how children succeed

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, Book Review

How Children Succeed
By: Paul Tough
Published by: Mariner Books, 2013

How Children Succeed introduces us to a new generation of researchers and educators who, for the first time, are using the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of character.

How Children Succeed immediately appealed to me when I read the question posed on the back cover – why do some children succeed while others fail? It is a loaded question that surely has plagued countless educators, and I can attest to spending many sleepless nights pondering this very thought. Tough interviews educators, researchers, and psychologists as he searches for insight to answer this question, and what he finds is a powerful argument for the power of character in predicting a wide range of successful outcomes in students.

Throughout his book, Tough frequently references two schools as he discusses the effects of a character-building approach to education on two markedly different student bodies. The first school is KIPP Academy Middle School, located in the South Bronx and comprised almost exclusively of students from low-income families. The other is Riverdale Country School, situated in one of the most affluent suburban communities of New York City with a history steeped in tradition and status. The headmasters of KIPP and Riverdale embarked on a journey together, sharing ideas, information, successes and failures as they tested new teaching methods within their respective schools. What they concluded is that many elements of the traditional education system in the United States, such as a focus on test scores, “(are) missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human, (and that) the most critical missing piece is character” (56).

Ultimately, Tough compiles a list of character traits that many experts agree can play a major role in predicting student success, such as grit, curiosity, optimism, self control, motivation, and discipline. He also draws from research and case studies to suggest how some of these character traits may be more accurate in predicting success than traditional methods like IQ tests. Many of the educators featured in Tough’s book discuss the various methods that can be used to help develop these traits in students; they paint the character education model in a way where ability is not necessarily fixed at birth, but instead can be shaped through the support of dedicated teachers and parents. Tough, along with these experts, is also careful to stress that this is not necessarily an easy task.

The case studies, research and conclusions that Tough presents throughout his book urge readers to take a critical look at the current educational model, and offer some tremendous implications for people who work with children. How Children Succeed encourages educators to consider how they can help develop skills within their students that will enable them to get back up when they fall down, learn and grow from failure, ask tough questions, collaborate with peers, draw strength from internal motivation, and not sweat the small stuff – skills that may have more of a positive impact on their lives and overall success than we previously realized.