Grit is good, but it’s not enough

Is Grit Enough?  In his look at Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, Robert Pondiscio highlights the chapter on the winning chess team at a Brooklyn middle school. Coach Elizabeth Spiegel spends “most of her time telling her students how they were messing up” in chess tournaments, Tough writes. “She does not hug.”

One of her stars, James Black, achieved master status before turning 13 and became a national champion. He beat a Ukrainian grand master. Despite good grades (a sign of grit), he does poorly on state exams. Spiegel pledged to prepare him for  New York City’s entrance exam for elite public high schools. But there was too much to learn.

“She was working hard with James on the test, and he was applying himself, even on hot summer days, but she was daunted by how much he didn’t know.  He couldn’t locate Africa or Asia on a map.  He couldn’t name a single European country.  When they did reading-comprehension drills, he didn’t recognize words like infant and communal and beneficial. . . . When James would get downhearted, and say that he just wasn’t any good at analogies or trigonometry, Spiegel would reply cheerfully that it was just like chess: a few years earlier, he had been no good at chess, and then he got specialized training and worked hard and mastered it.”

Despite his “keen intelligence” and grit, James couldn’t beat the test. Years of academic knowledge and skill isn’t crammable, writes Pondiscio.

Spiegel was angry about how little non-chess information James had been taught, she told Tough.

“He knows basic fractions, but he doesn’t know geometry, he doesn’t get the idea of writing an equation. He’s at the level I would have been at in second or third grade. It feels like he should have learned more.”

Without educated parents, James needed to be taught academic knowledge and vocabulary in school, Pondiscio writes.

The suggested takeaway for educators:  Kids need grit.  But schools need to be very smart and strategic from the very first days of school about the knowledge and skills we ask kids to be gritty about.

Tough talks about character and schools with Ed Week blogger Larry Ferlazzo.

 

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Comments

  1. The Polgar family has proven that grit IS enough when combined with obsessive parenting. The Polgar girls were trained from an early age in chess. Susan and Judit are GMs and Sofia is an IM (International Master). This, in an era where women were not even allowed in some of the high-level tournaments.

    I looked James Black up on the USCF website and he is already a Life Master. He could conceivably become a GM before he’s 20, so why bother with trigonometry? Private lessons with a GM run $70/hr. He could book appearances for $4,000 or much higher depending on demand.

    I don’t know where he got the money to get FIDE-rated and all that but he should totally go for it. :)

  2. “This, in an era where women were not even allowed in some of the high-level tournaments.”

    I would like some evidence that women were disqualified from high level chess tournaments in the 1980s and following for reasons other than their rating.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        Okay … I read this, but it doesn’t match my understanding of the rules (even back then).

        There never has been a “Men’s” grandmaster title. The grandmaster title existed (since the early 1900s), and for a long time no women achieved it. So FIDE created Womens titles. But the grandmaster title didn’t get changed to “Men’s grandmaster”.

        This CNN article matches my understanding of the rules (even back in 1986):

        In chess, women’s tournaments are only open to females, but women may compete in tournaments for men. It was Polgar’s older sister Susan who broke this gender barrier, becoming the first woman to qualify for the men’s world championship in 1986, and the first woman to earn a men’s grandmaster title in 1991. Younger sister, Sofia, is an International Chess Master, too.

        [I have a problem with the "Men's" title part ... be patient]

        Note that it doesn’t say that women were not permitted to play … the gender barrier was that no woman had qualified before.

        It would also help if the CNN article (and Judit’s page) were more accurate. The sequence is usually something like Interzonal to Candidates Tournament to the World Championship match (which has only two players). She didn’t play in the 1986 match (because it was a Karpov vs. Kasparov rematch). And I don’t think she made it to the Candidates tournament because Wiki lists the players and she isn’t one of them.

        So I’m assuming that she played in an Interzonal. But I can’t find the list and I’ll need more than her web page claiming that the rules specified men only. A link to the previous rules (or to the change) would work, but without that I’m willing to believe that the was the first woman to play in an Interzonal, but not that the rules specified that you had to be a man to do so. Much like Major League Baseball doesn’t specify that you have to be male to play … it is just that no woman has ever done so. There won’t be a rule change required for a woman to play … just a team willing to play a woman.

  3. “I looked James Black up on the USCF website and he is already a Life Master. He could conceivably become a GM before he’s 20, so why bother with trigonometry? Private lessons with a GM run $70/hr. He could book appearances for $4,000 or much higher depending on demand.”

    He *could* book appearances for $4K or more. But he probably won’t.

    I’ve been out of the chess scene for a while, but even top-100 USCF rated players rarely got paid appearance money for tournaments, so who would pay $4K on a regular basis?

    Making a living playing chess is a very rough life unless you are in the top few hundred or so in the *world*. James doesn’t look like his career is shaping up to be engineering/medicine/law, so focusing entirely on chess isn’t going to be throwing away a career in one of those fields, but focusing on chess at this age is very similar to focusing on football in high school. It might work out. But it if doesn’t, you don’t have a strong fall-back position.

    I wish him well, but the difference in lifestyle between the top 100 engineers in the US and the top 1000 isn’t super large. The difference in lifestyle between the top 25 chess players and the top 1,000 is huge. So aiming an missing in chess carries a lot of risk.

    • It does, Mark! And you are absolutely, absolutely right. I know parents of an extremely promising young man (current Kansas champ) feel the same way. Concentrate on the schoolwork; you’ll do better that way overall, likely.

      I guess past a certain point, though, what’s the point of hampering your chess studies by working on maths if that’s not your strong point, and you have a good chance with chess? Though in fairness, I’m not sure if the article means that he simply wasn’t trained well throughout his schooling and he could have done well had they started intensively studying mathematics earlier.

      BTW I belong to a chess club and yes, they do fork out money to have grandmasters pop by. Perhaps not regularly enough for them to earn the bulk of their living, but it happens. Even John Watson, who is “just” an IM, got a nice fee and hotel etc.

      There’s money to be had if he writes books and does appearances, or coaches children. He could run a chess school for that matter.

      PS Mark, I notice most players are young men or older, retired men. Not too many in between because they are busy with families and whatnot. So you may get back to it later! :)

      • Mark Roulo says:

        I’m actually thinking about getting back into chess.

        The fairly new 30-minute tournaments go a long way towards persuading me to play again. I never did like 8+ hours for two days straight for just four games. With 30 minute games, I’m hoping that there are tournaments that are just one day and I won’t have to commit an entire weekend.

        • Come to Kansas City Chess Club sometime and we’d actually meet in person! Three 30-minute UNRATED games every Wednesday. Shameless plug, I get no money for that, but I enjoy going with my son!

          BTW if you get on ICC, my son’s handle is Augustus. He is unable to chat/send messages (!) but he loves a good game.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        “I guess past a certain point, though, what’s the point of hampering your chess studies by working on maths if that’s not your strong point, and you have a good chance with chess?”

        I think we agree about this. I’m just not convinced that age 12 or 13 and national master is that point. If he was a young IGM and the school work wasn’t going well that would be different. And it might be different for him in a few years.

        Not that it really matters what we think :-)