What Is Education For?

Introducing the What Is Education? Project

A couple of weeks ago, I kicked off the school year by asking a question I’ve been thinking a lot about: What is education for? In our quest to make education better and more meaningful for all students, I find myself asking, “why do we do this again? what’s the point?” Formal education takes up a large part of our lives, yet we rarely ask questions about the big picture for education, and whether or not our day-to-day experiences fit inside our ideals. And because the world is changing rapidly, and new kinds of learning will be called upon to catapult us into that exciting but uncertain future, the question What is education for? becomes ever more important as the entire way we educate our children morphs and changes.

What do you think? Can you tell us, in your own words, what education is for? I’d love for you to submit a short video and tell us what you think. I’ll post every single video here, and hopefully we will get a bigger, clearer picture of what education means to all of us.

Looking forward to seeing all the wonderful videos!

Why Play Matters Now

Culture arises in the form of play. –J. Huizinga, historian

It was hot, buggy, and so muggy that my once-cute cotton dress was dripping, but this late-summer evening I still went outside and played a sweaty and disorganized game of baseball with my kids. Play, and especially outdoor play, is a necessity for our family – with three highly energetic boys, lots of activity is the only way to calm them down by bedtime (and the only way to keep our furniture somewhat intact).

Science has been telling us for some time that calming hyper boys is not nearly the only reason to play. Play is fun and reduces stress; play helps children perform and behave better. Play helps children learn to solve problems. Studies have linked creativity and imagination to play, and physically active play provides benefits for body and mind.

Many of our schools are late to the playdate, however: an informal parent survey I conducted earlier this summer told me that many elementary kids around the country, both urban and suburban, get no more than 15-20 minutes of recess per day, weather permitting. When my children were in a low-play environment (they were in the 15-20 minute recess category), my oldest son especially would arrive home from school simultaneously tense and worn-out. Because his lunch period was linked to recess, he rarely ate his home-packed lunch – it took too long. My son reported to me the sorry state of the children who were last in line to receive the school lunch: by the time they got their food, they didn’t have time to both eat and have recess. He told me about one first-grader who seemed torn between eating his lunch and playing outside; always the last in line, as soon as he picked up his tray of school lunch food, he’d round the corner to the cafeteria, stuff a few bites in his mouth, then dump his lunch in the trash can and run outside.

While I understand (and have experienced) the crowded school situations that cause this kind of behavior (and I know that underfunded, short-staffed schools often shorten recess because there aren’t enough teachers to watch all the children), I still have to wonder whether replacing play with the push for more classroom time is the way to go – would more play time during the school day make our kids smarter, better behaved, and healthier? And what about happier, less stressed, better able to cope? Is our attitude toward free play really a reality check for our culture at large?

Learning environments like Waldorf education put a premium on play: my kindergarten aged-son’s 4-hour program provides an hour of unorganized outdoor play no matter the weather; my fourth grader gets two thirty-five minute recesses, one that’s usually an organized game like kick-ball or capture the flag. Since they have switched to a play-priority school, their attitudes toward school, obviously, have changed. There is no more after-school hyperactivity/exhaustion, and no fights to get them there in the morning, either. In addition, the amount of time they get to play every day makes them feel as if they belong, as if school is a place for them – a place where they get to do something they like to do. My sons come out of school relaxed, covered in dirt, smiles on their faces. During their day, they have worked and they have played. They appear satisfied, content, ready for what the afternoon holds.

I’m hoping for less humidity, but I know that, no matter what the weather holds for me, tomorrow evening I will be outside, playing with my sweaty sons. For their hearts, their minds, their bodies, and their happiness – for now, play is the thing.