The New Century School believes fervently in instilling core values in children as a key part of their education. Life skills are equally, if not more important, than cognitive skills in developing the whole person. Such skills include self-discipline and self-esteem, among others, which enable us to surmount challenges. “[TNCS students] welcome a challenge, and they do the work that’s required to meet that challenge. They are willing to take risks because they understand that often the most valuable learning comes when you try, fall, get up, and try again,” affirm school founders Roberta Faux and Jennifer Lawner.
Education author and speaker Paul Tough might well approve of this approach. Tough’s second book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, explores the seeming paradox that helping kids learn how to fail can ultimately teach them how to succeed—and not just on standardized tests.
So, as Superstorm Sandy raged outside on the evening of October 29, 2012, an intrepid group braved the elements to gather at the Patterson Park Public Charter School‘s cafeteria on East Baltimore Street to hear Tough speak. Building on accumulating evidence that children exposed to “toxic stress” experience lifelong debilitating emotional and neurologic effects (see Harvard University’s “Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development” for more information), Tough also writes about what happens when stress is a positive influence. He explains that adversity in small doses and the subsequent soothing that comes from nurturing environments is a critical part of development in infancy. A crying baby who is soothed by a caregiver is not only learning an important dynamic but is also establishing appropriate neurochemical pathways. Such seemingly mundane interactions set off a veritable fireworks display of synapsing neurons in the infant brain.
What does this have to do with education? A whole lot. For one thing, that critical infant development period is followed in the schoolage years by a similar development period in which kids begin to exhibit metacognition, or the ability to “think about thinking.” Curiosity, self-reflection, executive function . . . that’s metacognition, and it’s something we’d do well to allow kids plenty of room for. Yet, conventional wisdom has dictated “teaching to the test.” In the United States, school systems can seem set up to basically get kids into college. But what happens after? As Tough reports, educators began noticing that the crops of great test-takers schools had been producing were unequal to so-called “real-world” challenges. Meanwhile, Dr. Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania and her research team discovered that intelligence isn’t all that kids need to make it: They need grit. As she defines it, grit is “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.”
Stated simply, kids that try harder, do better. At TNCS, kids read; write; appreciate literature, art, and music; and speak multiple languages, all in a progressive, Montessori-inspired learning environment. Just as importantly, they learn leadership skills and the ability to think critically because they are free to work at their own pace, which encourages the self-discipline and self-control that will serve them so well throughout their lives. Maximizing children’s natural desire to learn, TNCS teachers guide and coach students through academic and “practical life” tasks they are actively and passionately engaged with, rather than just “filling them with facts.”
Students learn, in other words, just that “stick-to-it-iveness,” that grit, that Tough calls one of the most important noncognitive skills, or “character strengths,” along with curiosity, optimism, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, and self-control. These seven key character strengths have been a part of TNCS’s mission all along. By learning to manage their failures (to “tough it out,” so to speak), TNCS students are, conversely, honing the tools they need for a life fulfilling, meaningful, and happy.
Wondering about your own level of grittiness? Take the Grit Test here!
Read Paul Tough’s in-depth account of character education in the New York Times Magazine here and more on toxic stress in The New Yorker here. Listen to Tough’s Back to School interview with Ira Glass on This American Life here.