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?