Teachbad on Paul Tough’s “How Children Succeed”

A review by Mr. Teachbad

I remember one time at a faculty meeting. It was early in my teaching career, in my first year as a high school teacher. I don’t remember what the meeting was about…kids or learning or something. But I do remember the stares and uncomfortable silence in the cafeteria after I made this comment in reference to my students:

I just…I just wish they would do something. All I want is for them to try. Give me something. Give me some kind of effort…anything…and I’ll do my best to work with it. If they do some work, I can help them. But I can’t do much if they don’t do much.

Following the uncomfortable silence, there may have been some discussion of my comment, but I honestly don’t remember. If there was any discussion, it didn’t make an impression. Possibly the following suggestions were made (say them with me): You need to have student buy-in. You need to make lessons relevant to their lives. Make sure you have an engaging warm-up. Use a data tracker to track data.

In his recent book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough says (I’m paraphrasing) that those suggestions are all bullshit. Even if those are good ideas, they aren’t going to fix your problem.

A warm-up that is relevant to students’ lives and flows seamlessly into a perfectly differentiated lesson of direct instruction, guided practice, independent work, formative assessments and a choice of opportunities for home practice will not change many kids from the type that don’t work in school to the type that do. This is an unmistakable subtext of the book, unspoken and perhaps unintentional.

The subtitle of the book, Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, sounds as if it might have been written by William Bennett or Robert Bork. Or in 1952. But even for a modern day lefty like me, the book seems to have eerily powerful and curiously old-fashioned explanatory powers.

I always felt that most of my students were soft and weak; sometimes shockingly so. They generally either didn’t try at all or didn’t try very hard and gave up easily. Many regularly practiced bizarre and destructive behaviors. I knew they weren’t stupid, but why would they do that? That’s a recipe for failure in any endeavor on any planet. Why would you be the kind of person who makes decisions like these? How Children Succeed is a synthesis of biochemical brain research explaining why some people are like this and others are not.

It all starts with stress.

When we are stressed, our brains are engineered to jump start a specific chemical response, allowing our bodies to respond. Gotta run away from a lion. The guy from the cave around the corner is trying to steal the sticks I just spent all morning sharpening. Normally situations like these resolve fairly quickly and chemical levels in the brain return to normal (or you’ve been eaten by a lion or killed with your own sharp sticks). There are two curious characteristics of this stimulus-response system.

First, the chemical response is the same whether you are being chased by a lion, if you are nervous before giving a speech or if you are scared because your uncle is drunk again. It doesn’t matter what it is that stresses you out; your brain does the same thing. Chemically speaking. The second thing to remember is that this system gets messed up with overuse and that the long-term development of the system in children depends in large part on the frequency and intensity of stress events and the nature of caregiver response.

A growing body of research in brain chemistry, physiology and psychology suggests that certain behaviors by parents and caregivers toward infants and young children positively impact the development of this stimulus-response system in the brain. Parent behaviors can help young brains to come down quickly and smoothly from a chemical stress buzz and steer the long-term development of the system. “The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical.”p28

The book is rich with accessible discussion of scientific research for non-scientists. Two of the most important are these.

Rat Mamma

A flood of stress hormones and anxiety wash through baby rats when lab researchers pick them up to examine and weigh them. When the baby rats are put back in the cage, some mamma rats (dams) go over to their babies and lick them. Researchers at McGill University were surprised to discover that licking from the mother helped counteract the hormone and stress response in the babies.

In the absence of any external stressor, researchers also observed that some dams licked and groomed their pups more than others. They labeled the two groups high-LG (high levels of licking and grooming) and low-LG (low levels of licking and grooming).

Separated from their mothers at 22 days, the rats were then tested at maturity, 100 days. The rats who were groomed more as babies, high-LG, were more likely to independently explore a new cage or eat in an unfamiliar environment. “They were better at mazes. They were more social. They were more curious. They were less aggressive. They had more self-control. They were healthier. They lived longer….When [they] examined the brains of the adult rats, they found significant differences in the stress response systems of the high-LG and low-LG rats, including big variations in the size and shape and complexity of the parts of the brain that regulated stress.” (p.30) And it turned out not to matter if it was the birth mother or another rearing rat. The behavior of the licking and grooming is what mattered.

Furthermore, stay with me, the team was able to observe that licking and grooming ignited the parts of the pup’s genome that “controlled the way the rat’s hippocampus would process stress hormones in adulthood.” In other words, this is about DNA expression being influenced after birth. That’s big.

Human Mamma

Researchers at Cornell and NYU have found something similar in humans.

If you are a poor kid, you come up to bat with two strikes against you. Being poor is stressful. Compared to a middle-class kid or a rich kid, you’re in deep relative probability trouble. You’re more likely to be hungry or sick. You are more likely to be around real-live violence and live in a small, noisy apartment. You are more likely to be sexually abused, live with an addict or have a family member in prison. That’s strike one. Strike two is that you’re probably only going to have one parent, and she probably won’t be very good at it.

The Cornell and NYU research has shown, predictably, that middle-school kids who live in more stressful environments have a higher allostatic-load; if a child lives with higher levels of noise, chaos and conflict he will have higher blood pressure and more stress hormones in his urine. But this effect is wiped out by having a mother who is attentive. “A child who is physically abused is going to fare far worse, we assume, than a child who is simply ignored or discouraged. And the child of a supermom who gets lots of extra tutoring and one-on-one support is going to do way better than an average well-loved child. But what Blair’s and Evans’s research suggests is that regular good parenting – being helpful and attentive during a game of Jenga – can make a profound difference for a child’s future prospects.” P33

Incidentally, God came out with a similar statement earlier this week.

Ok. Chew on that for a while. I’ll be back next time with what Tough’s book says about the implications of this work for education and teaching.

Mr. Teachbad

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