When I was reading How Children Succeed: Git, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, a family member said she couldn’t imagine how I continue to find these kinds of books interesting. I took this as a fair comment about where my interests lie, and that they may not overlap with too many others. As such, I was a bit ambivalent about whether to include this as a Monday Morning Read or not. However, because there’s a lot of relevant parenting material, beyond the teacher material, I thought it could be of interest to this community.
At its core the book is about the non-cognitive characteristics that help us succeed, what we call personality traits or character. Some examples are: self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self confidence. The hard thing about these traits is that, unlike teaching math or reading, there is not always (often?) a clear path to developing them, even as researchers are learning more and more every day. Here’s the spoiler: non-cognitive traits matter a lot more than cognitive traits (what we generally call IQ) in tracking success in school and life. And while you’ll have to read the book to go through all the research cited, I did add a bunch of what I thought were the most interesting studies below.
It’s worth noting (for those of you who may be like my family member, and adverse to such books) that this book is written by a journalist, and quite a talented one at that. The writing is smooth and engaging, with a keen eye to telling a story rather than simply listing research studies. I should also add that the book was written in 2011 and published in 2012, and while I couldn’t say whether any of the research has been invalidated (and have no reason to think so based on other readings of mine), it is a few years out of date. Still, I found the contents relevant and powerful, if sometimes painful, to reflect on.
I’m going to quote one study here, to give you a sense of things.
The author opens the book with a story about a Nobel Prize winning economist, James Heckman, who was interested in far more than simple economics. After winning the prize, he wanted to learn more about what led to economic inequality in the first place. He discovered some research from the 1960s that opened his eyes in a way he hadn’t expected.
In the 1960s a group of researchers in Ypsilanti, Michigan recruited low income and low IQ parents to sign up their 3 and 4 year olds for the Perry Preschool. Half were in a treatment program, and half a control group. The treatment group did significantly better on cognitive tests for the year or two after the intervention, but then the effect trailed off, and by Grade 3, the differences had disappeared altogether. It turns out, Heckman found, that both groups had been tracked for the 25 years following the study, and there were significant differences in outcomes. Those in the treatment group were more likely to graduate from high school, had higher earnings, were less likely to be arrested, and less likely to have spent time on welfare. Why? When Heckman looked closer at the date, it turned out that the teachers were also asked to track non-cognitive qualities as well, like: levels of curiosity, relationship with classmates, whether they swore or lied, or were late or absent. And the results that were found 25 years later track entirely to the presence of these qualities. While IQ hadn’t made a difference, something about the non-cognitive qualities that had been taught, did.
The rest of the book is about what those qualities are, and how much they make a difference. They matter to educators, of course, but as much to all of us as parents.
Here are some other studies that I found really interesting:
- Angela Duckworth found that, “students’ self-discipline scores from the previous fall were better predictors of their final GPAs than their IQ scores”. (p.61)
- Does motivation impact IQ? One would think it shouldn’t. But that’s not true. Here’s the study: The researchers looked at 79 kids between 5 and 7, all lower middle class and lower class home. They were randomly divided into an experimental and control group. Everyone took an IQ test. Seven weeks later, the experimental group was given on M&M for every right answer. On the second test, the IQ of the M&M group jumped by an average of 12 points – that’s huge! In a similar experiment by different researchers a few years later, after the first IQ test, they divided kids into three groups – high IQ (119), medium (101) and low (79). In the second round kids got an M&M for each right answer. With the medium and high group there was no improvement. But with the low group, their scores rose to an average of 97, which is almost the score of the medium group. So – did they have a low IQ or not? It would seem that motivation, a non-cognitive input, matters quite a lot (p.64-65)
- Standardized testing. The SAT was designed to create a common baseline for students coming from different high schools, each with varying degrees of academic standards. It turns out, however, that they are not a very good predictor of college graduation, Angela Duckworth found. What was? GPA (SAT correlates with IQ). Her conclusion: “whether or not a student is able to graduate from a decent American college doesn’t necessarily have all that much to do with how smart he or she is. It has to do, instead, with that same list of character strengths that produce high GPAs in middle and high school.”… What are they? Bown, Chingos and McPherson: “They reveal qualities of motivation and perseverance – as well as the presence of good study habits and time management skills – that tell us a great deal about the chances that a student will complete a college program.” (p. 152-3)
- From a conversation with Dominic Randolph, who’s the head of the Riverdale Country School (a high end prep school)). He said that his students were “being shortchanged by their families and their school and even their culture by not being given enough genuine opportunities to overcome adversity and thus develop character. ‘The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,’ Randolph told me. ‘And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails at anything.’” (p.177)
Just Because I Liked It:
- I found this article about the Rambam’s approach to the Oral Torah fascinating, both for the way it traces his ideas back to his Andalusian Rabbinic predecessors, as well as how the Rambam contrasts with the approach of Rav Sa’adya Gaon. And I won’t hide that it was also written by one of our parents (and my good friend), Dr. Marc Herman, who was recently appointed as a professor in the York University Jewish Studies Department. So a little bit of pride there as well!
I think Paul Graham is brilliant. You should follow his blog! Here’s one example. This likely doesn’t apply to you, but it’s just so insightful.