[Interview] New insight into how children succeed

Posted on : 2013-12-25 11:08 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Book by American author set to make waves in Korea’s notoriously strict education culture

By Yang Seon-ah, staff reporter

Paul Tough, 46, has continuously emphasized that the key in helping children find success in their lives is neither their academic results nor their parents’ wealth, but the strength of their own characteristics. The former editor for the New York Times Magazine claimed he could well come to such conclusion after tracking back history of the children for long period of time and putting together the trend of those children.

Mr. Tough published his book, “How Children Succeed”, based on his decade-long investigation of education, antipoverty measures, and nursing. The book was recently released in South Korea and is expected to have significant implications over the current reality of education in Korea, which merely focuses on academic achievement and learning exercises, while neglecting building an upright character and personality. The following is an email interview that took place between Tough and a Hankyoreh reporter.

Hankyoreh: I was a bit surprised to learn that even in America many parents are preoccupied with their children learning alphabets and numbers from the age of two and depend on early education and cognitive skills. In this respect Korea is not much different, which causes many experts to be concerned about excessive emphasis on early education and cognitive learning. Do you see sufficient initiatives to educate young children in alternative ways in your country, or do you think the above-mentioned trend is still strong and prevailing among American parents? I also wonder whether you can cite any negative outcomes of such traditional views on early education and cognitive hypothesis.

Paul: I think many American parents are still obsessed with their children’s early reading and math skills. And federal education policy over the last 12 years has put enormous emphasis on standardized tests and the cognitive skills they measure. But there is a significant backlash against that trend, and many parents and educators in the United States are now looking for alternatives to the prevailing rigid focus on cognitive skill. Certainly there are schools here that offer a more balanced approach - the problem is, they are more likely to be private schools, and so they generally aren’t accessible to low- and medium-income families.

I think there’s a growing body of evidence that an unbalanced focus in the early years on cognitive skills, to the exclusion of character strengths like perseverance, optimism, and self-control, can create anxiety and stress in children and lead them to be less curious and less enthusiastic about learning.

Hani: What made you raise questions on the much-favored cognitive hypothesis, and become interested in researching the importance of non-cognitive skills and character strengths? You seem to have been influenced by James Heckman and to have felt strongly for young people like Kewauna Lerma. I understand that you have explored this particular theme for over a decade, meeting experts in neuro-science, labor economics, and pediatrics, and delving into education reform initiatives such as Ferry Kindergarten Project and ACE Tech Study. What motivated you to spend so much time and effort into this subject? Do you happen to have any childhood trauma, which you overcame through your own character strengths?

Paul: No, I didn’t experience any significant childhood trauma myself. I grew up in a middle-class family in Toronto, Canada, and both my parents were educators.

I have been writing about education for a decade, but I’ve only been writing about the importance of non-cognitive skills and character strengths for the last few years. When I wrote my first book, “Whatever It Takes,” I wasn’t aware of much of the work of James Heckman or the neuroscientists I wrote about in “How Children Succeed.” And so in that book, I took a fairly narrow view of educational success. But after “Whatever It Takes” was published, I began to encounter more and more evidence that called into question the education system‘s obsessive focus on test scores and cognitive skill. And I found a growing number of educators who were coming up with innovative ways to analyze, measure, and develop these non-cognitive skills.

That felt like an interesting and important story to me as a journalist, and so I decided to write “How Children Succeed” as a way to gather together this new evidence and explain these new experimental methods of education.

Hani: Koreans like to say, by way of despair and abandonment, “Never a case of a black hen laying white eggs any more.” I suppose the entire society needs to care about such frustration. I find it interesting how many educators in America work together to develop various character education programs (like KIPP’s) and seek support from businesses and government. Do you see such character development programs expand substantially across the country? Are they included in the standard curriculum often enough? Do you think enough number of American teachers feel genuinely interested in the students’ character strengths?

Paul: I think many - if not most - American teachers sense intuitively that character strengths are critically important to their students’ success. The problem, for many teachers, is that they are working in an education system where all of the incentives are designed to increase teachers‘ focus on cognitive skills and test scores.

But despite that obstacle, I do think that there’s a growing interest among educators in the United States to expand and redefine character education, and there are a lot of interesting experiments popping up around the country. To me, these are encouraging developments.

Hani: We in Korea also deem character education essential, but it doesn’t seem to be handled as such in the fields of child education - at homes and kindergartens and schools. From a wide array of researches presented in your book, we can reasonably conclude that character strengths are in fact critical in the success of our children. What then can we do to help children to develop such characters? Any word of advice for Korea, where we have yet to start absorbing such programs and training teachers within the existing system? What could be preconditions for having them introduced in our establishment?

Paul: I think the main precondition for helping children develop the character strengths I write about - non-cognitive qualities like grit, self-control, curiosity, and optimism - is simply to believe that these qualities are, in fact, skills that can be learned. Many of us, instead, believe that they are innate personality traits that never really change. But the research suggests that, in fact, these qualities are skills that are very much influenced by the environment in which children grow up. And what’s more, they are skills that children can develop and practice and improve.

Understanding that research is, I believe, the first step toward changing the system. So my hope is that as Korean educators become more familiar with this research, they will begin to focus more on character strengths in the classroom.

Hani: What I find most interesting is the argument that characters are malleable and thus can be learned. Are there any opposing opinions? Perhaps some people might argue that characters are not malleable and that a more fundamental solution might be trying to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots. And wouldn’t there be a lot of children who even with ample character strengths eventually fail to succeed? Criteria for assessing student achievement, for example, can be favorable to the kids from rich family, or tuition fees may be just too high for poor students, which are not surmounted by character strengths. Improvement in the social system itself appears as necessary as character education. What are your opinions on this issue?

Paul: I agree, focusing on character strengths is not enough. If we want to improve outcomes for children who grow up in disadvantage, we need to make some fundamental changes in the social safety net for children and families with the greatest needs.

But at the same time, when educators or parents are faced with any one individual child who is growing up in disadvantage, it’s important for them to recognize that that child can succeed despite the disadvantages of their environment. And that one of the most effective ways for us to help them do so is to help them develop the kind of character strengths that I write about in “How Children Succeed.”

Hani: “How Children Succeed” went on to become a bestseller in America last year. I wonder whether there have been real, meaningful changes in American education (and society) since its publication. How did average American readers respond to the book? What would you like to do to help poor children lead a successful life?

Paul: The response to “How Children Succeed” in the United States has certainly been gratifying. I’ve heard from many readers who felt that the book helped them better understand themselves and their children. And many teachers told me that the book gave them a new perspective on their students and their students’ needs.

I’m not aware of any major policy changes that “How Children Succeed” has helped to bring about - though there certainly has been interest in the book on the part of educational administrators and officials, from local principals to the U.S. Secretary of Education. I think the most meaningful changes the book has produced are on the grass-roots level, in conversations around the dining-room table or in the teachers’ lounge.

My hope is that those conversations are creating the climate for us to rethink the way we educate our children, and to remake the current ineffective system of social support for low-income children.


Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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