The Real Way Children Succeed
Education thinker E.D. Hirsch has an interesting take on Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, which argues that we should focus more on developing children’s character strengths. Hirsch writes:
“No one would or should dispute the importance of diligence and perseverance. Classic texts on education such as Plato’s Republic and Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education emphasize that character development and virtue are far more important educational goals than mere acquisition of knowledge. At the same time, those writers are quite explicit in setting forth the breadth of knowledge children need to acquire. If Tough had updated that ‘both/and’ tradition [both character and knowledge] with the latest reports from the field, he would have no argument from me. But he takes the view that an emphasis on knowledge acquisition, which he calls ‘the cognitive hypothesis,’ has been tried and it has failed. Here is what he has to say in his introduction:
‘In the past decade, and especially in the past few years, a disparate congregation of economists, educators, psychologists and neuroscientists have begun to produce evidence that call into question many of the assumptions behind the cognitive hypothesis. What matters most in a child’s development, they say, is not how much information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years. What matters instead is whether we are able to help her develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Economists refer to these as non-cognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.’
I sympathize with Tough’s judgment that ‘the cognitive hypothesis’ (in his view of it) has failed. During the era of No Child Left Behind very little progress has been made in narrowing the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Yet it is hard to argue from recent reform efforts that the aim has been to increase the ‘information we can stuff into her brain in the first few years.’ On the contrary, ‘mere information’ has been disparaged in favor of how-to strategies and test-taking skills. What Tough calls ‘the cognitive hypothesis’ with regard to academics might better be called the ‘how-to hypothesis,’ paralleling his own how-to approach with regard to character. He does not cite the work of Jerome Kagan and others showing that many fundamental character traits tend to be innate and unchanging.
Moreover, there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age six is the single highest correlate with later success. Tough alludes to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) studies, which show that a young adolescent’s score on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) is the best single predictor of later income. The AFQT is a math and verbal test. It is scored by doubling the verbal component before computing the overall raw score. This verbal component, largely a vocabulary test, is an index to general knowledge. General knowledge is also the best single predictor of later academic achievement among preschoolers and kindergartners, as has been shown by analyses of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey–Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K1992), which has followed the life paths of some 2,700 children over the past decade. After general knowledge, the next best predictor is fine-motor skill, which is correlated with the development of ‘executive function,’ a cognitive ability. In third place come the non-cognitive features that Tough emphasizes in his book.
The critical missing element in Tough’s otherwise informative book is the phrase ‘other things equal.’ He effectively shows that people who have more grit, character, and persistence will succeed better than those who have less, other things equal. Those other things are determined chiefly, though not exclusively, by ‘how much information we can stuff’ into a child’s mind in the early years; a more neutral way of stating it is: ‘how much general knowledge and vocabulary we can impart in the early years.’ The disparaging phrase ‘stuffing’ is tendentious and inaccurate. Knowledge-based schooling is far more interesting to a child than how-to schooling, and far more effective.” Read more here.
Think about that: “Increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age six is the single highest correlate with later success.” How do children succeed? By knowing stuff. Or as cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham puts it, “Factual knowledge must precede skill.” Character is important, no doubt about it. But so is knowledge.