Book by: Paul Tough
Review by: Comfort M. Sumida
Career and Academic Advising
University of Hawaii at Hilo

Can a person’s chances of academic and personal success be increased? For years the prominent assumption was that a person’s cognitive skills are the key; kids with higher intelligence become more successful adults. As a result, much of modern education focuses on an early start and exposure with repetition in hopes of raising test scores. This approach works well for mechanical skills, such as reading and arithmetic, and centers on the idea that a person’s I.Q. is a leading factor in his/her chances of success. This idea is what Paul Tough refers to as “The Cognitive Hypothesis”, based on the cognitive skills measured by standard I.Q. tests.

In How Children Succeed, Tough challenged the cognitive hypothesis and further asserted what truly matters in success were a person’s non-cognitive skills: persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence, the collection of which is broadly referred to as character.

He explored recent studies showing character as having a significant positive influence on a student’s probability of success, with greater impact than I.Q. scores. Through interviews with researchers, and their subjects, he found these results hold beyond academic success through other life measures (e.g. employment, income, health, alcohol and drug abuse, illegal activities etc.). Furthermore, character may explain the challenges students face and subsequent failures when transitioning to college, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

The reader is taken through an engaging journey across disciplines. Tough interviewed economists, psychologists, pediatricians, educators, and students. Through these discussions, readers learn about how a body’s physical responses to early stress impact lifetime health and the ability to self-regulate. They gain a better understanding of how this is related to non-cognitive characteristics and may truly put an individual at risk in the classroom and out, and how they are exacerbated by household factors.

More importantly, as readers follow Tough through this journey, they are shown these non-cognitive factors are malleable; they can be developed and cultivated. Simply phrased, a person builds character by facing and overcoming failure. To succeed, individuals learn how to identify and confront the real possibility of failure, and learn to be able to draw from previous experiences to define and implement a plan for success.

For the fortunate, the exposure to failure comes early and is accompanied by an existing secure relationship that helps them manage and learn from the experience. Unfortunately, as Tough pointed out, not many students are this fortunate. Oftentimes, students from low-income households face failure on a regular basis, but without the secure relationships and support necessary to cope and move forward. This is frequently seen and supported in the statistics for at-risk students. However, on the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum are affluent students who increase the numbers of those who struggle. Tough explained these cases as the result of overprotection, not being exposed to failure in the first place.

How Children Succeed is an enlightening and captivating read, recommended for academic advisors. It challenges traditionally held beliefs regarding the development of abilities, revisits preconceptions regarding at-risk students, and introduces ways in which to provide support. Tough’s interviews with students who faced failure gave insight into their world and the relationships and programs that made a true difference. The reader learns about innovative approaches being introduced in schools across the nation, their successes and failures, and in turn, gains a greater understanding of a new approach to help younger generations succeed academically and personally.

How Children Succeed (2012). Book by Paul Tough. Review by Comfort M. Sumida. New York, NY: Mariner. 231 pp., $15.95 (Paperback). ISBN 978-0-544-10440-2 

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