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Funny Business (cover art)

How Children Succeed Paul Tough, Houghton Miffin, 2012, 197 pages.


Journalist Paul Tough looks at the latest research to try to figure out how schools should teach children so they have the best chance of being successful in life. Of course special attention is paid to what it takes to teach disadvantaged inner city kids so that they overcome the odds, go to college and become successful in society.

Tough makes the case, using the available research from neuroscience, economics, and psychology, that there is an over-emphasis on teaching content and subject testing in schools. What he says is even more critical than specific knowledge, and even intelligence, is certain aspects of character that help you succeed in school and in life. These character traits need to be instilled early in school and then reinforced all the way through college. The critical character traits are not too surprising – discipline, punctuality, orderliness, respect for rules, diligence, ability to delay gratification and persistence, among others.

The author draws a contrast between these “performance character traits” and the “morality character traits” like generosity, fairness, honesty, etc. that are commonly contained in schools’ Character Education programs.

It can be difficult for educators to adopt methods for developing these performance character traits because so many people don’t believe character is changeable, although research shows it is. Another obstacle is that character is often only developed by failing and then trying again. But it is often not acceptable in today’s schools to label any result as a failure.

This book is full of scientific research that has implications for educators but that could easily be hidden away in professional journals. An even more valuable, and much more interesting, part of the book is the interviews with teachers, administrators, students, and parents in various schools around the country showing how this research can be applied in day to day teaching and the effect it can have on students’ lives.

Reviewed by Bob Sibert

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