How Children Succeed

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So I’ve been reading a lot recently. Nothing new there. The most recent title being How children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character  by Paul Tough. Tough explains the science and psychology behind the power of character and how it is a more accurate predictor of future success (in academics, health, family relationships…etc.) than IQ or socioeconomic status. This then got me thinking about my own character and how it has informed my thinking and my decisions; my experience in schools and how well my teachers prepared me for  the Real World; and lastly, it got me thinking a whole lot about chess.

From the young age of  8, I had learned enough to know that I was not gifted, nor did I possess any special talent for the subjects like English, Math, and Science, which are valued by our school curriculum. I only needed one standardized test to figure out that in my teachers’ eyes, I was not considered special. I remember feeling overlooked as some of my peers were exclusively “selected” for specialized gifted programs. I now realize how misplaced those feelings were. At the time I was considered an ESL (English as a Second Language) learner (the acronym now more adequately replaced by ELL for ‘English Language Learner), which meant that my reading and comprehension levels hindered me from performing at my true ability. Secondly, even if my English skills allowed me to perform at grade level, who is to say the test could accurately predict my academic achievement anyway? Maybe 8-year-old me was not able to comprehend the severity of the tests and the bearing it would have to my future academic success. Or perhaps I was bored and just began filling out bubbles at random because I couldn’t read the damn questions anyway. 

Somehow, I managed to pull myself out from “struggling ESL student” status to “straight A student” by the time middle school rolled around. That was a transformative period in my life for me, because that was when I consciously attained what researcher Carol Dweck refers to as “growth mindset,” the belief that intelligence is malleable. I was able to experience firsthand that hard work and dedication could get you the results you wanted, which in my case was good grades. My obsession to prove myself in school, however, led to a complication later down the road – a loss of creativity and independence. The school system is set up in such a way that only certain students are seen as “good” – those who conform to the school rules, listen to adults, follow instructions, and can memorize facts for a test. Not to say that these traits are not valued, but it was not until high school that I encountered teachers who really pushed me to think critically and creativity. To put it bluntly, teachers liked me because I was easy to teach. Oftentimes, I find myself looking for the same traits in my students as a teacher, but those are not the only qualities I wish to value in my future classroom. 

So, what is this thing about chess anyway? 
Reading about chess coach Elizabeth Spiegel and her students at IS 318 in Brooklyn was kind of . . . awesome. And inspiring. Not knowing much about the chess culture myself, I found it fascinating the amount of rigor in which Spiegel and her students put into their work, and also the incredible amount of strategy involved in the game itself. I mean, I always knew chess was a game of strategy, but I never really gave it much thought until now. I am probably the worse kind of chess player out there, only thinking about my own moves one step at a time, moving pieces with no real motives or reasons to do so, and seldom stopping to analyze my opponents tactics. Personally, when I play games, I prefer those that require minimal mental effort. Yet, I am also a little envious of Spiegel and her students, and disappointed at my own lack of determination. But what I am determined to do, is apply the same amount of determination and rigor into my own teaching, and I think blogging is a good place for me to start. 

In his book, Tough poses a question that I often ask myself, Is it better to be a little interested in a lot of things (like I tend to be), or a lot interested in one thing (like Spiegel)? For Spiegel, the answer is obvious. Being deeply dedicated to one pursuit allows full immersion and to understand what it is like to be passionate about something, an “optimal experience” by the words of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Optimal experiences are “those rare moments in human existence when a person feels free of mundane distractions, in control of his fate, totally engaged by the moment (136).” I wonder, how many people can say they have had experiences like that, and better yet, how many are able to set themselves up to have more of those experiences? 


2 Comments

  1. I feel stress from this blog. Stress from the expectations of the education system and how you were overlooked for not being ‘gifted’. I think you are gifted to be able to rise above and prove yourself from all these heavy expectations. Others like myself just push it aside and feel completely unmotivated. The difference is probably because I don’t mind at all being overlooked and an outcast.
    You are most likely to encounter students such as myself and how would you deal with that? What are these other traits that you wish to value other than the trait of being easy to teach?
    I get the implication that you also detest the schools cookie cutting criteria as it degrades independence and creativity. If you could change the whole system, how would you imagine it to be?

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    1. Hello Bstudent,
      Interesting choice of name. I agree, it does get stressful for students, parents, and teachers alike when it seems like the education system is determined to slot us into neat little boxes, when the reality is so complex.
      The label of “gifted” now bears a different meaning for me. In the education world, “gifted” and “talented” mean very different things. Gifted generally refers to people who have above average intelligence, but that can come with additional burdens as well. For instance, a person can be twice-exceptional, which means they are gifted and have a learning disability. For me, the turning point was realizing that a trait like intelligence is NOT fixed, nor a matter of inborn talent. I think that for students who get discouraged, teachers need to help them understand that there are other traits worth valuing over grades or intelligence. In fact, Tough writes about these “character traits” in his book in great detail; they include grit, curiosity, self-control, zest, optimism, social intelligence, and gratitude. There are probably others, but these are the traits that current research has named the most accurate indicators of future success.
      As for your last question, it is one I am still struggling to answer myself. There are so many aspects worth changing (e.g. emphasis on grades, standardized testing), but also many that are working well (e.g. guidance and counselling support for students, extracurricular opportunities). The degree to which things need to be changed will also depend on the context in which it is taking place. I do not believe that this calls for a complete overhaul of the current education system but I also don’t think short bursts of “educational fads” work well either. I hope to gain more insight as I continue my teaching journey. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

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