By Paul Tough

Because noncognitive 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 quite naturally tend to treat them like the skills that we already know how to teach: reading, calculating, analyzing, and so on. And as the value of noncognitive 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? In practice, though, it hasn’t been so simple. Some schools have developed comprehensive approaches to teaching character strengths, and in classrooms across the country, teachers are talking to their students more than ever about qualities like grit and perseverance. But in my reporting for How Children Succeed, I noticed a strange paradox: Many of the educators I encountered who seemed best able to engender noncognitive abilities in their students never said a word about these skills in the classroom.

Take Elizabeth Spiegel, the chess instructor I profiled at length in How Children Succeed. She teaches chess at Intermediate School 318, a traditional, non-magnet public school in Brooklyn that enrolls mostly low-income students of color. As I described in the book, she turned the I.S. 318 chess team into a competitive powerhouse, one that regularly beats better-funded private school teams and wins national championships. It was clear to me, watching her work, that she was teaching her students something more than chess knowledge; she was also conveying to them a sense of belonging and self-confidence and purpose. And among the skills her students were mastering were many that looked exactly like what other educators called character: the students persisted at difficult tasks, overcoming great obstacles; they handled frustration and loss and failure with aplomb and resilience; they devoted themselves to long-term goals that often seemed impossibly distant.

And yet, in all the time I spent watching her teach, I never once heard Elizabeth Spiegel use words like grit or character or self-control. She talked to her students only about chess. She didn’t even really give them pep talks or motivational speeches. Instead, her main pedagogical technique was to intensely analyze their games with them, talking frankly and in detail about the mistakes they had made, helping them see what they could have done differently. Something in her careful and close attention to her students’ work changed not only their chess ability but also their approach to life.

Or take Lanita Reed. She was one of the best teachers of character I met — yet not only did she not talk much about character, she wasn’t even a teacher. She was a hairdresser who owned her own salon, called Gifted Hanz, on the South Side of Chicago, and she worked part-time as a mentor for a group called Youth Advocate Programs, which had been hired by the Chicago schools department to provide intensive mentoring services to students who had been identified as being most at risk of committing or being a victim of gun violence. When I met Reed, she was working with a 17-year-old girl named Keitha Jones, whose childhood had been extremely difficult and painful and who expressed her frustration and anger by starting a fistfight, nearly every morning, with the first student at her high school who looked at her the wrong way.

Over the course of several months, Reed spent hours talking with Keitha — at her salon, at fast-food restaurants, at bowling alleys — listening to her troubles and giving her big-sisterly advice. Reed was a fantastic mentor, empathetic and kind but no softy. While she bonded and sympathized with Keitha over the ways Keitha had been mistreated, she also made sure Keitha understood that transforming her life was going to take a lot of hard work. With Reed’s support, Keitha changed in exactly the way character-focused educators would hope: She became more persistent, more resilient, more optimistic, more self-controlled, more willing to forgo short-term gratification for a chance at long-term happiness. And it happened without any explicit talk about noncognitive skills or character strengths.

Author Paul Tough
Author Paul Tough (Paul Terefenko/The Lavin Agency)

Though I observed this phenomenon during my reporting, it was only later, after the book was published, that I began to ask whether the teaching paradigm might be the wrong one to use when it comes to helping young people develop noncognitive strengths. 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 well in math or 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.

This dawning understanding led me to some new questions: What if noncognitive capacities are categorically different than cognitive skills? What if they are not primarily the result of training and practice? And what if the process of developing them doesn’t actually look anything like the process of learning stuff like reading and writing and math?

How Children Succeed: What Works and WhyRather than consider noncognitive capacities as skills to be taught, I came to conclude, it’s more accurate and useful to look at them as products of a child’s environment. There is certainly strong evidence that this is true in early childhood; we have in recent years learned a great deal about the effects that adverse environments have on children’s early development. And there is growing evidence that even in middle and high school, children’s noncognitive capacities are primarily a reflection of the environments in which they are embedded, including, centrally, their school environment.

This is big news for those of us who are trying to figure out how to help kids develop these abilities — and, more broadly, it’s important news for those of us seeking to shrink class-based achievement gaps and provide broader avenues of opportunity for children growing up in adversity. If we want to improve a child’s grit or resilience or self-control, it turns out that the place to begin is not with the child himself. What we need to change first, it seems, is his environment.

Excerpted from the book “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why” by Paul Tough. He is also the author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” and “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.”

Why Character Can’t Be Taught Like The Pythagorean Theorem 9 June,2016MindShift
  • Ann Marie Luce

    I think it is about creating expectations and conditions in school that support grit, perseverance etc. There needs to be commitment and consistency by the adults in the building so that students are constantly having these conditions and expectations reinforced. It is about creating a community that says…..this is what we do here at XYZ. We believe all of our students can do it and if they struggle we will put in place the necessary supports to assist along the way!

