Saturday, September 22, 2012

Thank You, Paul Tough

I spend a lot of time reading education books, attending education talks, and generally trying to access and think about big ideas in education. While I like spending time with all of these ideas, it's rare that the ideas feel new. Even when an author's perspective deeply resonates with me, it usually feels like another iteration of the same old idea.* However, Paul Tough is now two for two in completely blowing my mind with his reporting about education.

First I read Whatever It Takes, the story of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone. I read the book in a day and the first thing I did after closing the cover was to make a large (for me) donation to the HCZ. Then this week's episode of This American Life, "Back to School," was based on Tough's new book about the role of "non-cognitive" factors (things like perseverance, attention span, self-management, etc.) in determining a person's success. Both times, the ideas that Tough brought to life articulated ideas that have been loosely swimming around in my head but that I could never piece together. As I was listening to This American Life today and when I read Whatever It Takes I found myself thinking "Yes! Of course! That's it!" The ideas felt fresh and innovative, but also realistic and highly effective. Again, that's not something I feel very often when I listen to  education research.

Moreover, Paul Tough's work makes me feel optimistic. This is another feeling I rarely have about education. Even when things go well in the tiny microcosm of my own classroom, I feel the crushing weight of just how ineffective I am in the larger scale of things. I serve so few kids, and even for those kids I'm such a small part of their lives. For the little part I play in their lives, there is only so much I can do both because one person can only make so much of a difference, but also because of structural factors in the education system that make it harder for me to be a good teacher for kids and harder for them to get the most out of their schooling experience. And beyond that, what about all the non-school-related things in their lives? Even if I'm the most amazing teacher in the world (which I am not), it only has a certain impact when a kid doesn't have enough to eat, lives in an abusive household, can't afford to go to college, is fighting to stay out of gangs, gets pregnant... the list of things I can't control is overwhelming. And then there's all the research about how kids' general life outcomes can usually be predicted by what happens in just their first few years of life, or even the family they're born into. If I first meet at kid at age 15, is it too late? Are their fates already sealed? Am I just a weird  kind of hospice worker, helping kids make a slightly less miserable transition into a pre-destined-by-birth cycle of poverty, imprisonment, and/or trauma? Paul Tough's books tell me no, all is not lost. The damage that has been done to kids from underserved communities is real and can have devastating consequences, but the damage is not inevitable.

Thank you, Paul Tough, for giving me a reason to not quit my job.

If you haven't listened to the This American Life episode, do it immediately.

*I get the impression that the findings behind almost all education research ever boils down to the solution of "know your students." This is a lovely idea and piece of advice; I absolutely agree that the most effective way for a teacher to support students is to know them better. The more I know my students academically, socially, emotionally, etc. the better I can serve them. However, this idea is so much easier said than done, so hearing over and over again that I just need to work on knowing my students doesn't actually help me figure out how to do that in a way that's manageable and realistic. But this is a whole other blog entry for another time.

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