Review - Plough through: it's worth it in the end

7th December 2012 at 00:00

There is a general assumption that educational success is determined by intelligence. But what if that were not the case? What if success were actually a measure of one's gritty, single-minded ability to persist against the odds?

It is an intriguing hypothesis. It is unfortunate, therefore, that you need quite so much gritty single-mindedness to plough through How Children Succeed, the book in which US journalist Paul Tough presents this hypothesis.

Tough leaps straight in with the neuroscience. His essential premise is that children who grow up in poverty are neurologically worn down by the continual stress of their own lives.

Because of this, in order to succeed they need to cultivate "character": the ability to bounce back from difficult situations. It is a value-laden term, he acknowledges, and one that incorporates other value-laden terms: conscientiousness, self-control and resilience.

One cannot fault Tough's research. In prose so dense you need a machete to hack through it, he cites academic study after academic study. His exhaustiveness is, frankly, exhausting.

This, for example, is typical: "An older African-American woman named Anita Stewart-Montgomery was there too, an employee of Catholic Charities who regularly visited at-risk parents (usually single mothers) and their children through a programme run by the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a Chicago-based philanthropy."

But, then, like an inner-city pupil made good, How Children Succeed turns itself around. Halfway through, Tough stops trying to demonstrate how much he has read and simply tells a story.

He spends a chapter following Elizabeth Spiegel, a chess teacher at a deprived New York school. Spiegel has taken her school to the top of the tournament tables by forcing pupils to analyse every mistake they make in brutal, unforgiving detail. The result is that they learn and improve.

The children have also begun to apply Spiegel's techniques elsewhere. One pupil seeks her out when he argues with his classmates, hoping that she will analyse his mistakes in life, as on the chessboard. Another harnesses the focused determination he used to improve at chess and applies it to his schoolwork.

And research - cited sparingly here - shows that attributes such as resilience and resourcefulness are better predictors of university success than IQ. Advantaged children tend to mess around during their first year at university. Disadvantaged children can therefore make up any knowledge deficit, as long as they have the determination to work hard and the self-restraint to delay gratification.

Good things, Tough argues, come to those who wait, and work, and keep on going with very little obvious reward. It is a shame that his own book serves as such an effective test of this hypothesis.

How Children Succeed by Paul Tough, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, #163;12.99.

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