How to be gritty: what children don’t know can hurt them

Posted by on February 11th, 2013 at 8:02 am

If you’ve heard more in the past year than ever before about the role that grit and resiliency play in student achievement, that might be “a response to No Child Left Behind and this narrow focus on standardized testing,” Angela Duckworth suggests.

Dr. Duckworth is breaking new ground by applying the science of achievement to the question of how to help students develop essential learning habits, including habits that aren’t easily assessed through standardized tests. In a recent talk to school and community educators in Baltimore, she noted that many decades ago, economists discovered that tests like the SATs could help predict certain measures of college success. What’s surprising about the SATs, Dr. Duckworth said, is what they don’t predict well: which students will persist in college when the going gets tough.

Regardless of whether students are rich or poor, she said, the two habits that most accurately predict achievement are their self-control and their grit: the ability to deliberately practice new skills even when it’s frustrating and confusing and kids feel like they’re failing. Scientists have found that, given a choice, all humans—all creatures—will take the path of least resistance to reach a goal.

So what if struggling students knew this? What if, as Dr. Duckworth suggested, we told students about the psychology of achievement? What if we explained to children that “most cats and rats and dogs and people all hate effort,” and that they’re behaving rationally when they resist? The flip side is that rational behavior won’t get them where they want to go.

Kids are probably thinking that the stars in their classrooms, or the higher achievers across town, are smarter or more talented than they are. In fact, the opposite may be true. When Dr. Duckworth and others studied students such as Spelling Bee champions, they found that those who had less talent, but more self-control, beat out those with greater natural abilities but less grit.

To really achieve, Dr. Duckworth has found, you have to deliberately practice something “where your skill is not up to the challenge. You’re going to fall over and fail and be frustrated and confused.”

But if students feel confused while tackling their homework, she said, “That’s a good sign. The signal emotion of learning is confusion.”

I love Dr. Duckworth’s idea that one of the best interventions we could undertake is to encourage educators to communicate that message to learners of all ages.

I found her talk encouraging on another level. The occasion for her remarks was a meeting of school-and-community leaders from the 11 ExpandED Schools in Baltimore, New Orleans and New York. Together with partners including the Family League of Baltimore City and Baltimore City Public Schools, we’re trying to build a strong model for a school day that offers kids more and better learning time. Often we struggle, and sometimes we fall over. But when the going gets tough, we keep going.


4 thoughts on “How to be gritty: what children don’t know can hurt them

  1. I could agree more. This further supports that young people would greatly benefit from knowing as much as we can teach them about the factors influencing human behavior—their behavior, spanning from evolutionary biology to neuroscience to the social sciences. Perhaps more than any other population, young people—particularly adolescents, need to know why they feel the way they do (not just hormones), why they think the way they do, and why they are likely to make the decisions they do.

  2. In the last few days I’ve watched 2 videos by Dr. Duckworth and find her message so edifying. As a teacher of music to young children, I see the “deliberate practice” everyday and am trying to ensure that each and every one of my kids develops grit.

  3. I love that the idea that “students and youth are more than just their test scores” is gaining momentum. The work of Angela Duckworth featured in Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed makes a strong case for what we believe in at Soccer Without Borders Baltimore (SWB), and that is that our kids having faced so many obstacles already arriving to the United States as immigrants, refugees, and asylees have a lot of skills that set them apart and set them up for success that can not be measured by the ESOL tests, standardized tests, and SAT tests they take once they enter the US school systems. If you want some great examples of “gritty” kids having learned to utilize their resources, their survival skills, and their intelligence (sometimes quite literally to survive) look no further than the SWB participants. What we aim to do at SWB is provide the bridge between our kids already intrinsic “grit” to the much needed skills, language, and learning necessary to find success in their new lives in Baltimore City. In some ways the challenge to teach and train study habits, test taking skills, and time management are easier than teaching determination and resilience. Thanks for starting this conversation, and keep up the great work!

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