Less talk about grit, more action

Instead of trying to teach “grit,” schools should embed the development of grit by moving to competency-based learning, argues Michael Horn on EdSurge.

Persistence isn’t rewarded in traditional classrooms, he argues. Whether a student works hard to achieve mastery, squeaks past the test or never really gets the concept, everyone moves on when it’s time.

In a competency system, students must show mastery in order to move ahead — or dig deeper into the topic.

With the help of digital learning, it may be possible to measure students’ persistence by analyzing how they spend their time, writes Horn.

Can data from edtech tools provide insights into what students do when they fail? . . . Do students pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and attack the work again and exhibit real resilience? Do they need time and space — and can they create that time and space intentionally — before diving back in? Or do they just struggle to re-engage?

Poor kids with a “growth mindset” — the belief they can improve through hard work — do as well on tests as affluent students with a “fixed mindset,” concludes a large-scale study of 10th graders in Chile, reports Evie Blad in Education Week.

Compared to higher-income students, students from low-income families were much more likely to believe that intelligence and academic performance is fixed, the Stanford study found. But those who did have a growth mindset had much higher test scores.

Stanford Professor Carol Dweck and co-researchers used other questions to control for the possibility that academic performance comes before the growth mindset, writes Blad. “Our effect is not because of the fact that students who see themselves as doing well simply observe their academic growth and come to the conclusion that intelligence can be developed,” they concluded.

Grit is real, but . . . 

“Grit” isn’t just a fad, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham. It’s a “useful construct for understanding human behavior.” But grit is only one of several beneficial personality traits that schools might try to cultivate.

Grit is used to describe commitment to a long-term goal, while “conscientiousness means doing what you’re supposed to do right now, and self-control means avoiding impulses to do something else,” he writes.

Grit is best measured by what people do rather than what they claim to value: “A high school student who had committed to an activity — the school newspaper, say —for four years, and was made an editor in her final year, has shown grit.”

Of course, young people may switch their goals for good reason. Would we worry that a kid who wanted to be a Kardashian has committed to studying fashion design? (Or anything other than being a Kardashian.) Many people don’t find their lifelong “thing” in high school.

In addition to grit, conscientiousness and self-control, schools might try to cultivate “kindness, honesty, optimism, courage, and empathy, among others,” Willingham writes. These personality traits contribute to academic success, good relationships with others and a positive classroom atmosphere.

Hamilton and the American Dream

Seven years ago at the White House, Lin-Manuel performed what would become the first song of Hamilton, later to win 11 Tony awards.

The crowd thought a musical about Alexander Hamilton was a joke, writes Andy Smarick on The 74. Miranda, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants, persisted with “Hamilton-esque doggedness.”

Traditionally, struggle and success have been paired, writes Smarick.

Whether the American DreambootstrappingHoratio Alger-ism, or Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” our story was that anyone willing to tirelessly strive had access to endless possibilities.

Now, some are “seeking to unmask ‘privilege‘,” while others advocate “grit,” he writes. The underlying issue is “the extent to which effort matters.”

I believe the “privilege” lens can be like a candle used for illumination: It reveals dark corners, helping us see the meaningful advantages and disadvantages people possess through no credit or fault of their own. But the privilege candle can also be used for arson, to burn down what others have built through labor. By attributing too much of one’s success to luck, it can diminish her effort and sacrifice. Worse, it can undermine our collective interest in inculcating in our students values (like conscientiousness, verve, and determination) that lead to individual, community, and national flourishing.

Schools should “teach our kids about responding to adversity,” writes Smarick. “Do we imply to our kids that there’s only so much they can do, or do we teach them the lessons of the American Dream and Hamilton’s anthem?
I’m just like my country.
I’m young, scrappy, and hungry
.

And I’m not throwing away my shot.”

If kids are taught they’re victims, they won’t try very hard — what’s the point? — or go very far.

Flit the grit: You can’t teach personality

Grit is a personality trait, not a skill to be taught, argues Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst in a review of new research. Basically, “grit is just conscientiousness,” he concludes.

(Schools) should encourage and reward students for persistence and hard work rather than trying to increase their grit. And instead of trying to impact students’ conscientiousness, they should provide task-specific training on how to manage time and complete assignments, and meaningful consequences for doing so.

