Sunday, June 28, 2015

Problematizing grit, II

How hard you work on something isn’t the only effort (or grit)-related variable. Also key—and what Angela Duckworth’s questionnaire doesn’t probe—is how you direct that effort within the project. I realized that recently when, for the first time in over a decade, I decided to learn a new piano piece. Having allocated myself a mere 15-20 minute window on weekday mornings (a rare stretch of quiet solitude), I was determined to practice as efficiently as possible.

And this meant resisting all sorts of temptations that as a student I often succumbed to: the temptation not to bother working out fingerings and using them consistently; the temptation to interrupt my work on the sections I knew the least well, or found the most difficult, for the satisfaction of breezing through easier or more familiar sections; the temptation to play the piece too fast, too soon. It’s not just the distracting temptations outside a project, I realized, but also the distracting temptations within a project, that need resisting.

Directing your efforts appropriately involves brains as well as brawn. In learning a piano piece, for example, it helps to realize that muscle memory is essential, and that muscle memory will develop fastest if (1) you use consistent fingering and (2) you play slowly enough to minimize errors.

Teachers, too, can be smarter about grit. Neither should they try, vaguely, to "teach" it (e.g., by spending lots of class time on "growth mindsets"); nor should they simply give students tons of work or make them "grapple" indefinitely without guidance. Rather they should give students frequent advice and feedback about performance--and about how best to allocate their efforts.

1 comment:

SteveH said...

Bad practicing can be worse than no practicing. However, my son loved to learn playing fast for finger memory, but then polished slow for accuracy. It didn't always work and it really annoyed one of his early summer teachers. Is slow or fast better for sight reading development? Some can't ramp up the speed even if their fingerings are good. Pedagogy can be very important, but one can get really weird about curved fingers and specific fingerings. And pedagogy also brings us group learning where some students dominate and others blend into the wallpaper. The process and the goals matter, but K-6 education is dominated by the process and engagement and not the goals.

Then there are piano teachers who love to work fewer pieces to death just to get them perfect for adjudications and competitions. My son's teacher always moved on, which left him in a state of never really perfecting pieces. He now is a fantastic sight reader who has played a huge repertoire. However, perfect recordings and auditions (and SAT scores) matter along with finding teachers who know what those sound like and know how to get there. The last few percent require different skills, and it's not just brute-force grit.

This relates to something I call "the passion trap." It's the idea that if a student really wants something, then he/she will do it. In other words, if you are not successful, then you do not have enough passion and you would never get there anyway. It's a really horrible thing. It's a copout for bad teaching. On one hand, many talk about the power of a good mentor, but then they talk about how someone just does not have passion or grit. This leads to the emphasis on engagement in K-6. It's the idea that engagement leads to passion and that passion will get the job done. They can go ahead and use full inclusion and "trust the spiral" and then blame the student, parents, peers, society, or poverty. It's an excuse for full inclusion. Philosophy drives reality.

Richard Feynman talks about "Cargo Cult Science" and how scientists should never fool themselves. It's also true in education. Teachers should never fool themselves. Unfortunately, many drive reality by philosophy and not the other way around. There is also the problem that teachers define reality (and education in general) by what walks into their classroom, not by what those students have gone through in all previous years.