Turning the conventional wisdom about child development on its head, New York Times Magazine editor Tough (Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, 2008) argues that non-cognitive skills (persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence) are the most critical to success in school and life.
Building on reporting for his magazine, the author interviewed economists, psychologists and neuroscientists, examined their recent research, and talked to students, teachers and principals to produce this fascinating overview of a new approach with “the potential to change how we raise our children, how we run our schools, and how we construct our social safety net.” At a time when policymakers favor the belief that disadvantaged kids have insufficient cognitive training, Tough finds that a new generation of researchers are questioning the cognitive hypothesis. Foremost among them is Nobel laureate and University of Chicago economist James Heckman, who since 2008 has been convening economists and psychologists to discuss significant questions: Which skills and traits lead to success? How do they develop in childhood? What interventions might help children do better? Tough summarizes key research, such as the Adverse Childhood Experience Study, a project of the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, which revealed a stunning correlation between traumatic childhood events and negative adult outcomes. Others have shown that the effects of childhood stress can be buffered by close, nurturing relationships. Assessing such evidence, Heckman says policymakers intent on closing the achievement gap between affluent and poor children must go beyond classroom interventions and supplement the parenting resources of disadvantaged Americans. Families, he says, “are the main drivers of children’s success in school.” Heckman’s thinking informs the book, which includes many examples of failing disadvantaged students who turned things around by acquiring character skills that substituted for the social safety net enjoyed by affluent students.
Well-written and bursting with ideas, this will be essential reading for anyone who cares about childhood in America.