Book Review: Helping Children Succeed by Paul Tough & Its Implications for PBL

If anyone asks me what book he/she should read this summer, I tell them about Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why. It’s a quick read – you can finish it on a long plane or car ride – and it’s an important book in shaping the dialogue on how to achieve equity in our schools. Tough, a New York Times journalist, has two previous books, Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America and How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, and his approach to writing is clearly journalistic – straightforward, unbiased reporting with all claims back by solid evidence.

I should disclose that Tough cites my book, Transforming Schools Using Project Based Learning, Performance Assessment and the Common Core Standards while discussing deeper learning and equity, and says:

There is a growing body of empirical evidence that suggests that Lenz is right: deeper-learning methods, when employed well, do actually produce measurable benefits for students in poverty. (P. 108)


While not explicitly about PBL, Helping Children Succeed makes a strong case for the design and facilitation of high quality Project Based Learning and for PBL as an effective tool for promoting equity.

Here are three major takeaways I got from the book.

1. Non-cognitive skills (btw I hate this term because I believe all learning involves cognition) like persistence, growth, and academic mindsets are best learned as part of an experience, rather than being taught directly.

Rather than consider non-cognitive capacities as skills to be taught, I came to conclude, it’s more accurate and useful to look at them as products of a child’s environment. There is certainly strong evidence that this is true in early childhood; we have in recent years learned a great deal about the effects that adverse environments have on children’s early development. And there is growing evidence that even in middle and high school, children’s non-cognitive capacities are primarily a reaction of the environments in which they are embedded, including, centrally, their school environment. (P.12)  

I know for Project Based Learning teachers this is a “duh.” However, I think this is a huge step forward for the larger education reform field. Whenever I ask people, “How does one learn to collaborate?” they say by working in a group – not by reading a book about collaboration. The so-called non-cognitive skills work the same way; people learn to persist by taking on challenges within their zone of proximal development and sticking with the challenge until it is complete. Most often, the learner has a teacher or mentor who supports them in the project and facilitates their reflection on learning. We do truly learn by doing and not from slogans, chants, banners and direct lessons on dispositions like “grit.” (My colleague John Larmer has written a blog post about how PBL builds grit.)

2. Discipline and incentives do not create intrinsic motivation. Experiences where learning is relevant, students have voice and choice, and students achieve a high level of mastery do create intrinsic and lasting motivation to learn.

Within the field of psychology, one important body of thought that helps to explain this apparent paradox is self -determination theory, which is the life’s work of Edward Deci
and Richard Ryan, two professors of psychology at the University of Rochester... Deci and Ryan argued that we are mostly motivated not by the material consequences of our actions, but by the inherent enjoyment and meaning that those actions bring us, a phenomenon they labeled intrinsic motivation. They identified three key human needs —our need for competence, our need for autonomy, and our need for relatedness, meaning personal connection. And they contended that intrinsic motivation can be sustained only when we feel that those needs are being satisfied.
(P. 60-61)

“Classroom contexts where students experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness tend not only to foster more intrinsic motivation,” Deci and Ryan conclude, “but also more willing engagement in less interesting academic activities.” These motivational dynamics can play an even greater role in the school experience of low-income students, especially those whose development has been affected by early exposure to toxic stress. (P. 64)

I hope this leads the so-called “no-excuse schools” to abandon their destructive practices of shaming students with punishments like turning their shirts inside out when they are in non-compliance. I hope they close the school stores where students use their “cash” earned through compliance… and begin implementing Project Based Learning.

3. Engagement in learning at school might be a strong indicator for whether a student will attend college, and standardized test scores offer no predictive value for going to college. While some erroneously question the academic rigor of PBL, most everyone agrees that Project Based Learning is highly engaging.

A young economist at Northwestern University named Kirabo Jackson created a proxy measure for students’ non-cognitive ability, using just four pieces of existing administrative data: a student’s attendance, suspensions, on-time grade progression, and overall GPA. Jackson’s new index measured, in a fairly crude form, how engaged the student was in school – whether he showed up, whether he misbehaved, and how hard he worked in his classes. Remarkably, Jackson found that this simple non-cognitive proxy was a better predictor than a student’s test scores of whether the student would attend college, a better predictor of adult wages, and a better predictor of future arrests. Jackson’s proxy measure then allowed him to do some intriguing analysis of teachers’ effectiveness. (P. 69)


Tough points out that this study has huge implications; we reward teachers and schools with high test scores that show no correlation with students going on to college. We do not even measure teachers’ and a school’s ability to engage students, and this is the strongest predictor for college-going. And this is easily accessible data that we have for all students.

Even more problematic, our system encourages teachers and schools to abandon engaging practices like Project Based Learning so that the test scores will rise. I hope this research inspires school systems and policy makers to abandon the reliance on standardized tests for accountability and move to using this proxy measure for engagement and the development of non-cognitive success skills. At BIE, we will be looking to engage our district and school partners in using this proxy measure for engagement to evaluate the effectiveness of Project Based Learning implementation.

I encourage you to read this book this summer with your colleagues and discuss it this fall when you return to school. Helping Children Learn is an important book for all of us who are working for equity and social justice in schools today. It is a call to action, and to me a call to deeper learning through PBL.


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