What do a West Point cadet, Ivy League undergraduate, and Scripps National Spelling Bee finalist have in common? They’ve all got grit!

Last week, we introduced you to Growth Mindset, the concept that your skills and abilities can improve through learning, perseverance, and good mentoring.  Although we did not mention it at the time, Growth Mindset is closely related to another non-cognitive skill, and the topic of today’s post, known as grit.

Introduced in a 2007 paper by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth, people with grit exhibit “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Although these individuals often have Growth Mindsets, too, their focus on the long-term allows them to persist through short-term challenges. For example Duckworth and colleagues' paper demonstrated the power of grit with a group of West Point Military Academy cadets entering their first summer of training – a physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting period called “Beast Barracks.” Using their grit scale, the researchers wanted to see how well grit could predict which cadets would remain at West Point after the summer. Duckworth and colleagues found that grit was the best predictor of which cadets stayed, even beyond West Point’s own system for predicting cadet retention!

Duckworth and colleagues also explored the power of grit with University of Pennsylvania undergraduates, and Scripps National Spelling Bee contestants. Among the University students, grit was a significant predictor of GPA, although it was associated with lower SAT scores, suggesting that the “less smart” students could have relied on their grittiness to “make up the difference” in the classroom. At the National Spelling Bee, grittiness predicted which spellers would advance to further rounds, and how many National Bees they had previously attended. 

Since its debut, grit’s popularity has soared - with Duckworth’s TED Talk viewed over 8 million times on the TED website!  In 2014, psychologists in the Duckworth Lab even discovered that grit could predict all sorts of life outcomes, from how likely a sales employee was to keep their job to how likely a man was to stay married.

That said, nowhere has grit been more important – and more controversial - than in the classroom. Grittiness predicts both a students’ likelihood to graduate from high school, and a teachers’ likelihood of staying and teaching in a “tough neighborhood.” As a result, teachers are racing to learn more about grit, and figure out how they can apply it in their classrooms. Fortunately for our nation’s teachers, Duckworth and colleagues emphasize that grit can be taught – just like Growth Mindset! In fact, an in-class intervention is underway right now to build grittiness among low-achieving students, with results coming soon!

Despite the growing support for grit among educators and researchers, Duckworth and her colleagues urge caution when it comes to using the Grit Scale like a standardized test to evaluate teachers and schools. As Duckworth and David Scott Yeager emphasize in their 2015 paper, the current tools for measuring grit – student psychologists and educators should carefully “seek out the ‘most valid measure for their intended purpose.’” In terms of using grit as an evaluation tool, Duckworth and Yeager say that we need to know more about how to use grit data to improve classroom instruction before rushing to judge teachers and schools on student grittiness.

Although Duckworth and Yeager are concerned about grit-based evaluations, others are critical of teaching grit at all. In 2014, The Washington Post published an essay by education expert Alfie Kohn under the headline “Ten concerns about the ‘let’s teach them grit fad.’” In it, he argued that grit supporters emphasize student persistence without considering the value of the task itself. As stated, “Whether persistence is desirable depends on your goal. Not everything is worth doing, let alone doing for extended periods. And not everyone who works hard is pursuing something worthwhile…it’s the choice of the goal that ought to come first and count more.”

Kohn also commented that it is equally important to learn when it is okay to walk away from a task, noting “…It can take guts to cut your losses. That’s as important a message to teach our children as the usefulness of perseverance.” Finally, he was concerned that Duckworth’s research focuses on naturally persistent people (like West Point cadets and Spelling Bee finalists), seeming to ignore everyone else, but Duckworth and colleagues acknowledged this shortcoming in their 2007 paper, which is likely why they began the in-class intervention described above.

However, Kohn’s last two points still seem important to think about. First, he argued that grit supporters value depth and specialization over breadth and exploration, a timely statement given the ongoing discussion in education about college and career-readiness. Lastly, Kohn labeled grit as “politically conservative”, claiming “The more we focus on whether people have or lack persistence (or self-discipline more generally), the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies and institutions” – and in an age of education reform, this is important to consider.

Grit is impressive, but complicated. While it is a powerful predictor of tomorrow’s success, factors like student ambitions and underlying flaws in the educational system should not be ignored, and policymakers and administrators should recognize the limitations of our current tools. As long as those issues are recognized, grit itself remains a critical and teachable skill for today’s children.

 

 

 

References:

Davis, V. (2015). True Grit: The Best Measure of Success and How to Teach It.  Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/true-grit-measure-teach-success-vicki-davis

Duckworth, A. L. (2007). 12-Item Grit Scale [Measurement instrument].   Retrieved from https://upenn.app.box.com/12itemgrit

Duckworth, A. L. (2013). The key to success? Grit. TED Talks Education. New York, NY: TED Conferences, LLC.

Duckworth, A. L. (2015). Research Statement.   Retrieved from https://sites.sas.upenn.edu/duckworth/pages/research-statement

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.

Duckworth, A. L., & Yeager, D. S. (2015). Measurement Matters: Assessing Personal Qualities Other Than Cognitive Ability for Educational Purposes. Educational Researcher, 44(4), 237-251.

Eskreis-Winkler, L., Shulman, E. P., Beal, S. A., & Duckworth, A. L. (2014). The grit effect: predicting retention in the military, the workplace, school and marriage. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-12.

Kohn, A. (2014). Ten concerns about the 'let's teach them grit' fad.  Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/04/08/ten-concerns-about-the-lets-teach-them-grit-fad/

North, A. (2015). Should Schools Teach Personality?  Retrieved from http://op-talk.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/10/should-schools-teach-personality/?_r=0

Perkins-Gough, D. (2013). The Significance of Grit: A Conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 14-20.

Robertson-Kraft, C., & Duckworth, A. L. (2014). True Grit: Trait-level Perseverance and Passion for Long-term Goals Predicts Effectiveness and Retention among Novice Teachers. Teachers College Record, 116(3), 1-27.

 

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