Book Reviews

The Puzzle of Teaching and the Puzzle of Student Success
An Anecdotal Book Review

By Lynn Frances Guthrie, BA, MA

Teaching is a puzzle that keeps me thinking all the time. In my work with students who have learning disabilities, statistics prove that the most beneficial and most effective educational approaches include “explicit, systematic, cumulative, and multisensory” instruction. But what may seem like a straightforward plan is not always so easily implemented. Depending on the student, one needs to be systematic or creative or systematically creative. It’s a question of tuning and retuning and fine-tuning as progress is made and setbacks are faced.

Adding to the complexity are the social and emotional problems related to learning difficulties. “Anxiety caused by constant frustration and confusion in school,” can make a student vulnerable to feelings of fear, anger, inferiority, and a barrage of ensuing emotional/behavioral issues. The world we live in also plays a part. The fact that information is literally streaming towards us at an ever-increasing speed from multiple simultaneous sources has to have consequences on our ability to sit still and concentrate. Is it any wonder that more and more children and adults are diagnosed with attention issues that affect learning? And finally, the greatest impact on educational success, and perhaps the most deeply rooted, is socio-economic status. Is the playing field equal for a child born into the upper or middle class versus a child born to working class or welfare parents?

As an educator I’ve taught a variety of students over the years, both in-school and privately. My current student roster is widely diverse. It includes twelve males and five females. One Cambodian American student, one Haitian American student, a Japanese American, a Somali American, an African American, a Native American, an Israeli American, and ten Caucasian students. That incredible mix of backgrounds includes two seven-year-olds, two eight-year-olds, three nine-year-olds, three ten-year olds, three eleven-year-olds, one twelve-year-old, one seventeen-year-old, and two adults. Thirteen of the students live in two-parent households. Three split their time between divorced parents. One lives in a single-parent household. All of the parents work but their jobs and incomes range from upper middle class to middle class to working class, from lawyers to janitors. Four students are enrolled in parochial schools, four in private schools, and seven in public schools. My two adult students are developmentally disabled and work at forty-hour-a-week jobs.

For me, teaching involves awareness and understanding of such issues as dyslexia, dysgraphia, learning deficits for numerous reasons, developmental delays, attention difficulties, multiple intelligences, systematic instruction, attentive listening, and teaching moments that can inspire students of all levels to explore and expand. Apart from the differences in age and sheer numbers, the composition of my clientele mirrors most inner city classrooms. It is as complex and multifaceted with the same variables and immense challenges that arise from the same diversity. The big difference is I have the luxury of tailoring my work to each student’s individual needs.


So what is the best way to achieve student success? The answer is not simple. It’s not just through teaching methodologies, curriculum, technology, or academic standards. It’s more comprehensive than that. Naming the pieces is important but figuring out how they best fit together is key. Two books, one published almost twenty years ago and one published this past year, offer insights into the matter. They also offer hope couched in the realization that change is painstakingly slow, when time is clearly of the essence. There is such urgency to the task of rebuilding America’s educational system, such a need to produce thinkers equipped to face the demands of this millennium and beyond.

In Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, a book published almost 20 years ago, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley present a rigorous study of language acquisition (or lack thereof) in American children and offer devastating data. The amount of words a child knows by the age of three years old is highly linked to socio-economic strata. Hart and Risley recorded the number of interactions between parents and children in a broad swath of project participants across 42 families. The conclusion was that “socio economic status made an overwhelming difference in how much talking went on in a family.” Children from professional families “would have heard more than 30 million words” in the first year three years of life, “the children from working class families 20 million, and the children in welfare families 10 million.” Not so much the kind, but the amount of utterances combined with parental interactions, would make an exponentially huge impact in the years to come. By the third grade, academic success was clearly contingent on vocabulary acquisition. The study showed an “ever widening gap in vocabulary use”, dependent on the amount and richness of daily experience. Even more poignant, the authors concluded that in the lower economic strata, “the poverty of experience is transmitted across generations.”

In his recent book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough’s findings mirror to a great extent the findings of Hart and Risley. In this highly readable and passionate treatise on the impact of socio-economic status on America’s diverse student population, Tough presents several moving examples of teachers and students who persevere to realize their potential. He agrees with Hart and Risley that early intervention in the form of nurturing support within the family, supplemented by the community, is both beneficial and crucial to healthy human development, but he also presents a strong argument for another ingredient in academic and professional success. He leans heavily on the value of what he calls character strength or noncognitive skills. Drawing on the ideas of innovative educators throughout history, including Lev Vygotsky, Geoffrey Canada, and others, Tough enhances his thesis that building noncognitive skills is key to the confident and questioning mindset that will carry students through the learning experiences in their lives and allow them to grow and flourish.

What then are noncognitive skills? Tough posits these develop as the prefrontal cortex develops, similarly to executive function skills such as self-regulation, the ability to focus attention, retain and process information, connect and organize thoughts, and engage in meaningful discussion. Included on Tough’s list are impulse control, tenacity, and grit or resilience—all critical qualities when facing and managing adversity but lacking in many students. Brain science shows that these noncognitive skills are not innate but learned, and their implementation takes time, often through adolescence and into adulthood. The good news is this means they are valuable tools that can level the playing field across economic strata. Both Paul Tough and the Hart and Risley study advocate more effective support for parents in developing skills and strengths in their children, but they do not stop there. Tough urges taking an active role. “This means the rest of us – society as a whole – can do an enormous amount to influence [the] development [of character strength].” Teachers, mentors, coaches, neighbors, local and national government – all of us have a role in creating smart, strong, thoughtful, caring children.

The Hart and Risley study and Paul Tough paint a harsh picture tempered with optimism. “It is possible to provide all children equal experience and thus equal opportunity,” Hart and Risley state while encouraging early involvement on familial, educational, political, and governmental levels. Tough, meanwhile, tells inspirational tales. He presents struggling students who struggle at home as well as school, facing hunger, chaotic family situations, and often abuse and contrasts them with students from wealthy families in high achieving schools, wanting for nothing but their seldom seen parents who prioritize work over family life. Against all odds and with support from the wider social safety net that both authors insist we must continue to create, these students and more not only survive but succeed.

Reviewed by:
Lynn Frances Guthrie, B.A., M.A.
Literacy Specialist & Owner
Seattle, Washington
(206) 723-6538


International Dyslexia Association (2011). JUST THE FACTS, A PARENT’S GUIDE TO EFFECTIVE INSTRUCTION.
Hart, Betty & Risley, Todd R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children. 268 pages. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Tough, Paul. (2012). How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. 231 pages. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.