Grit as an essential “non-cognitive” trait
The research of Angela Duckworth and associates on the singular character trait of grit has garnered substantial attention in the educational community and even influenced how some school districts are addressing and assessing this indicator of success.
In numerous articles, Ted Talks, and her new book, Grit: The Passion and Power of Perseverance, Duckworth outlines her notion of grit as a non-cognitive factor that is beneficial to those pursuing lofty goals. Initially, she stated that grit could not be taught, but now she offers ideas for teaching students to persevere. Detractors maintain that some children, particularly those reared in poverty, are prematurely being pushed to just “try harder” rather than being coached in the requisite skills it takes to persevere (some of which are indeed cognitive in nature).
Jack Shonkoff, the director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, put it this way to educational journalist, Paul Tough (Tough, 2013): If you haven’t in your early years been growing up in an environment of responsive relationships that has buffered you from excessive stress activation, then if, in tenth-grade math class, you’re not showing grit and motivation, it may not be a matter of you just not sucking it up enough. A lot of it has to do with problems of focusing attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. And you may not have developed those capacities because of what happened to you early in life. (p.51)
While isolating a single attribute that predicts a student’s ultimate success is appealing because of its simplicity, it is flawed for the same reason. Neurocognitive scientists are discovering more and more about heretofore unidentified neural pathways in the brain and how intricately behavior is influenced by a myriad of factors from both internal and external factors. Educational planners need to be cautious about acting too soon on a minimalist solution to a complex challenge.
How do we teach grit and other important skills?
Grit, perseverance, and passion are instrumental in igniting and maintaining individual motivation, but what about resiliency and optimism as vanguards to goal setting in the first place? Shouldn’t teachers and their students focus on explicit executive function (cognitive) skills that can be moderated through awareness and concentration? Neurocognitive scientists are giving us keys to understanding how the brain works, and cognitive scientists are teaching us how we can “outsmart” the apparent hardwiring that comes from genetics and early childhood experiences. Teachers can purposefully integrate activities into the curriculum that instruct students how to take more control over their internal messaging systems.
What about teaching social skills?
It is true that building self-efficacy through purposeful opportunities to promote emotional competences such as perseverance, resilience, optimism, growth mindset, and mindfulness can help students achieve a sense of inner fortitude and deliberateness. However, there is also a serious need for helping students develop social proficiencies such as responsibility, honesty, integrity, empathy, and gratitude. Don’t we want our students to be empowered to manage the things they can control in themselves? Isn’t it important from them to be able to assimilate successfully into their communities and workplaces? Shouldn’t educators actively strive to influence them to become contributing members of society who value themselves and others?
Critics sometimes argue that school should be a place for academics, and teaching social and emotional skills should be left to the parents. Maybe the question to ask is the famous Dr. Phil quip, “So how’s that working for you?” Beyond the obvious decline in social norms, there is scientific data that supports social and emotional learning (SEL) as a root tool for academic achievement. A 2011 meta-analysis published in the journal Child Development showed an 11 percentile gain in academic achievement for students who participated in well-implemented SEL programs versus students who didn’t. Study after study supports the addition of effective SEL to the curriculum. The focus should be on qualities that research has proven to be both malleable and teachable.
Moving beyond grit
Grit is but one component of SEL. It is important, but its insular focus on persistence and passion are impractical. The Energizer Bunny has persistence, but for all his drive, he never gets anywhere. He goes and goes, but he doesn’t thrive. In order to thrive, students need to be guided by intentional teachers who coach them how to take control over the things they can and how to minimize the effects of the things they cannot. They need to learn about their systems of ethics and how their choices affect themselves and others. Students flourish when they practice simple acts of kindness to others and routinely express gratitude for what they have and for those who help them grow. Learning Thrive skills can unlock many keys for students in both academic and nonacademic pursuits. Perhaps it is time to take our preoccupation with grit one step further.
You can find more information about teaching Thrive skills in my new book, Teaching Kids to Thrive.
Tough, P. (2013). How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. NY: Mariner Books.