Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Problematizing grit

In her Ted Talk on “grit,” Angela Duckworth offers the following definition:

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint.
All this, Duckworth finds, predicts long term success. So far so good—but (dare I say it?) hardly surprising.

What’s a lot less obvious is whether grit can be taught. Of course, this hasn’t stopped the education establishment, ever eager to focus on something other than academic instruction, from jumping to conclusions. Here, on the other hand, is Duckworth:
Every day, parents and teachers ask me, "How do I build grit in kids? What do I do to teach kids a solid work ethic? How do I keep them motivated for the long run?" The honest answer is, I don't know.
Duckworth says the best idea she’s heard is Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset”: “the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort.” Duckworth cites Dweck’s finding that:
when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they're much more likely to persevere when they fail, because they don't believe that failure is a permanent condition.
Again, so far so good—but (dare I say it?) hardly surprising.

Plus, there’s only so far mere beliefs can get you. Indeed, the questionnaire that Duckworth uses to measure grit (and predict success) addresses how distractible you are, how fickle vs. sustained your interests are, and how hard and how diligently you work on things; not what you think about failure.

Given this, perhaps a better way to raise students’ perseverance is to provide extra incentives for hard, concentrated work. Ideally these incentives would be built into the work itself. You make sure that it’s interesting; that students get timely feedback about their progress through it; that completing it results in a satisfying final product, set of revelations, set of new skills, and/or sense of accomplishment. As far as these things go, much school work (whether because it’s busywork, easy work, group work, vaguely defined, and/or lacking in timely feedback) comes up short.

But even with some of the best types of assignments, and/or with certain types of students, there may be insufficient incentives for perseverance. In that case, as we’ve seen with J, why not resort to extrinsic incentives? For those who fail the marshmallow test, why not incentive them with marshmallows?


SteveH said...

"Leaving a high-flying job in consulting, Angela Lee Duckworth took a job teaching math to seventh graders in a New York public school. She quickly realized that IQ wasn’t the only thing separating the successful students from those who struggled."

Grit was her main conclusion for explaining why some kids do well in math and some do not - so much so that she is building a career out of it?

"Duckworth graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in Neurobiology, and from the University of Pennsylvania with a Ph.D. in Psychology."

You see what you are ... and what sells. "The Duckworth Lab"

I'll call this the "Willingham Effect" - It's all about me.

And this makes me really sad.

"The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Born This Way Foundation"

Talk about ignoring variables.

Forget the fact that grit is improved by carefully ensuring mastery of math skills on a unit-by-unit and year-by-year basis. It's not some vague internal skill that creates success while K-8 educators do whatever warms the cockles of the fuzzy educational hearts.

Success breeds success. Small and continual successes build confidence. Grit can help, but that is built on doing things that one does not really want to do, viz. individual homework assignments and weekly quizzes, not in-class group discovery where some can do little work and others learn to be driven only by the process and not results.

What, exactly, is the problem? Did she calibrate it? Duckworth taught math in seventh grade and filtered reality through her own training and biases. Her conclusion was that grit is the main variable. If her students were properly prepared in math in K-6, would she be talking about grit? No. The students would be successful in math at some decent level. If her seventh grade kids could not do adds and subtracts to 20, would she be talking about grit? No, she would be talking about educational competence.

In computer science, where you have to fix programs that could have all sorts of interacting problems or errors, you don't use guess and check as the solution technique. (Which my old students loved to use.) You start with a number that is wrong. A specific number. This is like an anecdote. You have to understand exactly why that number is wrong. You have to dig into the code to see exactly where that bad number comes from. You trace it back to its source. It could be just a one-of-a-kind error, as in an anecdote, but more likely than not, the fix solves a whole class of problems. I never see this approach in educational research. They just use guess and maybe check.

In Duckworth's seventh grade class, did she trace any one student to see exactly why they were doing poorly in math? Did she trace any one student to see why they were doing well in math? Was the difference grit? I doubt it. She would have seen one student who immediately got stuck because of knowledge and skills gaps - such as making mistakes with minus signs. The better student would have moved right along doing the problem showing skill and knowledge, not grit. One can be successful in school without grit. Isn't that the goal of education?

Many times when I have to learn a new topic or subject, I will find books and explanations that leave me with the feeling that it can't be this difficult. I don't rely on grit to solve the problem. I find a new book.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I notice that this post is not very consistent with your previous post:
where you dumped on science fair projects as "They also privileged the extraverted and artistic self-starters over other types of students."

But science-fair projects, when properly implemented are about the only experience most students have with projects that have the characteristics you want: "You make sure that it’s interesting; that students get timely feedback about their progress through it; that completing it results in a satisfying final product, set of revelations, set of new skills, and/or sense of accomplishment."

In my experience as a long-term science-fair judge, the science fair does not privilege extraverts or "artistic" students, but does reward perseverance and "grit". It does privilege children of engineers and scientists, because the average school teacher in the US has almost no notion of how to design an experiment, make a meaningful measurement, or do statistical analysis—all important in good science-fair projects. Most middle-school teachers are still teaching that a hypothesis is a guess, rather than a difference between two (or more) plausible models.

Katharine Beals said...

"when properly implemented" is a gigantic assumption--as we see time and again with education.

Yes, science fair projects could be interesting, with timely feedback, with a satisfying final product, set of revelations, set of new schools, and/or sense of accomplishment.

And so could math assignments, writing assignments, history papers, and so on.

If it were generally the case that science fair projects had all these virtues, the K12 parent and student communities wouldn't be nearly so abuzz with criticisms.

Cynthia812 said...

SteveH, maybe she didn't try to find the source of the problem the way you suggest because she apparently came in to the situation with the assumption that IQ was the major distinguishing factor in math mastery. Not a view I would want held by my child's teacher.