Character Matters: An Interview With Paul Tough

As teachers, we’ve long known that test scores don’t tell the whole story when it comes to a student’s potential[…]Continue Reading

Paul ToughPaul ToughAs teachers, we’ve long known that test scores don’t tell the whole story when it comes to a student’s potential for success. And now a new book underscores that intuition.

In How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, journalist Paul Tough challenges the idea that cognitive skills—the kind measured on tests—are the ultimate predictors of student success, drawing on research that suggests that character traits such as grit, curiosity and resiliency are far more important indicators of positive outcomes.

What’s more, Tough argues that the education system has taken the wrong approach to character education in the past, focusing too much on skills like friendship and tolerance when we should be stressing “performance-based” traits such as self-control, grit and optimism.

In the book, Tough highlights the efforts of two very different Bronx schools that are working together to tackle this new kind of character education: KIPP Academy, a public charter, and Riverdale Country School, an affluent private school.

We sat down with Tough to talk more about what KIPP and Riverdale are doing and what we can learn from their brand of character education.


In the book, you hint at some of the tension that can exist between parents and schools over character education. How can we get parents onboard with character programs without making them feel like we’re trying to do their job?

Yes, interestingly in my experience, there seemed to be more teacher anxiety in working with the parents at Riverdale, a school where the parents are more affluent. Whether or not it’s true, the teachers and administrators felt like it was going to be a challenge to try ​to talk to those parents about character or that they would take it personally and feel like it was a judgment on them.

My experience at KIPP, on the other hand, was that the character education program really resonated with parents. And I think that’s because of the way that school framed the conversation—it’s not about whether a child is good or bad, but about a set of strengths that is necessary and valuable for success. When character education is framed not as a matter of values and ethics, but of skills and strengths that are useful later in life, that really resonates with parents, because then it becomes part of the same conversation we have around cognitive skills like reading and math.

Does character education need to be tailored to the specific needs of a student body, or will we find an approach that works in any type of school?

Well, look at KIPP and Riverdale. Those are two very different schools working together to solve the same problem. And while the students coming from those two schools have very different backgrounds, the administration and teachers believe they have the same needs when it comes to character, and that the strengths that will be the most valuable to them in the long term are the exact same character strengths.

To me, that’s a really important message and an important principle to keep in mind—that these strengths are universal, and that these kids all need the same thing. I don’t think we’ve figured out all the answers yet, but I think KIPP and Riverdale are being really proactive about it. They’re continuing to work on identifying a set of principles that will really work in any school.

Teachers always tell us that their biggest challenge is time management. How do you add character education to their responsibilities without burning them out?

I definitely empathize with teachers—I know they are under a lot of pressure. But I also think that when left to their own devices, a lot of them are pretty good at teaching character. I think it’s something that comes naturally to a lot of them.

The problem is that for the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve been so narrowly focused on standardized tests as a measure of a child’s success. And I think that makes it difficult for teachers to just follow their own instincts and help kids develop other skills.

This is obviously a bigger change than any one teacher can do on his or her own, but I think the more that we are able to change that culture, both nationally and in a given school, the more that teachers’ time and attention are freed to talk to students about a broader range of strengths.

That said, I think that even in this realm, there are lots of ways that teachers can help students learn about character. Particularly in adolescence, kids develop character strengths through relationships with teachers or coaches or mentors. And so I think the more that teachers can expand their own vision of their role in children’s lives and connect with them on these deeper levels, the better. Again, I think that’s something that comes very naturally to a lot of teachers. My sense is that that’s where a lot of that character transformation can happen for kids.

The book introduced us to Elizabeth Spiegel, a chess teacher in Brooklyn, and the success she’s found there. What is it about the coaching relationship that is so powerful for kids?

There definitely is something about that training relationship, where you’re going over and over mistakes and kids have to figure out how to deal with failure because they’re playing the wrong note or losing football games or losing chess games. These unforgettable relationships form.

We don’t really let kids fail in English or science class. And I think that’s something that all teachers can extrapolate from—going over mistakes, creating a context where failure is ​OK, where failure is part of the learning process. That’s something any teacher can use. 

Question for you: How does your school handle character education? Where do you think your program could improve?