Paul Tough writes an interesting book on teaching kids to succeed. How Children Succeed is based on the idea that character often determines how children cope with the world, and that there are ways adults can best teach children the character traits that will enable them to do well in the world. Tough focuses on the poorest and neediest children in his interviews, but he also talks about how wealthy kids face the same issues on a lesser scale. His thesis is that character traits are often more important than IQ, and that having the “character” to strive and work will often make a person successful
There were two parts of the book that I found particularly interesting.
The first was the focus on “grit” and self-control, and how sheer persistance can pay off. Tough primarily references the work of Angela Duckworth, who happens to be Chinese American and who just won the 2013 MacArthur Genius Grant for her work. He brings up the KIPP schools as a study in character, and how teachers can teach children to become resilient and strong. He notes where KIPP succeeded and where KIPP failed, and he analyzes how the administrators are working to improve. Tough focuses on optimism and how optimism can power a person’s drive through prolonged tasks and goals. He recommended a book called Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, which I want to check out.
The second interesting part was actually the most interesting for me, since my kid is invested in chess. It was the chapter on How to Think, where Tough focuses on an inner city school which has the best chess team in the country (it is the same school profiled in Brooklyn Castle). His interview with Elizabeth Spiegel was extremely interesting, as she tells him how she manages to teach kids a sport in which the instruction focuses mostly on mistakes. I’ve always found it hard to be optimistic while focusing on mistakes, and I was pleasantly surprised how Tough and Spiegel covered this topic. We always need to improve, but sometimes it’s hard to get children into the mindset of improving their shortcomings, especially in this day and age where adults tend to coddle kids.
Tough did a good job on picking this topic as a means of exploring how to think. But although he brings up some powerful ideas for teaching kids how to think in a chess game, I thought the explanation was incomplete. For example, he says quotes studies that say that top chess players never consider less promising moves (p. 138), or that good players tend to be more pessimistic on their moves. From p 140:
In a word, they were more pessimistic. When the novices found a move they liked, they tended to fall prey to confirmation bias, to see only the was that it could lead to success, ignoring possible pitfalls; the Eeyore-like experts, by contrast were more likely to see terrible outcomes lurking around every corner.
What Tough didn’t uncover is that chess is like boxing. There are different styles that tend to tend to lean towards one of two sides on a continuum: there are aggressive styles of chess, as well as defensive styles. Capablanca and Karpov were defensive players, relying on their ability to play cautiously and to slowly creep their pieces forward, taking up space until their opponents were forced to make a bad move. On the other side, Kasparov and Fischer were attacking players, who often threw caution to the wind with bold sacrifices and attacks against their opponent’s king. I’ve read interviews with attacking grandmasters about how many moves they think ahead, and from what I can garner, they mostly think four or five moves only. They often don’t know whether there is a guaranteed win when they start the sacrificing attack, but they have a good feeling that things will turn out well. Certainly they also assess the risks before attacking, but most novices do as well. I think novices tend to be more pessimistic than experts. Indeed, as International GM Yasser Seirawan says in one of his books, most novices don’t see queen sacrifices because they are not in the habit of considering moves that could lose their queen. I bring this up mostly because I think both strategies are important when moving from school to work. Certainly being overcautious isn’t a bad thing when it comes to schoolwork, but overcautious people are less likely to invent life changing technologies or start new businesses.
Overall, I think people will find this book interesting. If you have kids or are working in education, you’ll find this book interesting. Check it out.