Book By: Paul Tough
Review By: Sarah Howard
Academic Advising
The Ohio State University at Newark

Nearly every advisor can recount their interaction with a student who, on paper, looked as though he/she ought to be succeeding in college, but whose academic record reflected otherwise.  The typical success indicators (high school GPA, ACT/ SAT scores, class rank) would lead one to believe that student has what it takes to be successful, but something is missing.  In How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, author Paul Tough provides a thorough examination of the psychological and neurological research about that missing component.  Through this book, he sets out to explore the questions: “Which skills and traits lead to success?  How do they develop in childhood?  And what kind of interventions might help children do better?” (p. xvii).

The author seamlessly weaves intricate case studies with complex research findings, creating a readable foray into the importance of non-cognitive skills, or personality traits, on student success.  The five chapters are dense with information that makes the reader reflect on his/her own experiences and personality traits.  While primarily situated within K-12 education examples, Tough’s analysis of the importance of character traits translates well to post-secondary education. 

In this book, the author researched schools dense with high levels of poverty and at-risk youth, students who may be unlikely to graduate from high school, let alone attend college.  Highlighting programs such as the Youth Advocate Program (YAP) in Chicago, Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) in South Bronx, and chess program at Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn, Paul Tough provides specific examples of how students can be taught non-cognitive skills to help them rise above their at-risk status and pursue higher education.

Some of the non-cognitive skills discussed in the book include: “grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity” (p. 76).  As we consider our work as advisors, we should think about ways in which we can encourage these same skills through our advising interactions. For instance, when a student fails a class, instead of encouraging the student to consider what went wrong, focus instead on what the student did well (optimism) or what was learned from that experience (curiosity). The chess program at IS 318 example in chapter three gives a slightly different spin to developing non-cognitive skills. Chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel really focuses on “the mistakes you made – or the mistakes you keep making – and you try to get to the bottom of why you made them … have [students] take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them without obsessing over them or beating themselves up for them” (p.115). This examination process could easily be applied to an advising setting to help students, especially those on probation, learn more about themselves, but to also push forward beyond their initial academic difficulty.

This book leaves aside most discussion about intelligence as a source of student success, and instead turns the focus to other personality traits which, in the right curriculum, can be taught.  As our nation shifts into a K-12 pattern of standardized assessments, one must wonder where in the curriculum is the place to insert standard education about perseverance, character, and grit.  We need to “sort of make it okay for there to be challenge, because that’s where learning happens” (Tough, p. 84). And advisors need to become more comfortable helping students examine the learning that happens through both successes and failures, regardless of academic record.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. (2013). Book by Paul Tough. Review by Sarah Howard. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 256 pp. $15.95 (paperback). ISBN # 978-0-544-10440-2.

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