How Children Succeed, Paul Tough

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I can”t quite believe that I have spent the last few days devouring a book whose basic conclusion is that if children receive adequate parental care, a good education and develop character, they are more likely to succeed. But Tough explores these issues in an intelligent and sympathetic way and his meta-analysis of years of data and research, provides strong biological and psychological arguments that can help to turn around the lives of even the poorest and most delayed of children. Tough’s book focusses on the American education system, something I have had little to no exposure to, but has far reaching consequences, especially when I am soon to be working in some of the most most disadvantaged schools in the UK.

Poverty and Education

Tough suggests in the final chapter that the political discourse on poverty and education has rolled into one, whereas in the 60s they were two very separate issues. Educational disadvantage is extremely difficult to distinguish from poverty because that simple lacking in early life leads to less successful schools. But Tough explores more than simply that.

Tough suggests that poverty leads to far more than just disadvantages in education, and in fact isn’t necessarily the primary cause: ‘It wasn’t poverty itself that was compromising the executive-function abilities of the poor kids. It was the stress that went along with it.’ (p. 20) His discussion of ‘Executive-function’ highlights the deeply biological nature of stress, and how we deal with it, and his in depth discussion of the ‘licking and grooming’ rats experiment takes the growth of Executive-Function back to the childhood management of it by parents.

Most importantly, however, Tough explores the research on developing ‘character’ – whether that’s 24 point character report cards, or 7 simple characteristics for success, he explores and analyses the literature and research that claims that ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’ and ‘perseverance’ are stronger indicators of success that GPAs or exam results. Whilst Tough doesn’t dwell on opposing research, he does touch upon it enough to create a convincing argument for his point of view.

Personal Stories

Tough’s book is based upon the collection of personal stories he hasdeveloped from the researchers, and the workers on the ground. The charm and the easy reading nature of the book come from accessible figures (chess teachers, teenagers in programmes, teacher telling of their successes and failures) who tell their stories, the ups and the downs, with a brutal honesty. This helps to put even the less successful interventions in a positive light, and has really made me strongly agree with his hypotheses. There seems to be the empirical evidence held within the book to back it up, but I would be interested to read further around this topic before making any firm judgments.

Wider Applications

Whilst Tough focusses on the stories of children, and the success of children, the book also contains a lot of research into how to improve character traits such as ‘self control’ and gives some level of advice on how this can be managed. This was part of why I enjoyed this book so much, because not only did I learn a lot of ways and techniques to help struggling pupils, but I also learned some things that I can apply to my life, even now as an adult. The research that Tough explores and summarises has wide reaching applications.

The quote on the cover of my version of this book says ‘every parent should read this book’. I wonder whether it was a bit dense for the newly expectant parent, or those caught up in raising multiple children. However, I certainly can see the value of having such knowledge as this in raising children, and would strongly recommend it for a teaching – audience. We can never know enough about the psyche of children and how to adapt our teaching and education to improve their learning experiences.

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Learning to Teach English in the Secondary School, 4th Edition

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Wow, it has been a while since I’ve actually finished a book enough to write a blog post on it, hasn’t it! And I haven’t actually finished this one yet, though I feel I’ve made my way through enough of it to put some opinion out there! Between this and wading through Great Expectation, which I have almost finished at last, there hasn’t been much time for reading anything else, but there’s nothing like a bit of studying to get me excited about starting my teacher’s training! Only 5 weeks to go now, so it’s really not long. But, enough about that.

It’s been a while

I graduated university in 2013. It has been a while since I have picked up such an intensely academic book. I got overexcited and thought I could read it cover to cover, and that was my first mistake. This is a book of entries written by a variety of authors about a plethora of topics. From the development of the curriculum we have now, to teaching media in English, this book is packed with useful tips, fascinating facts, and a lot of teaching theory.

I got cocky after the easy reading of ‘The Confident Teacher’ by Alex Quigley and assumed that I would love all teaching books. But this is an effort to read. Not only that, but it’s filled with activities and tasks for you to do with a fellow trainee teacher, or to talk with a qualified teacher about, and I have none of those things around me at the moment. As a result, I skipped over a lot of the tasks, and as a result have probably missed out on a lot of the value of the book as a whole.

Because it is very coherent, it moves swiftly but carefully from topic to topic, author to author. Each chapter is linked to ones that have gone before, and they are all filled with expert knowledge that is invaluable.