    • kacruz

      Yes, I agree. See Sanjiv Bhamre’s comment above. “… this is fully aligned with what I see in Montessori environment …” Expectations are clear and consistent, support for meeting expectations is present, and children are held accountable in a positive (but firm) environment.

  • Yes, this is fully aligned with what I see in Montessori environment. Montessori environment enables the child to develop the character traits, the non-cognitive skills. For instance, there is just one ‘material set’ in the Montessori. If it is taken by a child, another child has to wait. Initially, the child does not have the patience to wait. Nor the focus to remember that he must wait. But, after some time, he learns both. In Montessori, there are many such ‘enablers’ that promote the development of these character traits. Even the most difficult trait, like Grit, is promoted by the ‘confluence of enablers’.

  • Ron

    It’s called “enculturation,” I’ve been writing about it for 20 years Paul. See Intellectual Character and Creating Cultures of Thinking.

    • GISChallenger

      Sounds similar to Super-Leadership.

  • Andrew

    I’m in full support of schools being places to foster and encourage these character skills, but expecting them to be taught to students through academic means while excusing the central role the student’s larger community plays is stupid naïve. That it is a surprising epiphany these skills aren’t best taught and tested for in the same way other cognitive skills is problematic in itself. It suggests that we’re still expecting an academic setting to be the place where all society’s problems are resolved, absolving the rest of the world from taking responsibility for children and adolescents while at the same time blaming teachers when students fall short of what the rest of the world expects of them.

    • GISChallenger

      True…. I think the answers are right in front of us. We as the chaperons of this society keep trying to intervene. Determining the best steps for how a child should think, act, do and proceed. As if a child needs a mediator between thought and thought. such a situation robs a child of their very own authenticity thus curiosity. A child, just like adults.. need to be able to openly think within, format a structured plan… simple as it may be…. and follow through. We as a society can only teach what we know and so the question remains how many ideas have you had only to find them fall to the way side because someone said you couldn’t or there was a detour and not enough time to determine the way around? We think multi-tasking is the answer. It’s not. We think the acceptance of an idea will suggest we are worthy. Wrong! The list goes on.

  • Todd Kominiak

    As we enter this era where we’ll be emphasizing these new skills, we have to find new ways to teach them. A good place to start is by engaging communities and seeing how teachers, students, parents, and other community members think is the best way to reach students.

    • GISChallenger

      You reach a student by allowing them to lead

  • Elizabeth E

    So true, though I’d take it beyond the conclusion that it’s the school’s “environment” that buoys a student’s non-cognitive skills. Rather, as you illustrated with the chess teacher, it’s the trusting student-teacher bond and quality of that relationship that encourages students to take risks, be curious and persevere. Thanks you for the thoughtful piece!

  • Candice Cummins

    I enjoyed your book Paul and it, like this article, certainly helped me to identify and give language to the approach I had been honing in my classes at The Wishcraft Workshop and as a parent (of now teens). On-site we don’t use the SEL labels but you can be certain an awareness of which (the many) may be at play during any lesson or, more importantly, discussion with a student. The more I became aware of it the more inspired I became to make these kinds of moments available to communities everywhere and started The Yellow Canoe– a digital subscription that blends art with SEL and organic connections to core subjects, and inspires youth activism. I’m excited to see the conversation continue to evolve as we all practice, review, repeat.

  • GISChallenger

    You had everything right until you said we need to change the environment of that child. Really? Now, let me ask what good is that going to do once that child matures and faces adversity?

  • Hillary Clintub

    Character, like culture, is instilled, not taught.

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  • Larryalobo

    Its a difference of how to do vs how to be. You can teach and learn habits and even preach attitudes but until a person internalizes a mindset or set of attitudes, they are actions and motions not backed up by beliefs. In the movie, The Emperor’s club, the main character, a teacher, tries to instill character building lessons and observations as he teaches about world leaders and culture (humanities). It takes with some students but not with certain others who he hoped would change their hearts. Even though schools have kids for hours in a day, not all teachers feel or think the same way about what is involved in a good character, not all kids get the same support at home or after school. The example of the chess coach (and other coaches in sports or mentors) shows if you work intensely and focused with people long enough it can be effective but it still depends on the person (sports athletes do get into trouble). Even kids who grow up in what can be called good homes don’t always live as they have been taught or lived for years and some who did not grow up well are able to change their lives later on. You need a foundation or need to be ready to believe, practice and accept what is being taught or lived.

  • Albert

    That’s why I feel it is imperative that schools offer extracurricular activities (sports, music, arts, clubs, etc.) to help foster these non-cognitive skills and place the best people to in position to do so. This should compliment what students learn in the classroom.

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