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.


Grit, curiosity, character and success

Brains aren’ t everything writes Paul Tough (great name!) in How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.  Children who can work at a boring task, control their impulses, commit to a distant goal and learn from failure tend to do well in school, college and the workplace.

Affluent children may be shielded from failure, Tough writes. Poor kids learn about failure, but not about how to overcome it.

He profiles a KIPP school that reports to parents not just on their children’s academic performance but on their progress in developing noncognitive skills such as grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity.  Experience has shown that KIPP graduates with strong academic skills may lose their way in college unless they have the fortitude to deal with academic, social and financial challenges.

Grit is translated as ganas at Downtown College Prep, the school in Our School.  “We’re not good now, but we can get better,” students told each other. Their teachers said, “Do the work.”

“If you can dream it, you can do it,” is poor advice, writes Tough. If you can dream it, foresee the obstacles and come up with a plan to deal with them, you can do it.

Programs that focus on raising low-income children’s cognitive ability show no long-standing gains, notes Thomas Toch in a Washington Monthly review of the book. It’s the behavioral and social skills that make a lasting difference.

Childhood psychological traumas, including neglect, abuse, parental addiction and divorce, can do lasting damage, researchers tell Tough.

Children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointment, and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school.

. . . In particular, such stressors compromise the higher order thinking skills that allow students to sort out complex and seemingly contradictory information such as when the letter C is pronounced like K (what psychologists call “executive functioning”), and their ability to keep a lot of information in their heads at once, a skill known as “working memory” that’s crucial to success in school, college, and work.

Warm parenting or close relationships with caregivers can  help children develop resilience, Tough writes.

But what happens when parents aren’t on the job? Tough profiles a KIPP school that teaches character strengths and a college mentoring program for disadvantaged students, OneGoal.  He also looks at a success chess program at a New York City middle school: The coach forces players to analyze their failures. But I ended the book, which I strongly recommend, depressed about the prospects of schools or mentoring programs to save kids whose parents aren’t competent.