education | May 18, 2016

Closing the Education Gap: Paul Tough’s New Atlantic Feature

To education speaker Paul Tough, America's schools are in dire trouble unless our low-income students catch up to their more privileged classmates. Tough’s latest effort, drawing insight from his upcoming book Helping Children Succeed (May 24), is an article for The Atlantic called “How Kids Learn Resilience.” In it, he stresses that a set of noncognitive attributes—resilience, conscientiousness, optimism, self-control, and of course, grit—are primary indicators of the success of low-income children. But how do we teach these skills? Can they even be taught—and should they? Perhaps, Tough suggests, students’ propensity to be optimistic, resilient, or even “gritty” is established long before they set foot in the classroom.

So what forms the bedrock of these noncognitive skills? According to Tough’s research, it’s stress, or, more specifically, a child’s physiological and neurological reaction to it. If children grow up in safe environments, learning to trust adults and be curious about the world, they’ll be calmer, more attentive, and more likely to consider problems and their outcomes at length. But expose children to severe, chronic stress in formative years and they’ll be primed for a fight-or-flight response—complete with elevated blood pressure, increased adrenaline production, and heightened distrust.

But there is hope to counteract these tendencies, Tough says, and intrinsic motivation—finding enjoyment and meaning in one’s everyday activities—may be the key. Building on research from the University of Rochester, Tough proposes that environments that engender feelings of competence, autonomy, and relatedness give low-income students the drive to succeed in academic settings. Already, the wheels are in motion—programs like Turnaround for Children and EL Education are implementing programs that embrace this research.  And although they’re few in number, Tough sees the promise of these frameworks and is hopeful for the future. For Tough’s full article—a fascinating cross-section of American education and its foibles—head over to The Atlantic.

Paul Tough’s three books—Whatever It Takes, How Children Succeed, and his latest, Helping Children Succeed—are reshaping the debate on education in America. To book Paul Tough as your next keynote speaker, or for more education speakers, contact The Lavin Agency speakers bureau.

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