I’m reading an interesting book, by Paul Tough that explores this very quandary. In the book, How Children Succeed Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Tough focuses on the idea of stress and adolescent development: “…children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school. When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings, it’s hard to learn the alphabet.”
On the other hand, Tough makes the important point that children need to learn from mistakes in order to develop the grit and determination to be successful in life. In fact, grit has far more to do with success in life than cognitive ability. Tough sets out to replace the assumption of cognitive ability’s primacy with what might be called the character hypothesis: the notion that noncognitive skills, like persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence, are more crucial than sheer brainpower to achieving success. I found one particular passage especially interesting. He makes the point that while many students from top private preparatory schools are accepted into Ivy League universities, these are not the students who go on to become innovators, high level entrepreneurs, and Nobel prize winners. More often than not, the Bill Gates’s and Steve Jobs’s of the world come from the ranks of public schools where it takes a certain determination and grit to succeed.
This brings to my mind the concept of the ideal middle school. Middle school is the perfect proving ground for students to fail in an atmosphere of support and caring. We have a fully articulated program for Social and Emotional Development. Look at the SEL place mat under “Resources” at the top of this blog. This is our curriculum for social and emotional learning which we have adopted from CASEL: The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (University of Illinois). Great middle schools (like us!) believe that it is equally as important to focus on student’s social/emotional development as it is to focus on their academic achievement. The New York State policy on middle level education recognizes this, “The standards focused middle school has two basic goals: the intellectual development and academic achievement of all students and the personal and social development of each student.” We are very proud that we embrace this goal and have in place many programs to achieve it. But more important than programs, it is part of the philosophy of every member of our staff, this is critical!
I highly recommend Paul Tough’s book, I’m almost finished if you want to borrow mine. It reinforced for me the power of what we’re doing at the middle school. Kids will make mistakes. It’s our job as teachers and parents to support them and help them to learn from their mistakes.