MacArthur 'Genius' Angela Duckworth Responds To A New Critique Of Grit : NPR Ed The author of a new meta-analysis says the importance of grit — a concept that has gained wide traction in education circles — has been exaggerated.
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MacArthur 'Genius' Angela Duckworth Responds To A New Critique Of Grit

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MacArthur 'Genius' Angela Duckworth Responds To A New Critique Of Grit

MacArthur 'Genius' Angela Duckworth Responds To A New Critique Of Grit

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If you pay attention to education trends, you know that a lot of talk these days is about grit - this idea that passion and persistence are really important traits in kids rather than IQ or natural talent. And the thinking goes, helping kids to be more gritty makes them more likely to succeed.

Now a new study says we should care less about grit. To talk about this, we are joined by Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed team. And Anya, tell us first, how big of a deal has grit become?

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Well, so the idea was pioneered by a researcher named Angela Lee Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, and she did get a MacArthur Genius Grant for her work. And people in the education world, the business world - let's be honest - in the media have hungrily picked up on this research because it seems to reveal a secret that there are these overlooked social and emotional factors that can somehow make all of the difference in determining whether people are successful. And they're creating curricula for grit. They are testing students for grit in some schools and holding teachers accountable for it.

MCEVERS: So now there's this new report that says, hang on; slow down. What does it say?

KAMENETZ: Well, so it's just one paper, but it is a meta-analysis by Marcus Crede at Iowa State. And he looked at 88 separate studies on grit - so you know, a huge proportion of the research that's been published. And he found, first of all, that one of Angela Duckworth's first foundational papers on grit - that she misstated the size of the impact - that she phrased it in a way that was really misleading in terms of how important grit is.

And in general, Crede says that the size of the effect of grit, among other factors, is actually pretty modest. For example if you're looking at how someone is going to do in the first year of college, their SAT score - you know, not too surprisingly, their SAT score is more than twice as important as their score on what Duckworth calls the grit scale.

MCEVERS: And so has Angela Duckworth responded to this?

KAMENETZ: Yes. You know, she actually admitted that she misstated that effect size, you know? Saying that you're 99 percent more likely to succeed at something because of grit was a real misstatement. And she also agreed that across all of the studies that have been done - that the effect of grit by itself is really, like, on the small to medium side.

But that statement's a big contrast with some of the rhetoric not only from her, but from others - other popularizers who have really talked about grit as the holy grail of success.

MCEVERS: So is it that the popularizers took this and ran with it a little too far? Is that the sense you're getting from her?

KAMENETZ: Well, I think that there's going to be some recriminations to go all around because, you know, Duckworth herself is a popularizer. She has a book on the best seller list right now - the New York Times Best Sellers list. She gave a TED Talk. She's been very, very visible. And even though her research and evidence is very grounded, but the more she talks about it - the more she talks about sports and talks about, you know, succeeding in all areas of life - the more it sounds like grit is really the holy grail, really is the silver bullet.

MCEVERS: I have to ask. I guess with this new report - I mean isn't this fairly common in academic circles? Somebody comes out with one idea. Another comes out with another.


MCEVERS: It's pretty common, right?

KAMENETZ: It really is, Kelly. I think what's unique about this is just the speed at which research is getting into the policy sphere. You know, there's been a lot of interest and excitement in the education policy world in adopting the research on grit, on grit's mindset. It's just a few years old, but already we're creating policy. We're creating practice around it. And so this is a really timely consideration to kind of pull back and say, before we go too far with any one factor, let's make sure that everything is in balance.

MCEVERS: So I guess one question people be wondering about then is, what should we teach our kids in the school, right? Should we be teaching them to be more gritty or not?

KAMENETZ: Well, that's the really important question isn't it? I mean, I think that, you know, we're still going to be interested in social and emotional learning more so perhaps in the overall environment that a kid is growing up in. And so some of the most trenchant critiques of grit have come from people who say there's an equity dimension to this.

If you talk about, you know, grit being a personality trait or personality factor, it's almost like if somebody's overcoming huge disadvantages, that you're blaming them for their circumstances. And instead, how can we focus on the nurturing that our - all of our kids are getting in a way that enables them to rise to challenges and ultimately to be successful?

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Anya Kamenetz. Thank you very much.

KAMENETZ: Thanks, Kelly.

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