Science Book a Day Interviews Paul Tough


Special thanks to Paul Tough for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Paul is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, where he has written extensively about education, parenting, poverty, and politics, including cover stories on character education, the achievement gap, and the Obama administration’s poverty policies. His writing has also appeared in the New Yorker, Slate, GQ, Esquire, and Geist, and on the op-ed page of the New York Times. He has worked as an editor at the New York Times Magazine and Harper’s Magazine and as a reporter and producer for the public-radio program “This American Life.” He was the founding editor of Open Letters, an online magazine. He lives with his wife and son in New York. – From Paul’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for How Children Succeed?

In 2008, I published my first book, Whatever It Takes, about Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone. I spent five years reporting that book, but when I finished it, I realized I still had a lot of questions about what really happens in childhood. How Children Succeed is an attempt to answer those questions, which for many of us are big and mysterious and central in our lives: Why do certain children succeed while other children fail? Why is it, exactly, that poor children are less likely to succeed, on average, than middle-class children? And most important, what can we all do to steer more kids toward success?

#2 – Why do you think the importance of quality of character has been reduced in the modern education system? Has it always been this way?

The history of American education can be seen as a series of pendulum swings between periods when educators emphasized character (defined differently in each age) and periods where educators emphasized cognitive skills and standardized tests. Over the last 15 years or so, the pendulum has swung about as far as possible to the cognitive/test-based model. That trend has been driven by federal legislation, including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. But it has its roots in parental and public anxiety over the risk that our children might fall behind cognitively and never catch up.

#3 – In How Children Succeed you follow a handful of kids and their mentors. Why did you choose to focus on these kids and their stories?

I chose them because they both had compelling stories and were good illustrations of the larger points I was trying to make. The process of finding my different subjects was a little bit random in the early days of my work on the book. But as my ideas grew clearer, and I got to know the different characters better, it became clear which stories were a good fit for the book and which weren’t.

#4 – How did you go about your research? How did you come to some of the qualities you think are important?

Beginning in 2009, I started following a half-dozen stories simultaneously, from Nadine Burke Harris, the pediatrician in San Francisco, to Steve Gates, the student advocate in Chicago, to Elizabeth Spiegel, the chess teacher in Brooklyn. At the same time, I was reading research in a variety of fields — neuroscience, economics, developmental psychology — trying to get some perspective and data to help me better understand what the stories I was following really meant.

In the process, I found unexpected connections between different research strands, from the psychology of chess to the neurobiology of stress. As those connections became more clear, the big ideas in the book started to take shape.

#5 – Are you working on any new books/projects you can tell us about?

Yes, I’m working on a book now about college — about how higher education went from being the essential instrument of social mobility in the United States to what it is today: an obstacle to social mobility, a barrier that keeps many low-income young people from reaching a middle-class life.

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