I at times ask myself whether what we do matters. Do we really change students’ lives? Do we put them on a new path, increase the slope of their trajectory forward, or transform the way they think about the world?
I have much anecdotal evidence that this is the case. Students return to tell us how well HWC did in preparing them for their university careers. An alum recently came to my office, almost in tears, so thankful that we had provided career placement training to help her interview successfully with Allscripts and get a job.
But what does the data say, and what about what we do makes a difference?
Rather, tapping into a great deal of recent research, Tough writes that the most important things to develop in students are “noncognitive skills,” which Tough labels as “character.” Many of the people who have done the research or are running the programs that Tough admires have different ways of expressing those skills. But they are essentially character traits that are necessary to succeed not just in school, but in life. Jeff Nelson, who runs a program in partnership with 23 Chicago high schools called OneGoal, which works to improve student achievement and helps students get into college, describes these traits as “resilience, integrity, resourcefulness, professionalism and ambition.” “They are the linchpin of what we do,” Nelson told me. Nelson calls them “leadership skills.” Tough uses the word “grit” a lot.
What I find most encouraging, as outlined in the NYTimes review of Tough’s book, is that these non-cognitive skills can be taught later in life. Tough is focusing on the high school year, but I am hopeful based on this research that the college years may matter as well. Reflecting on my experience as a college student, the lessons I took away from my college education that helped me be successful was a belief that if I wrestled with a problem long enough and hard enough, I would be rewarded with an answer. While I can’t tell you the content of the many papers I wrote so many years ago, I can vividly recall the late nights surrounded by source material typing out a ten-page paper.
I am adding “How Children Succeed” to my reading list. Not such a Tough call, after all.