Event debrief: A Conversation with Paul Tough

I went to a talk earlier this week that got me thinking. The event was a conversation with Paul Tough, whose latest book is called How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Previously, he wrote a great book (which I’ve read and enjoyed) called Whatever It Takeswhich is about Geoffrey Canada’s work with educational and social reform with the Harlem Children’s Zone. I enjoy Mr. Tough’s journalistic style, his voice, and the things he chooses to explore. Education and educational reform are subjects close to my heart, and he’s a great writer besides, so I’m definitely a fan.
Over the course of his talk, though, Mr. Tough’s argument made me feel a little unsettled. For sure, I buy the argument that his book’s title suggests: I certainly think that educating students with a focus on character is critical. It’s a central tenet of the goals and criteria of the Sacred Heart, and it’s something that I believe strongly in my own life. That element of his work–which seems to be the heart of the book–I find exciting and compelling.
What distressed me was the term that he used to describe what these traits are. He repeatedly referred to his central thesis that schools should focus on what he called “non-cognitive” traits like motivation and mindset. He repeatedly cited the work of Carol Dweck (another hero of mine) and other educational psychologists and theorists, all of whom work with learning and the brain. He referred to neuroscience studies and he talked about neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change and adapt.
Here’s my problem with this: all of these things are absolutely cognitive inasmuch as they involve the brain. Everything that we do has a cognitive element: we are guided by our brains and our brains matter! This reminds me of one of my favorite things that I’ve heard neurologist Judy Willis say, in reaction to someone’s claim that their educational approach was unique for being brain-based. Of course education is brain-based, she quipped. “It’s not FOOT-based!” The same kind of response came to mind as Mr. Tough described these researchers’ work on subjects that he called “non-cognitive.” Carol Dweck’s work is on something called “mindset”, after all: how is that not related to the brain?!
Certainly, Mr. Tough’s argument is for education that’s slightly less focused on what might be better termed academic skills rather than non-cognitive skills. That’s an argument I can certainly get behind: it’s critical to show students that there’s more to life than just making the grade, and that there are ways that all people and all students can contribute to their communities that are unrelated to their particular intellectual capacities. It’s just as important that you treat your classmates well and that you learn to work well with others as it is to strive to achieve academically.
Other than that, of course, I had a great time. But my background in MBE had me listening with great caution. What did Mr. Tough gain or lose by calling these skills like grit and curiosity “non-cognitive”? My contention is that all of these traits and capabilities have their basis in the mind and the brain, which is what gives us the greatest opportunity to use them and change them for the better. Some people may indeed be born with an innate sense of curiosity or grit, just as some are born with stronger abilities in math or better acuity with a soccer ball. However, we don’t give up on people who are less curious or less “gritty”, just as teachers and coaches don’t give up on their weakest math students or on a subpar member of a kindergarten soccer team.  We learn. We practice. We try. These are indeed cognitive skills, and like other cognitive skills, they can honed and improved.
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