Discipline Breeds Performance: A Sort of Book Review

I’m about halfway through Paul Tough’s really intriguing book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough’s thesis, at a basic level, is that raising and educating successful children isn’t a game of chance. Instead, he argues, neuroscience, social science, and good old fashioned observation tell us that our contemporary emphasis on cognitive skills is misplaced and, eventually, not terribly effective. Too often, focusing just on knowledge attainment creates kids who know a lot of stuff (let’s play Jeopardy!), have a great deal of ambition (I’m going to be rich!), but lack volition (you mean I have to work for it?).

Instead, Tough notes, successful students exhibit an ability to persist at boring tasks, a willingness to delay gratification, and a tendency to follow through with plans. As Tough moves through the various studies and evidence (and he is putting together a pretty strong case), his discusses seven basic traits that are indicative of success: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.

Again, I am only about halfway through the book so I can’t say definitively how this idea “has the potential to change the way we raise our children” (as the book jacket claims), but I can say it’s about time we begin recognizing that academic success isn’t simply about, well, academics.

Note here that I’m not talking about disciplining students or punishment. The inevitable idea that threats, whether in the form of detention, time out, suspension, jail, spanking, etc. are  effective tools for altering behavior is for a different discussion. While I willingly admit that a well-timed swat on the backside or removing folks who are a danger to the rest of us might be necessary at times, we also know that those are short term solutions to larger problems. They work, in essence, as a way to get someone’s attention but they do not create long-term positive behavioral changes. There’s a reason recidivism rates are so high in American prisons.

I’ll also note that I’m using discipline in a pretty general way here as I try to simplify a really large, complex idea into a 1000 word blog, but I think the term itself captures basic ideas Tough proposes.

Discipline breeds performance I tell my children, students, players I coach, and anyone else who will listen. I recognize that is an oversimplification but I think we can also agree that things like grit and self-control fuel the other five items Tough mentions as essential for persistence toward academic success. Importantly, discipline, like writing, reading, riding a bike, and most other things in life are learned skills. Practice might not make perfect, but practice does make competence. You can’t, I tell my students, learn to write if you don’t pick up a pen. (Or, push letters on the keyboard.)

Simply put, those students who study and work are more likely to achieve success, or, and I think this is important, are more unlikely to fail. The fortitude to study, especially on those subjects we find distasteful, boring, and useless speaks to an ability to recognize long-term goals. The willingness to study provides the opportunity to succeed and, as with so many other things, success begets success. Students who master a subject, or even students who manage to survive a subject they expected to fail will by extension become more confident, optimistic, and willing to take chances learning other subjects. And, importantly, their ability to adjust socially will improve.

The 64-million dollar question, though, is how we instill those non-cognitive strengths in students at the earliest ages. Tough begins his book discussing Tools of the Mind, a curriculum “that combines activities specifically designed to promote self-regulation with activities that focus on academic skills, while also giving children the opportunity to practice self-regulation/executive function skills.”

Let me note first off that in an ideal world our parents would be teaching us self-regulation and executive function skills.

Of course, if we lived in an ideal world, I would have my own private island in the Mediterranean and chocolate would be considered a health food.

Instead, I suspect we need to re-think our early education programs. Certainly, we have to provide academic and cognitive skills at the early stages of a child’s education, but we also need to recognize that increasing as student’s vocabulary or her math skills as a kindergartner or pre-school student is less important than teaching her how to complete tasks, control her impulses, and avoid distractions.

I recognize that such a system seems a bit draconian and in direct contrast to the idea of education as a tool to teach socialization or the emphasis on standardized knowledge and grade level testing.

But, and I think this is the argument Tough is making, such a system supports both. Students who learn self-regulation at an early age will have the confidence to explore new ideas and a heightened ability to learn.

I just hope in the second half of the book Tough shows me how we can pull this off.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

3 Responses to Discipline Breeds Performance: A Sort of Book Review

  1. How fascinating! I have seen so many children going through school systems that have no sense of self-discipline; or, for that matter, of self. As a musician who studied under a reputable performer and pedagogue, I feel discipline is one of the greatest gifts a person can have. It applies in every area of one’s life and can only benefit the individual. Thanks for sharing – I’ll have to find a local copy and give it a read myself!

  2. Thanks for introducing me to Tough’s book. As the mother of preschoolers, I witness daily what Tough writes about–the importance of a child’s optimism, self-regulation, enthusiasm, and gratitude to his ability to reach a goal and achieve a sense of satisfaction.

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