If we define success in life by public acclaim and genius awards, then one approach is to come up with an idea that is simultaneously ground-breaking and accurate. Short of that, you can always come up with an idea that is, depending on how you characterize it, sometimes ground-breaking, and sometimes accurate.
This is how it works. Pick a startling "new" idea, whether it's, say, that human intelligence consists of Seven Intelligences, or that some non-cognitive factor, say Grit, is one the biggest determiners of success. Proclaim it loud and clear. Give Ted Talks; win public acclaim and Macarthur genius grants.
Then, as the real world (or the eduworld) starts gleefully enacting your ideas, and as certain aspects of those enactments risk looking silly, start qualifying what you said, at least to certain audiences. I never said that there were exactly 7 intelligences; I never said that these intelligences were discrete entities; or, We don't really know how to teach or measure grit; Grit is only just one of many factors that determine success.
Then, even when someone in your field raises empirical challenges, you're exactly where you want to be.
Consider Marcus Crede's recent findings about Angela Duckworth's claims about grit, recently reported on NPR:
"My overall assessment is that grit is far less important than has commonly been assumed and claimed," says the lead author, Marcus Crede, an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University. "And it doesn't tell us anything that we don't already know."For example, Duckworth states that:
Cadets who scored a standard deviation higher than average on the Grit–S were 99% more likely to complete summer training.As NPR notes:
That sure sounds like a big win for grit. But, as Crede points out, in fact what happened is that 95 percent of all cadets make it through Beast Barracks, while 98 percent of the very "grittiest" candidates made it through.In other words:
it's the odds of making it through that improved by 99 percent. Most laypeople, though, would interpret "99% more likely" as meaning that your chances of getting through bounced, say, from 40 percent to 80 percent. Not by 3 percentage pointsIn contrast to what Duckworth has proclaimed to the public, Crede's meta-analysis finds
the relationship between grit and academic success "only modest." His analysis found an overall correlation of 0.18, looking at papers by Duckworth and others.
This compares to a much higher correlation of 0.50 between, say, SAT scores and performance in college.Further undermining Duckworth's public proclamations is this:
In the various studies Crede looks at, conscientiousness scores and grit scores are very highly correlated — between 80 and 98 percent. Therefore, he calls grit a case of "old wine in new bottles."
This matters, because a major implication of Duckworth's work is that grit is a skill. Schools and districts around the country are currently working hard on creating curricula for grit, and even accountability tests to measure it.
But, psychologists say conscientiousness isn't a skill. It's a trait — driven by some unknowable combination of genetics and environment. It can change, typically improving as children grow up, but it's not necessarily amenable to direct instruction. Nor would we necessarily wish it to be.
"I think as a parent I would feel uncomfortable if my daughter came home and said, 'My school is changing my personality,' " Crede says.Complicating matters, however, is that Duckworth is saying different things to different audiences. First, there's academia and skeptics at NPR:
Duckworth's own numbers [for the correlation between grit and academic success], in a paper published in 2007, are only slightly higher [than Crede's]: 0.20.
Fundamentally, she told NPR Ed, she doesn't disagree with Crede here... She says her findings of the independent impact of grit are what personality psychologists would put in the "small-to-medium" range.But then there's the general public, as addressed, for example, in Duckworth's 2013 Ted Talk, where:
she presents grit as a powerful, even unique factor: "One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn't social intelligence. It wasn't good looks, physical health, and it wasn't IQ. It was grit."Besides saying different things to different audiences, there's a second trick: let the exaggerations of your supporters go uncorrected:
The cover blurb on Duckworth's book by Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, states, "Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success, but Duckworth is the one who found it."Naturally,
Duckworth says she never tried to oversell her findings, and has always tried to be "clear and honest."Nor do I want to oversell my ideas. I'm not saying that every sometimes ground-breaking, sometimes accurate idea will result in fame, fortune, and Macarthur genius awards. To really be successful, the idea has to be something the public really wants to hear. If I were to "discover" that the one and only way to achieve communication breakthroughs in autism is through forty plus hours per week of intensive direct instruction in language plus intensive language practice, I doubt anyone would pay attention.
One indication that Duckorth has told the public exactly what it wants to hear is that, as of this writing, only four media outlets show up on Google News as having picked up this troubling counter-narrative. I'm guessing that Duckworth is still exactly where she wants to be, and that the public, and the eduworld in particular, are still hearing--and enacting--exactly what they want to.