Grit primarily is inherited, not created by family or school environments, according to twin studies, writes Whitehurst.

Furthermore, many factors, such as study skills, test anxiety, and learning strategies, have more influence on achievement scores than grit.

Employers say the number one skill that leads to success is conscientiousness.

Grit has many earmarks of a fad, writes Jay Greene, but character skills aren’t chopped liver.

Grit and other character skills may not strongly predict achievement test results, but they do predict life outcomes, such as “educational attainment, employment, and earnings . . . even after cognitive ability and other factors are controlled,” writes Greene. And there’s evidence that character skills are malleable.

Parenting and the poverty gap

Poor kids are behind — way behind — on the first day of school, said Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia professor, at an Education Writers Association discussion on equity, poverty, and education. Seventy percent of the achievement gap at age 11 was there when lower-income children started kindergarten, she said.

Boston has launched a campaign called “The Boston Basics,” led by Ronald Ferguson’s Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, to help parents nurture their children in the first three years of life.

There are five basics: maximize love and manage stress; talk, sing, and point; count, group, and compare; explore through movement and play; and read and discuss stories.

Paul Tough, author of Helping Children Succeed, talked about improving children’s environment at home and at school.

When kids grow up in a calm, nurturing environment their brains send them signals to relax, and that encourages them to be curious and take risks, Tough explained. In contrast, kids who live in chaotic environments get brain signals that fire up “fight-or-flight” responses, he said.

“It’s hard for them to concentrate,” Tough explained. “They’re distracted by the emotions and anxieties that are flooding their nervous systems.”

Grit and resilience can’t be taught like math or reading, writes Tough in The Atlantic. However, some teachers and schools are able to reach stressed students.

The central premise of EL schools is that character is built . . .  through the experience of persevering as students confront challenging academic work.

. . . In general, when schools do try to directly address the impact that a stress-filled childhood might have on disadvantaged students, the first—and often the only—approach they employ has to do with their students’ emotional health, with relationships and belonging.

That’s not enough, writes Tough. “For a student to truly feel motivated by and about school, he also has to perceive that he is doing work that is challenging, rigorous, and meaningful.”

Kids need ‘serve-and-return’ parents, teachers

Skills such as self-control, resilience and grit are products of a child’s home and school environment, writes Paul Tough in his new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.
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What’s most important is “the way the adults in their lives interact with them, especially in times of stress.”

That sums up nearly all we need to know about parenting and teaching, writes Annie Murphy Paul on Brilliant Blog.

Warm, “serve-and-return parenting,” which can be done in many ways, “conveys to [children] some deep, even transcendent messages about belonging, security, stability, and their place in the world.”

Effective teachers “convey to their students deep messages—often implicitly or even subliminally—about belonging, connection, ability, and opportunity . . . In the same way that responsive parenting in early childhood creates a kind of mental space where a child’s first tentative steps toward intellectual learning can take place, so do the right kind of messages from teachers in school create a mental space that allows a student to engage in more advanced and demanding academic learning.”

In addition, writes Paul, students must be exposed to deep, meaningful, sensibly sequenced knowledge.”

Getting grit: Balance challenge, support

In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth tells stories about exceptionally gritty people, including NFL football players, West Point cadets and successful business leaders.

The book includes Duckworth’s personal story, writes Evie Blad in Education Week.  When she was a child, her father would say: “You know, you’re no genius!”

After earning a Harvard degree and a “genius” award, Duckworth dreams of traveling back in time to confront her father.  “I’m going to grow up to love my work as much as you love yours. I won’t just have a job; I’ll have a calling. I’ll challenge myself every day. When I get knocked down, I’ll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll strive to be the grittiest.”

Educators have “embraced the grit concept in recent years along with a wave of research and policy centered on a variety of non cognitive traits and social-emotional skills, like growth mindset, self control, empathy, and healthy relationship skills,” writes Blad. Stanford’s Carol Dweck gives similar advice on promoting a “growth mindset,” the belief that struggle is a sign you’re learning — not a marker of inevitable failure.

The question is whether schools can “teach” these skills.  Duckworth thinks a mix of challenging assignments and support will enable students to strengthen their ability to overcome obstacles.

