Long ago, I had the pleasure of co-teaching with Tom Little for 2 years. Most recently, Tom and Park Day School co-hosted a screening of Brooklyn Castle, a feature film that details the grit of a national championship chess team from a public middle school in Brooklyn. This chess team was also featured in a new book by Paul Tough, which Tom comments on below. We will interview Paul Tough in an upcoming post. - Sam Piha
By Guest Blogger, Tom Little, Head of School at Park Day School
Much is being made these days about character. Especially
those virtues of character related to grit, perseverance and all manner of a
person’s capacity to persist and endure. Educators across the country are
making waves in schools and school districts on the heels of the release of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by
Paul Tough. Tough is a writer for the N.Y. Times who wrote an article last year
presaging the publication of his book. Pulling together findings from various
fields, Tough makes the case that there are traits beyond cognitive ability,
namely perseverance, resiliency and optimism, necessary for academic
Even before his book was released, I could see the tides
rising. Last year I wrote an article for Park Central asking to what extent the development of character was the province
of a school, using as examples Tough’s description of schools in New York which
have embarked on efforts to make character development essential to their
Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania is featured
prominently in Tough’s book (see her 2009 TEDtalk on the subject of Grit here).
Duckworth’s research focuses on hundreds of subjects who had achieved
measurable success, and revealed that the most successful individuals have in
common character traits such as perseverance, grit, and diligence. More than
intelligence or talent, in study after study these attributes demonstrated that
the “grittier” a person is, the more he or she is likely to succeed. Both Tough
and Duckworth make the distinction between two categories of character: moral
character and performance character. Moral character embodies ethical values
like fairness, generosity, compassion and integrity, while performance
character refers to values such as effort, diligence, and grit.
So, what is grit? In her tool measuring this attribute in
children and adults, Duckworth looks at a person’s reaction to very difficult
or challenging tasks; how does one respond to failure? Does one have the
capacity to stick with projects that require perseverance and hard work? Grit
is a measurement of how one endures and pushes through obstacles in pursuit of
a goal or passion.
It’s no surprise if you are asking (as I have been), “so,
how can we teach grit?” Are there teacher parenting or educational strategies
that seem to foster these virtues in our children?
In his book, Tough illustrates that the most important
factors in a child’s early life are close, loving, nurturing, and attached
relationships with a parent (or guardian). Ironically, the need to pull back
becomes vital as the children grow. Resisting the temptation to intervene, we
need to allow children to stumble and fall, experience failure, have lots of
frustrations and disappointments, then to dust off and carry on, learning
something about themselves in the process.
Progressive educators have resonated strongly with Tough’s
premise and the recent research in the measurement of student success. We
understand the need to partner with parents in the challenging task of child
rearing. Weighing on us is the tension between wanting to pave the way for
children and allowing them to experience disappointment and failure. As
parents, we can feel it viscerally – the pain of failure – we want to fix it or
make it better. This tendency is quintessential to parenting. Teachers also
face this struggle.
In part, the teaching of character arises situation by
situation. I spoke recently with a parent whose daughter had “hit a wall” while
trying to learn a new skill.
Though she wanted to quit, he pushed her to stick with it and she
finally succeeded in learning the process. It was difficult for him to watch
her angst and resistance. Similarly, I recently observed a teacher who insisted
that two students who were involved in a conflict sit as long as necessary for
them to resolve their issue. I saw the students’ transition from a fevered
pitch of anger and venom to a reasonable place of calm and measured discussion
and problem solving. In these situations, had it not been for the parent and
the teacher, the players would have walked away from an important learning
I recommend that folks read Paul Tough’s book. It has
spawned countless blogs and commentary such as this. The book validates our
mission of holding children’s social and emotional development, and brings into
relief the importance of encouraging the development of their character. These
virtues are important to their success as students, but equally to their
success at life.
Tom Little was a founding teacher at Park Day School in 1976, and taught for ten years before becoming the Director in 1986. He earned his Masters Degree in Educational Leadership at Teachers College, Columbia, at the Klingenstein Leadership Academy. In 2001, Tom was awarded a Klingenstein Visiting Heads Fellowship. From 1997-2003, he served as the Private School Representative on the Mayor's Oakland Education Cabinet. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Oakland Academic Stars, an organization providing college scholarships for public school students in Oakland. Tom is also on the Board of Wingspan, a national organization sponsoring public and private school partnerships. He serves on the Board of the Progressive Education Network, a national organization of educators working to advance progressive educational practices throughout the United States. Tom has consulted on educational matters with public and private schools in the Bay Area and in Ireland. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have two grown children, both of whom are Park Day School graduates, Courtney ('93) and Matthew ('00).