In his bestselling How Children Succeed (HMH, 2012), journalist Paul Tough explored how noncognitive skills, such as self-control and curiosity, are connected to achievement, inside and outside school. His current book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why (HMH, 2016), advances the topic as he surveys recent findings in neuroscience and psychology and offers some practical advice, particularly for those who work with children living in poverty. An eye-opening statistic is behind that focus: in 2013, 51 percent of US public school students qualified for a free or subsidized lunch.
While schools have tried teaching character traits through direct instruction, Tough maintains that the most effective teachers don’t talk overtly about grit or perseverance—instead they cultivate success more naturally. He proposes “that the place to begin is not with the child himself. What we need to change first, it seems, is his environment.” And here’s a crucial distinction, when Tough refers to environment, it isn’t necessarily about the physical surroundings children grow up in—it’s also about “the way the adults in their lives interact with them, especially in times of stress.” He reports on a number of promising early childhood programs, such as in-home parent coaching and quality daycare, specifically designed to improve outcomes for kids born into difficult circumstances. But what happens when children without these advantages enter school?
For many, the transition can be difficult, and by the time students who struggle with self-control or academics reach the upper grades, they’ve often been subjected to ineffective disciplinary measures: another unnerving statistic, “In Chicago high schools…27 percent of students who live in the city’s poorest neighborhoods received an out-of-school suspension during the 2013-14 school year, as did 30 percent of students with a reported personal history of abuse or neglect.” These students are less likely to see themselves as academically capable or to develop a vested interest in school, qualities that support scholastic perseverance. Tough surveys a number of programs that incorporate relationship building and inquiry-based instruction and the potential they hold for promoting academic/school success. He concludes that current research calls for significant changes in pedagogy and public policy, and to kick-start the discussion, the content of his book has been made available, free to all, at paultough.com.
In For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too (Beacon Press, 2016), Christopher Emdin speaks to many of the same issues raised by Tough, particularly the importance of a safe, nurturing environment. Emdin, an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and creator of the hip-hop infused Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., makes no bones about the failure of public schools to educate kids of color. Constructing a compelling comparison between the repressive Carlisle Indian Industrial School in the late 1800s and the zero-tolerance policies in place at modern schools, he calls urban youth the neoindigenous and makes clear the damaging consequences of identifying children as “other,” whatever the teacher’s or student’s skin color.
Emdin relates early career missteps as he shares the development of classroom practices which significantly changed his interaction with students, and in return, his effectiveness as a teacher. For example, he suggests inviting small groups of students to discuss how to strengthen the classroom community, and he coaches students to become co-teachers, a sure way to guarantee mastery of the material and a sense of belonging. For the faint of heart, Emdin provides detailed plans for putting these strategies (and several others) into practice.
At the core of Emdin’s “reality pedagogy” is a deep respect for students as individuals and an unencumbered appreciation for the culture of the community in which they live. Make no doubt, his ideas might call for a bit of fearlessness, but, like the best teachers observed by Tough, Emdin meets his students where they are to foster a sense of family, and together they build an academic environment that works for the students, not against them.
This article was featured in our free Curriculum Connections enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you every month.