How Adults Succeed – Thoughts on How Paul Tough’s New Book Applies to Adult High School

“How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough sounds like a strange title for an adult educator to be reading. The book is about how Education has long overlooked character development in favour of academic achievement and how that may be a disservice to students and society in general. It’s true that the focus is on children and teens but there are some lessons for an adult high school teacher as well.  First off, many of my students are not far out of high school age. Most are somewhere in their twenties so aspects of the book still apply. More importantly the main thesis that “character matters” remains true at any age. Developing character strengths like persistence, reliability and self-control I believe are truly teachable, for most people, if you place a premium on them the way places like KIPP schools featured in the book do.

One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is from the opening chapter. Tough lays out the connection between early childhood trauma, allostatic load (how our bodies respond to repeated stress) and learning. While I was reading this chapter I couldn’t help but think of the many stories my students have told me over the years about their childhoods and their lives. Violence and death permeate. It is a very different world from mine. The constant stress of daily life since they were young can only have a detrimental impact on how they learn.

“Stress physiologists have found a biological explanation for [problems in school]. The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive” pg. 17

The prefrontal cortex is the seat of executive functions in the brain. These functions process and manage new information, impulse control and working memory (how we sort and retain new information). All obviously related to learning and scholastic achievement. I see problems with working memory on a daily basis. For example, a big academic skill I want students to work on is putting things into their own words. Some students can’t keep the information from a short paragraph they just read in their heads while also trying to rewrite it on paper. This makes synthesis that much harder.

The good news is, according to Tough, the prefrontal cortex is one part of the brain that retains its plasticity into early adulthood (pg. 21, 48). My next steps are to find out what I can do as a teacher to mold the prefrontal cortex in such a way that mediates the damage done by the heavy allostatic load many have been burdened with. There is a lot of neuroscience underpinning this and best practices that I will need to explore.

The other big lesson from the book for me is the clear value non-cognitive skills have for success in life. “Character building” is such a loaded term. Just using here I feel paternalistic. The examples the book use from KIPP Schools and Riverdale Country School in NYC make explicit that it is not moralistic character, subject to one’s own beliefs about what’s right and what’s wrong, that we should be interested in. But rather the kinds of skills and attitudes your grandfather was referring to when he said, “It builds character”. It’s the kind of character developed through hard work, perseverance and the buzz word of the book, grit.

“The value of these [non-cognitive skills] did not come from their relationship to any system of ethics but from their practical benefit – what you could actually gain by possessing and expressing them.” Pg. 59

That is the heart of the argument for developing non-cognitive skills in school. It’s their practical benefit. I want my students to gain more than just the learning outcomes as prescribed by the curriculum. I want Adult High School to develop all the skills actually needed to be successful (both financially and generally), not just the academic ones. We tend to think that adult high school is only about picking up missed credits, like that English or Math course someone didn’t finish has been the big problem for them and society all along. To this end I make attendance (i.e. reliability) a prerogative. I make taking pride in your work a priority. I value self-reliance and perseverance. It is difficult to just hand in the work for credit in my classes (so much as our “individual system of instruction” education model allows for) because I don’t care about that one learning outcome as much as I care about the long game, big picture. I would like to see more emphasis on non-cognitive skills program wide. Jeff Nelson, the executive director of OneGoal, a college prep intervention program in Chicago says in the book,

“Non cognitive skills like resilience and resourcefulness and grit are highly predictive of success in college. And they can help our students compensate for some of the inequality they have faced in the education system” pg. 168

Adult high school students have been failed by the education system. There would be no adult high school if that weren’t true. In my experience it isn’t the difficulty of high school academics that leads people to not graduate. It is non-cognitive deficits that have caused most of the problems in and with school. Complicated lives in many ways have contributed to both poor academic performance and left school as a low priority. We should be explicitly teaching and promoting non-cognitive skill development as part of the diploma and not just providing pathways to earn purely academic credits. If we really want productive and happy adult high school graduates we should focus on those things, as Jeff Nelson and so many others in the book do, that truly level the playing field and give the best chance at lifelong success.


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