Paul Tough: The Building of Character
If I were to summarize Paul Tough’s California Endowment speech, Why Some Children Succeed While Others Lose Their Way — based on his book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character — in a few words I would say, the building of character. Optimism, zest, curiosity, social intelligence, gratitude, self-control and grit are the main character traits Paul Tough believes children should develop along with adversity management helping to strengthen those qualities.
What interested me about Paul Tough’s speech were the three reasons as to why he thinks the current American education system should pay more attention to the building of character. First, adolescence is a crucial period for the formation of character. Second, intelligence is less malleable than character. Third, the current education system overemphasizes cognitive skills through standardized tests. As a result, students might be skilled test-takers but they lack “the inner strength to deal with real life challenges.” In his speech, Tough compared test-taking to a treadmill and real life challenges to climbing.
I agree with him on the first two reasons, but have doubts about his conclusions on the impacts of standardized tests on character building. I lived in China until 22 years old and my adolescent years were teemed with standardized exams. If, according to Paul Tough, a good education system is one that encourages optimism, zest, curiosity, social intelligence, gratitude, self-control and grit, then I would say that standardized tests are a good place to start building those traits.
Throughout my adolescent years, I experienced thousands of exams. I usually had quizzes after every chapter I was taught, in addition to mid-terms and finals. Exams were usually standardized, which means my classmates and I were tested on the same questions and graded by the same criterions. The only exceptions, where there was no standard answer, were open-ended questions on Chinese and English exams, especially creative writing exams. There were usually around 50 students in my class before I entered university; we had all classes and exams together. That said, I always had the same peers/competitors for every exam. As a group, we competed with the other students in the same grade, ranging from 200 students in elementary school to 500 students in high school. Therefore, if test-taking in the United States is like a treadmill, my experiences of test-taking in China were probably more intensive than that.
I, together with other Chinese students of my generation, grew up hearing ascetic attacks at home and abroad of the Chinese education system as being based on rote memorization and driven by tests, but I do not think those criticisms are to the point. First, it is impossible to depend on memorization alone to do well on exams; comprehension is indispensable. Second, a test-driven education system is a similitude of real life challenges. You may know that Chinese students are told over and over again that high scores are necessary for entering top universities, but you might not know that we are also reassured a million times that the scores are not the only standard by which a student is judged. In that sense, if the stress is not offset by the reassurance, we at least learn one thing by heart: Standardized tests become tough only when students are convinced that they won’t be considered “successful” unless they score higher than others.
Doesn’t that sound just like real life? Real life becomes daunting when people are convinced that they won’t be considered “successful” unless they score higher than others, in terms of income, educational background, social status and, in some countries, race or ethnicity. Of course, for people who don’t give in to the established norms about success, there is a different story. Yet, for the rest of the people, standardized tests prepare them for real life challenges. They have lots of opportunities to learn to deal with adversities. The more competitors they have and the harder the exams are, the more character traits suggested by Paul Tough they need to succeed. In my case, optimism, curiosity, social intelligence and grit are the four major character traits I worked hard on throughout years of test-taking experiences.
Curiosity: Thanks to the criticisms of the Chinese education system, I’ve always been convinced that what I learned in China is only one of the many ways of looking at the world. There’s always more to learn.
Social Intelligence: When you take 40 classes with the same 50 students five or five and a half days a week and there is no way to switch seats in the classroom, you have to think about how to deal with people, in addition to your teachers and parents who are probably more stressed out than you are.
Grit: It was greatly developed in the last year of high school by taking at least one exam a day. By the time I no longer felt nervous about exams or dispirited by a temporary bad score, I began to think of life as a string of exams (which I might or might not take together with other people) to help myself learn.
Six years have passed by since I graduated from high school. Exams were not the center of my life at undergraduate university and grad school. The concepts, theories, theorems, equations I once learned for the exams were replaced by new sets of working knowledge that I picked up to complete various tasks, but the life philosophy and character traits I developed during the exam-based learning experiences are still with me, whether I’m going to live a successful and mundane life or a quiet and creative one.