Teaching Grit Continued

[Editors note: Please notice that in the right-hand margin I’ve moved my twitter feed up. My tweeting is just too genius to reside anywhere else.]

Thanks to last week’s comments, I’ve continued thinking about teaching and grit. The two primary questions I’ve been grapping with are: 1) What is grit? And 2) Should it be taught in public schools?

1) What is grit? We think it consists of courageous acts in the face of opposition. For example, a hiker survives for six days after an 800 pound boulder pins his arm. Eventually, he uses his pocket knife to self amputate his arm and somehow he survives the ordeal. The height of grittiness right? Or the marathoner who withstands 80+ degree temps and a series of surges to hang on and win.

But Duckworth and her colleagues define grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” The hiker wasn’t thinking long-term, he wanted to live to see the following week. The marathoner’s performance probably doesn’t qualify as gritty as his months and years of race prep. Is it possible that the elderly couple who have stayed married for sixty years despite personality differences, debilitating illnesses, and financial hardships are especially poignant examples of grit? Or the baseball player who breaks into the “bigs” in his mid 20’s after years of honing his craft in single, double, and triple A?

Or the alcoholic who has been sober for several months, years, or decades?

Or Jim Abbot, the one-handed former professional baseball player who I heard interviewed on a Seattle radio station this week. Abbot pitched at the University of Michigan, and in the 1988 Olympics, and in the “bigs” for a decade. His “grit quotient” has to be off the charts.

Or just read the opening of Michael J. Fox’s most recent book, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, about what it’s like to get out of bed, shower, shave, and get dressed with advanced Parkinsons. Fox’s resolve in the face of daily challenges is inspiring, but I’m not sure it constitues grit since it doesn’t involve long-term goals. Clearly though, his grit is evident in the foundation he’s spent years building, a foundation that has radically improved the pace and prospects of Parkinsons research.

If my “grit quotient” was higher, I’d have published a book or two by now.

2) Should it be taught in public schools? Not as simple a question as it first appears. Seymour Sarason, in The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform, contrasts teachers with docs. Docs he says have been honest about how difficult it will be to cure cancer. He argues they’ve done a great job of managing expectations. They continually remind the public that there are genetic and environmental variables (like smoking and nutrition) that are outside their control. They repeatedly say any progress will be slow. As a result, the public appreciates the real progress that is being made.

On the other hand, teachers, too altruistic for their own good maybe, have taken on more and more intractable social problems—like hunger and poverty, teen pregnancy, racial reconciliation, and most recently, childhood obesity. And let’s not forget that business leaders, journalists, and politicians like Bill Gates, Tom Friedman, Arne Duncan, and President Obama routinely, if somewhat indirectly, blame teachers for our slowing economy, for letting our lead slip in the global economy, and for our declining standard of living.

What should families be responsible for? What should “the community writ large” be responsible for, whether non-profits, religious youth groups, or civic associations? I anticipate one loyal PressingPause reader, a school counselor in a poor community, to protest, “But if families aren’t teaching grit, what are we supposed to do, just sit back and watch their children not accomplish meaningful long-term goals?” Fair question that highlights this is a real dilemma.

Back when Obama was smoking dope at Occidental (belated and weak 4/20 reference), and Nineteen was about to start kindergarten, the Good Wife and I had a meeting with her two teachers who wanted to know what we most wanted her to learn during the year. I suspect my answer was different than most. Growing up in a reading intensive home with two experienced educators as parents, I wasn’t worried about basic literacy. “I’d really appreciate if you’d help her develop a social conscience,” I said. “I want her to be in touch with her privilege and to be an empathetic person.”

That was a private Quaker kindergarten which I grant is a little different animal, but one wonders, should public schools teachers be held responsible for young people who don’t have a social conscience? Do public school teachers set themselves up for failure by taking on way more than literacy and numeracy? Does their seeming willingness to take on a never-ending list of social problems partially explain why the “powers that be” are so dissatisfied with their performance and are pressing to evaluate and pay them based upon their students’ test scores even though the problems with those proposals are painfully obvious?

