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.

When poor parents get more money . . . 

Giving more money to low-income parents improves their children’s personalities and prospects, concludes a study in North Carolina.

Four years into the Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth, the families of roughly a quarter of the children — all Cherokees — started getting an extra $4,000 a year per adult from a new casino. The money raised household incomes by almost 20 percent on average.

An income boost from a new casino helped low-income Cherokee parents and their children.  Photo: David Oppenheimer, Performance Impressions

An income boost from a new casino helped low-income Cherokee parents and their children. Photo: David Oppenheimer, Performance Impressions

With extra money coming in, parents reported less stress, less drinking and better parent-child relationships, according to a long-term follow-up. They were as likely to work, but spent more time supervising their children.

Children had fewer behavioral and emotional disorders, the study found. The money appeared to boost children’s conscientiousness and agreeableness, reports the Washington Post.

“There are very powerful correlations between conscientiousness and agreeableness and the ability to hold a job, to maintain a steady relationship,” said Emilia Simeonova, a Johns Hopkins professor and one of the paper’s co-authors. “The two allow for people to succeed socially and professionally.”

Children with the most personality problems improved the most.

Does birth order matter?

Firstborns are supposed to be conscientious, agreeable — and smarter than their younger siblings, writes Ami Albernaz in the Boston Globe.  The youngest in the family is supposed to be free-spirited and outgoing.

However, personality and IQ differences associated with birth order “are so small as to have no practical impact,” according to a University of Illinois study published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

The Illinois study used data on 377,000 U.S. high school students and controlled for factors such as number of siblings, socioeconomic status, family structure, age, and gender.

Among the slight personality differences the researchers found, firstborn children were more conscientious and agreeable, and less sociable and neurotic, than later-born kids. Yet though these differences were statistically significant, they were so small as to be meaningless, the researchers wrote. Firstborns also had slightly higher IQs, but this difference — about one point — was also not enough to be perceptible.

“Parents will often say their firstborn is more responsible,” said Rodica Damian, the study’s co-author. “But unless you have a video camera and can go back to when the firstborn was the age of the second-born or lastborn, you can’t fairly compare. Your personality changes as you age.”

I was the second of four children, but raised as my 15-months-older sister’s twin. People used to ask if we were identical twins, even though she was taller. She also was smarter than me — and not just because she was older. She had more musical and artistic talent. I was the sensible one. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but it’s worked out for me. Growing up trying to compete with my sister was good training too.

Getting into college on personality

Colleges are using “personality scores” to decide who gets in, not just grades, test scores, extracurriculars and essays, reports Robert Tomsho in the Wall Street Journal. New “evaluation systems” claim to “quantify so-called noncognitive traits such as leadership, resilience and creativity,” Tomsho writes.

Colleges say such assessments are boosting the admissions chances for some students who might not have qualified based solely on grades and traditional test scores. The noncognitive assessments also are being used to screen out students believed to be at a higher risk of dropping out, and to identify newly admitted students who might need extra tutoring.

Testing companies are jumping in to offer “new tools to recruit more minority and low-income students.”

Boston’s Northeastern University looks for leadership potential and ability to overcome adversity to choose Torch Scholars, who have lower SAT scores (by about 200 points) and grades than their classmates. Northeastern says 90% of Torch students make it from their freshman to sophomore years, close to the university-wide average of 92%.

DePaul asked borderline applicants for 100 words on “a goal you have set for yourself and how you plan to accomplish it. How would you compare your educational interests and goals with other students in your high school?”

At Oregon State University, every would-be undergraduate must now provide 100-word answers to six questions that are part of what the school calls its “Insight Resume.” One question, designed to measure applicants’ capacity to deal with adversity, asks them to describe the most significant challenge they have faced and the steps they took to address it. Another asks them to describe their experiences facing or witnessing discrimination and how they responded. Every answer is reviewed by two admissions officers and scored on a 1-to-3-point scale.

How does this differ from asking applicants to write an essay? I’m not sure. Perhaps if an applicant isn’t smart enough to find an acceptable adversity, they’re not smart enough for college.

Critics say students will learn how to game the system. You want a motivated, resilient, diligent leader? C’est moi!