Paul Tough’s new book is a lot shorter than the previous two, and if the first chapter is any indication, he seems to have been chastened by some of the stinging criticisms that followed his most recent work. (The book was extremely well-reviewed by the public, but a  few high-profile criticisms, as well as general backlash to the “grit movement,” seem to have taken a bit of the air out of it.)

In the first chapter, he writes:

First, let me acknowledge a technique that journalists who write about social issues, as I do, often employ. We describe a particular intervention–a school or pedagogy or an after-school program or a community organization–and try to use that program, either explicitly or implicitly, as model for others to emulate. Philanthropists and foundations that have as their mission improving the lives of the poor often do something similar: They look for programs that work and try to replicate them, scale them up to reach as broad an audience as possible.

But there are limitations to this kind of journalism … Scaling up doesn’t work as well in social service and education as it does in the tech world. The social-science literature is rife with examples of small, high-quality programs that seem to become much less effective when they expand and replicate.

Tough’s last book was the introduction for many to the “grit movement,” the push to put a certain brand of character education on equal footing with traditional academics. But as with anything silver-bullet-ish in education, there was backlash and pushback, not least because some of the schools who rushed to embrace it aren’t seeing the results.

But Tough has some thoughts about this that he lays out up front:

Because non cognitive qualities like grit, curiosity, self-control, optimism and conscientiousness are often described, with some accuracy, as skills, educators eager to develop these qualities in their students naturally tend to treat them like the skills we already know how to teach: reading, calculating, analyzing, and so on. And as the value of non cognitive skills has become more widely acknowledged, demand has grown for a curriculum or a textbook or a teaching strategy to guide us in helping students develop these skills. If we can all agree on the most effective way to teach the Pythagorean theorem, can’t we also agree on the best way to teach grit?

Well, we certainly don’t all agree on the best way to teach the Pythagorean theorem, but let’s leave that aside for a second …

In practice though, it hasn’t been so simple. Some schools have developed comprehensive approaches to teaching character strengths …

But I noticed a strange paradox: Many of the educators I encountered who seemed best able to engender non cognitive abilities in their students never said a word about those skills in their classroom.

Maybe you can’t teach character the way you teach math. It seems axiomatic that you can’t teach the quadratic equation without actually talking about the quadratic equation, and yet it was clear from my reporting that you could make students more self-controlled without ever talking to them about the virtue of self-control. It was also clear that certain pedagogical techniques that work in history are ineffective when it comes to character strengths. No child ever learned curiosity by filling out curiosity worksheets; hearing lectures on perseverance doesn’t seem to have much impact on the extent to which young people persevere.

What if non cognitive capacities are categorically different than cognitive skills? What if they are primarily the result of training and practice? And what if the process of developing them doesn’t look anything like the process of learning stuff like reading and writing and math?

While I admire Tough’s ability to question and re-examine the implications of his own work, I think he is asking the wrong questions here. Let me explain what I mean.

People like Ross Greene have been arguing for a long time that students’ difficulties in school stem not from a lack of will but from a lack of skill: student behavioral problems that many educators often attribute to a lack of motivation can actually be attributed to a lack of skill in confronting and overcoming challenging situations. Once we identify these triggers (which Greene calls unsolved problems) and the corresponding lagging skills, we can help kids devise solutions and work with them to implement these solutions, resulting in fewer maladaptive behaviors.

So Greene and Tough agree that problems in school stem from deficits in non cognitive skills. But Tough goes to observe schools that are implementing “grit programs,” sees that those “curiosity worksheets” (he mentions this flippantly, but I have no doubt these exist) aren’t working, and concludes that it may be the method of teaching that isn’t working.

But I don’t think it is. I think the reason traditional approaches to teaching cognitive skills don’t work for teaching non cognitive skills is that non cognitive skills are context-dependent. 

Here’s what I mean: Tough’s problem is that he conceives of “self-control” as one skill; but what if “self-control” is actually an umbrella under which we have placed all behaviors that look like self-control? And what if the behaviors that fall under this umbrella don’t actually have much to do with one another?

The situations in which Student A suffers from a lack of self-regulation are completely different from those of Student B and Student C. Student A may struggle with self-regulation while engaged in group work in math class, but be perfectly fine during physical activity in PE. Student B may struggle with persistence on exams but practice piano for hours and hours on end.

A “self-control and persistence” curriculum that fails to acknowledge the different contexts in which students present lagging non cognitive skills would fail for the same reason that an ICT reading lesson that does not take into account how students’ varied disabilities create barriers that are different for each student. In other words, it isn’t differentiated.

Greene’s model is more of a 1:1 coaching model; students only receive “instruction” in non cognitive skills when their behavior demonstrates that they lack a certain skill in a specific area when confronted with a specific situation (or trigger).

For this reason, it’s much more time- and resource-intensive than a full-class “non cognitive curriculum.” But of course, that’s also the reason why it works.

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