June 2, 2016
Building Learning Environments to Help All Children Succeed

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of introducing author Paul Tough at the NewSchools Venture Fund Summit. Paul’s book “How Children Succeed” had a big impact on my wife, Tricia, and me. It highlighted what really matters in supporting children to succeed academically. The compelling case it made for the importance of non-cognitive skills galvanized much of the work we’ve done at the Raikes Foundation over the past several years around learning mindsets and skills.

This week, Paul is back with his follow-up book, “Helping Children Succeed,” which the Raikes Foundation is proud to support. As I discussed onstage with Paul at the NSVF Summit, this new work digs deeper into the effects adversity can have on children’s development, and offers tangible examples of how schools can help foster the learning mindsets we know are fundamental to children’s success in school and life. The onstage discussion was a good one, as is always the case with Paul, but I left even more invigorated by what we heard from the education leaders in attendance.

Most of all, there was clear consensus that students’ learning mindsets are the product of their learning environments—not innate traits—and that access to supportive learning environments is inextricably linked to issues of race and equity in our country. These points are often lost in the mainstream fervor over concepts like grit and growth mindsets, but researchers and educators are rightfully quick to cry foul when these important variables are overlooked. I appreciated the thoughtful critique and conversation around this point at the summit.

As Paul’s book aptly outlines, the education field can only be successful in promoting non-cognitive skills if we recognize that our work can’t be about “fixing” kids who don't demonstrate these skills. Even a cursory understanding of the research or, even better, a brief conversation with students or teachers shows how dangerously flawed this thinking is. Instead, we must be focused on building the learning environments that all kids need for healthy learning and development. These environments instill students with a sense of belonging, provide them with rigorous, relevant content, and help them understand the broader purpose of this content to their individual goals and aspirations beyond the classroom.   

Nowhere is this more important than for low-income students and students of color, who are the new majority in our public schools and have been historically underserved by our education system. Despite increasing attention and investment to close the opportunity gap, race and class are still the strongest predictors of whether youth will achieve the educational outcomes that enable the autonomy and self-determination that all Americans deserve. We need to support educators with the know-how, funding and opportunities to innovate that will enable them to make supportive environments available to all students. 

This emphasis on environment and equity has been an important shift for our own work, and one we’re particularly excited about. As we look toward the future of learning mindsets and skills research and its translation into practice, I have no doubt that Paul’s new book and the conversations it’s prompted will play an important role in advancing this work in thoughtful, constructive ways. You can read an excerpt of his book here, and we look forward to reading your thoughts online under the hashtag #PaulToughBook.