Does Teaching Kids To Get 'Gritty' Help Them Get Ahead? : NPR Ed Education circles are abuzz with a new concept: that resilience and persistence are just as important as intelligence to predicting student success and achievement. But can "grit" actually be taught?

Does Teaching Kids To Get 'Gritty' Help Them Get Ahead?

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There is a new buzz word in education. Around the nation schools are beginning to see grit as key to students' success. New research suggests that grit, or resilience and persistence, may be just as important to teach as reading and math. This morning we examine this concept. Later on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED we'll visit a school that's teaching it. But first, here's Grit 101 from NPR's Tovia Smith.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Call it persistence, determination, resilience or simply that je ne sais quoi that drives one kid to practice trumpet or study Spanish for hours or years on end while another quits after the first setback.

ANGELA DUCKWORTH: This quality of being able to sustain your passions and also work really hard at them over really kind disappointingly long periods of time, that's grit.

SMITH: University of Pennsylvania Psychology Professor Angela Duckworth coined the term grit, winning a MacArthur Genius Grant for it.

DUCKWORTH: It is a reference to the Western, you know, starring John Wayne, which is about a little 13-year-old girl who sort of does this really gritty, amazing thing.


DUCKWORTH: It's a very, I think, American idea in some ways, you know, really pursuing something against all odds.

SMITH: Duckworth says her research shows grit is actually a better predictor of success than IQ or anything else when it comes to things as varied as graduating West Point or winning the national spelling bee. Even the federal government's now on the grit bandwagon. A recent report laments how kids are learning to do school but aren't learning the skills they need in life, like grit. But can grit be taught?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: I hope so, but I don't think we have enough evidence to know with certainty that we can do so. You know, these things are really hard to measure with fidelity.

JASON BAER: You know, this is all anecdotal at this point, but I'll say from our experience in the school, I see it happen all the time.

SMITH: Loyola Marymount University Philosophy Professor Jason Baer is one of many around the nation who see the promise of grit too great to wait. He's just launched the Intellectual Virtues Academy of Long Beach, a charter middle school that's a kind of petri dish for grit, along with other so called virtues like intellectual courage and curiosity.

BAER: I'm not saying that we have the secret solution to all of education's problems. But you can create a classroom culture in which struggle and risk taking is valued more than just being able to get the right answer.

JUNE DAVENPORT: So who was Steve Jobs and what do you know about him? Dylan?

DYLAN: Steve Jobs started a company called Apple.

SMITH: At the Lenox Academy, a public middle school in New York, the idea of grit underlies every lesson, sometimes explicitly, like in this one with teacher June Davenport.

DAVENPORT: Anything else? Yeah.

DYLAN: He had failed on one of the Mac projects he was creating.

DAVENPORT: You're right. He not only failed, he also got fired. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: He used mistakes to, like, help him along his journey.

DAVENPORT: Excellent.

SMITH: The idea is to make kids see how grit matters and also to make them practice it themselves. It's why teachers like Christa Quint have learned to let kids squirm a little through challenging work.

CHRISTA QUINT: Six minus 2x and then what's next step right here?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: OK. What you have to do is I think you have to add 2x.

QUINT: If I add 2x, what I get back is this expression.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah, so you have to add, subtract it.

QUINT: The goal is to get Y equal to something.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: So, you have to divide.

TOM HOERR: One of the sayings that you hear around here a great deal is if our kids have graduated from here with nothing but success, we have failed them, because they haven't learned how to respond to frustration and failure.

SMITH: Tom Hoerr has been working on grit for a couple years at the private elementary school he heads in St. Louis called the New City School. After years of focus on the theory known as multiple intelligences, and trying to teach kids in their own style, Hoerr says he's now purposely pulling kids outside their comfort zones.

HOERR: The message is life isn't always easy. And I think part of the trajectory is making sure that no matter how talented kids are, they hit the wall so they can learn to pick themselves up, hit the wall again, pick themselves up again, and ultimately persevere and succeed.

SMITH: It's a mental and cultural 180, Hoerr says. And no surprise, he gets a lot of pushback from parents.

HOERR: It's really easy to talk about it in the abstract. Parents love the notion of grit. They all want their kids to have it; semi-colon, however, comma, no parent wants their kid to cry.

SMITH: Indeed, it's a fine line between challenging kids and pushing so hard they crack.

ALFIE KOHN: The benefits of failure are vastly overstated.

SMITH: That's education writer Alfie Kohn.

KOHN: And the assumption that kids will pick themselves up, you know, try even harder next time, darn it, that's wishful thinking.

SMITH: Kohn says he doesn't believe that kids today are any less gritty, and he says the research showing that gritty people tend to be more successful doesn't really offer any new insight.

KOHN: It's a pure circular assumption like persistent people persist.

SMITH: Besides, Kohn says, if there's a problem with how kids are learning, the onus should be on schools to get better at how they teach, not on kids to get better at enduring more of the same.

KOHN: Grit's taken off like a fad in education because that's a convenient distraction that doesn't address the pedagogical and curricular problems in the schools. The more focus there is on self-discipline, the less likely it is that we make the kind of changes that can help our children go to better schools.

SMITH: Kohn says he's also concerned about grading kids on grit and with calling grit a good character trait or a virtue. As University of Pennsylvania Education Professor Joan Goodman puts it, those are very loaded words with moral overtones.

JOAN GOODMAN: The language is important because you're talking about virtues, you're talking about character, you're talking about being good person. And to me you've got to be very careful with your words because you don't want to generate the notion that you are a bad kid if you're not gritty and you're a good kid if you are.

SMITH: Besides, Goodman says, grit may not be a character trait at all but rather a byproduct of other traits like confidence, courage and curiosity. And, she says, people can be gritty in some things but not others. So, for example, a kid may be passionate about chess but completely disengaged in chemistry class. It's a point well taken by Angela Duckworth, the grit guru. She agrees it's on schools and teachers and parents to help inspire kids so they're intrinsically motivated.

DUCKWORTH: I don't think people can become truly gritty and great at things they don't love. So, when we try to develop grit in kids, we also need to help them find and cultivate their passions. You know, that's as much part of the equation here as the hard work and the persistence.

SMITH: Another part of the equation, Duckworth says, is getting kids to believe that success is possible. It only makes sense if you want to get kids to hang in and keep struggling, you have to first convince them that their struggle is likely to pay off. It's why the most promising programs aimed at making kids grittier focus on changing kids' attitudes about their own abilities. Later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED we'll visit one of those programs that's been showing some success. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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