Teachers should ask themselves: “Is there a clear learning goal that’s very specific and do my students really know it? Do they have a clear strategy to remove distractions so they can focus 100 percent?” Duckworth said.

And they should offer frequent feedback, she said.

“They should ask themselves, ‘Am I encouraging repetition and refinement, or, as when I hand back your term paper or your test, is it over?’ “

At the Education Writers Association conference last week, Duckworth said schools shouldn’t blame students for lacking grit when they fail. “The whole point of the grownups in the room is that it’s our responsibility to get kids where they need to be,” she said.

In the New York Times, Judith Shulevitz wants grit to be less individualistic and macho.

Black, brown boys need change — not grit

Schools are pushing “soft skills” such as “grit,” compassion and a “growth mindset” to prepare students for college and careers. Black and Brown Boys Don’t Need to Learn Grit; They Need Schools to Stop Being Racist, writes Andre Perry, an education consultant and writer, in The Root.

Soft-skills training is disguised bootstrapping, which insidiously blames youths for failing in racist systems designed to block their success, and it absolves the middle class of any responsibility to uproot inequality. It is racism that really keeps students out of college and careers, not a child’s lack of resilience. Students are ready for college and jobs. Postsecondary institutions and employers are not ready for black and brown youths.

“Men and boys of color need to learn how to deconstruct systems rather than adapt to broken ones,” writes Perry.

Louisiana students called for the state to stop prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults in an April 6 protest at the State Capitol.

Students called for juvenile-justice reform on April 6 at the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge.

For example, the Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition organized teens to call for juvenile-justice reform at the State Capitol. They urged legislators and the governor to support a bill that would end the practice of prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults.

“Saying that a kid from Baltimore, St. Louis or New Orleans needs grit is like saying a mountain climber needs to get rid of her fear of falling,” Perry concludes.

That’s a good line. But is it really true that black and brown youths are ready for college and jobs, blocked only by racism? Do they already have the academic skills — and grit — needed to succeed?

SEL for all or just for disruptive students?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the newest edu-fad, writes Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field. Believers say devoting time to SEL activities will raise academic achievement.

“Disruptive, distracting behavior imposes a tremendous drain on teaching/learning — for perpetrators and victims alike,” she writes. But, she wonders if SEL activities make sense for all students — or just those who are unable to behave properly in class.

Students participate in a SEL program run by the Holistic Life Foundation.

Students participate in a SEL program run by the Holistic Life Foundation.

She proposes splitting teaching and classroom management into two jobs with “highly qualified teachers up front, and highly qualified classroom managers in back.” Class sizes would be increased to pay for the extra adults.

In her scheme, the classroom manager would be able to remove disruptive students, temporarily or for the long term. The money that would have been spent on SEL instruction for the entire student body” would be spent to provide “special psychiatric and academic services for disruptive students.”

Can teachers develop students’ social-emotional strengths while teaching academics? Or will SEL inevitably be an add-on that competes with academics for time?

Teachers, what do you think?

Don’t grade schools on grit

Don’t grade schools on grit, writes Penn psychologist Angela Duckworth, who practically invented grit, in the New York Times.images

Character traits such as self-control affect students’ success, she writes. Schools can help students develop these traits.

But character measures aren’t accurate enough to be used for accountability.

Encouraged by ESSA, the new federal education law, nine California districts are experimenting with using measures of “soft skills” to evaluate school effectiveness.

Duckworth’s research has identified three clusters of character strengths.

One includes strengths like grit, self-control and optimism. They help you achieve your goals. The second includes social intelligence and gratitude; these strengths help you relate to, and help, other people. The third includes curiosity, open-mindedness and zest for learning, which enable independent thinking.

Educators and researchers are looking for ways to assess these traits, raise students’ awareness of their shortcomings and provide “strategies for what to do differently,” she writes. Turning that research into a high-stakes assessment would be a mistake.

Non-cognitive measures aren’t reliable and may never be good enough to use for accountability writes Jay Greene. For a new study, his team tested students with different measures of “non-cognitive” skills. They wanted “to see if we get consistent results. We didn’t.”

W need “hard thinking on soft skills,” writes Brookings’ Russ Whitehurst. These skills are “far too important to suffer the fad-like fate” of other education reforms.