Despite Sarason’s insight, I believe the study of grit, it’s absence and presence, can most definitely be taught in the context of reading and writing instruction. Student have to read and write about something. Why use innocuous, fictional reading material when they could be introduced to stories that prompt discussion about perseverance, long-term goals, and grit? If Sarason were still alive I wonder if he’d see any harm in that.

If a grit curriculum doesn't fire you up, what about a grits curriculum?

Can Grit Be Taught?

Angela Lee Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychology prof, studies “grit” which she defines as  “perseverance and passion for long-term goals“. In this 18 minute-long TED talk titled, “True Grit: Can perseverance be taught?” she summarizes her research without really answering the question.

Her premise, I assume, jives with most everyone’s life experience—achievement involves far more than natural intelligence. An impassioned, focused, single-minded person who perseveres in the face of obstacles almost always accomplishes more than the really smart person who switches from project to project and quits when things don’t go smoothly.

From wikipedia: Individuals high in grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods of time despite experiences with failure and adversity. Their passion and commitment towards the long-term objective is the overriding factor that provides the stamina required to “stay the course” amid challenges and set-backs. Essentially, the grittier person is focused on winning the marathon, not the sprint.

I think “resilience” is synonymous with “grit”. So can resilience or grit be taught? If not, why not? If so, how?

A lot of especially resilient or gritty people seem to have tough childhoods in common. Yet, there are a lot of people who had tough childhoods who aren’t particularly resilient or gritty. So does genetics or “nature” play a part? Probably, but that doesn’t mean one’s environment is irrelevant. I suspect one’s environment is more influential than one’s DNA.

So what kind of environments cultivate resilience or grit? This recent essay titled “Even Happiness Has a Downside” provides insight into family settings that are unlikely to cultivate resilience or grit—most contemporary ones where the parenting default is to remove obstacles from children’s lives. An excerpt: “. . . being happy, being satisfied, saps the will to strive, to create. It’s why we don’t usually expect trust-fund babies to be cracker-jack entrepreneurs. For all our happiness talk, we actually cultivate dissatisfaction. We don’t want to hog-wallow in the useless sort of contentment that H.L. Mencken derided as “the dull, idiotic happiness of the barnyard.” 

Of the cuff, in her TED talk, Duckworth uses a  related phrase that may be the ultimate target for those interested in cultivating resilience or grit—”intestinal fortitude”. Related question. If a young person is to learn “intestinal fortitude” are they more likely to learn it in school, through a curriculum designed to cultivate it or at home or in their community by observing adults who model it? I would enjoy the opportunity to design a resilience, grit, or intestinal fortitude curriculum, but when it comes to cultivating those things in young people, outside of school modeling probably holds far more promise.

Young people are unlikely to develop resilience, grit, or intestinal fortitude given the extreme child-centeredness that characterizes contemporary parenting. That doesn’t mean families should intentionally accentuate dysfunction, but they shouldn’t shield their children from the inevitable headwinds every family faces either.

I’ve enjoyed coaching girls high school swimming from time-to-time the last few years. The swimmers are wonderful young people, but few of them show much resilience or grittiness. When practice is most difficult they suddenly have to go to the bathroom or stretch their shoulders. They’re unaccustomed to being truly fatigued and they’re mentally unable to push through temporary physical pain. They have a lot of great personal attributes, but for most of them, intestinal fortitude is not among them.

At dinner tonight (Sunday the 15th), the Good Wife suggested we watch Mad Men tonight after it airs (to avoid commercials) instead of Monday or Tuesday night as has been our recent habit. Why? So that Sixteen can watch her show uninterrupted Monday night. Some context. Sixteen is a great kid, works exceptionally hard at school, and looks forward to chilling in front of the t.v. for an hour at the end of several hours of homework (with some Facebook mixed in for good measure). The Good Wife’s intentions are understandable, it’s a well deserved dessert, but I ask you Dear Reader, how gritty is our next generation likely to be if they’re not even expected to share a television from time to time?

[Postscript—Thanks Kris for the Duckworth link.]