Unfortunately, this just isn’t the right time. This is a book that needs to be worked through as part of a teacher training course, where you attend lectures and break into seminars, and have colleagues around you to help you work through it as well as the practical experiences that go with placements in classes. This isn’t light reading before bed or in preparation for teaching, this is to have in your bag constantly while you are learning to teach.

I have read 7 of the 14 chapters, and have learnt a lot about reading, writing, curriculum and critical practice, but there is so much more knowledge to be gained from this book. For now, I’ll pop it on my book shelf, and perhaps, once I’ve started my teacher’s training and have a little more experience, it will support me in my learning more than it has now.

That said, each article is well written, thoroughly researched, and comes from an expert in the field being discussed. I definitely feel that every trainee teacher will benefit from having this on their bookshelf, and I look forwards to using it for its purpose rather than forcing myself through articles I just don’t have the practical experience to benefit from!

Success Against the Odds, Brett Wigdortz

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I’ve known about Teach First for a long time, and I’ve always known that when I did eventually do my teachers training, it would be with Teach First. There’s just something about it. Simon Sinek’s ‘The Golden Circle’ basically sums it up for me… ‘People don’t buy what you do, but why you do it’. Teach First has a clear vision and passion – that no child’s educational success would be defined by their socio-economic background. This is something I can get on board with, something that I have always felt passionately about. So, her I am in April, starting the Teach First summer institute in just 3 months, and I decided that reading Brett’s book about how he came to found Teach First, why it looks like it does and what, exactly, his vision is, would be a great stepping stone into the training. This is especially poignant as I am aware that I am a part of the last cohort to go through Teach First with Brett as CEO, as he has decided to step down to follow another venture. What he has created, though, will stand firm even in his absence, because people didn’t so much buy into Brett himself as the concept he had – he is no longer the only one passionate enough to hold Teach First together, and I’m really excited to start my journey with them at this time of transition.

Starting Teach First

Brett is a great example of the idea that you can have no idea about something, but if you feel passionate enough, you are able to make a difference. Whilst his family were educators, Brett himself worked in marketing, had the majority of his experiences in business in South East Asia, and is an American. How he came to run the leading teacher’s training in England, then, seems a little improbable. But Brett saw a problem, developed, as part of his role, a way to begin to address it, and because he was the one with the vision and the drive for his project, remained in the UK to see it through. 15 years later, I am about to commence on the training that he developed! This isn’t just a book for teachers, educational professionals or those with a special interest in Teach First. It’s an inspirational tale of a man who decided to make a difference, and did.

The layout

I actually really enjoyed the layout of the novel. I am not an entrepreneur. I have no desire to start my own business or charity, and I am in this to be the best teacher that I can possibly be. But Brett’s book isn’t as exclusive as that. There are helpful parts throughout in which he takes his practical experiences of Teach First and morphs them into a guide which can be applied to anyone starting anywhere, in any sector. Whilst for me, the tales of teachers and pupils were the highlight, I would recommend that anyone who has a vision for a charity take a look at the book as it contains some really handy entrepreneurial tips.

The motivation

The tagline of Success Against the Odds is ‘five lessons in how to achieve the impossible’. It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago, the vision that Brett had was laughed at, or dismissed out of hand, by so many, when now it is a force to be reckoned with throughout the UK, and places thousands of participants in schools every single year.

In some ways, I feel like Wigdortz wrote this to be studied by Teach First members. Each chapter very clearly relates to an aspect of the 5 key elements of leadership: Commitment; Integrity; Excellence; Leadership; Collaboration. He writes it almost like an A Level essay, trying to hit the correct number of times in relating the story or point back to the original question, or in this context, element. It was, in many ways, really helpful as an incoming participant to see how Brett had to both learn about and learn how to apply these skills in his development of Teach First, and also to come to understand the high expectations of leadership that Teach First has. They can preach at us as much as they want, but seeing their expectations in practice by the man who developed their model, is a far more effective way of helping them to sink in. I wonder whether this will become compulsory reading once I begin my course, as I do feel it offers insights that they simply won’t have time to give us in the 5 weeks of training before we begin our careers as teachers.

Conclusion

I was doubtful as to how much use Success Against the Odds would be for me, having already been accepted on the course and knowing that I want to be a teacher, but actually, I have come away feeling that I know far more about Teach First than I did initially, and with a far greater understanding of the fight they had to make the route in teacher’s training as successful as it is today.

However, the wider reach of the book ensures that it is useful not only for those of us embarking on Teach First, but for anyone who is starting a business or charity, and needs to learn the value of positive and effective leadership. I strongly recommend this book, as it is quite light and easy to read, but certainly provides interesting perspectives.