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Got grit? That's the new it-thing in education. New research suggests that perseverance and resilience are key to a student's success. The science is still out on how or if grit can be taught, but schools around the nation are trying. One program in particular called Brainology is showing some promise.
NPR's Tovia Smith checked it out at a public school in Brooklyn.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The first thing you need to know about the Lenox Academy for Gifted Middle School Students is to never say that out loud.
JOE GIAMPORTONE: No. No. We don't use the never use the word gifted ever. In our school, you will never hear it.
SMITH: Assistant Principal Joe Giamportone says that goes for everyone from the gifted students to their teachers, like Christa Quint and June Davenport.
CHRISTA QUINT: Yes, smart is like a curse.
JUNE DAVENPORT: Yeah, so smart is a dirty word now?
DAVENPORT: It suggests some kind of a natural intelligence that enables you to do so well.
SMITH: The problem is that those kids who think they've got it and always skated through school, Giamportone says, would get to middle school and crumble.
GIAMPORTONE: When that curriculum got tough, a majority of them retreated. And so performance declined over the course of three years.
JAMAL PARRIS: I started thinking that I wasn't that smart and didn't deserve to make it into this school.
SMITH: Seventh grader Jamal Parris was typical.
PARRIS: Like, when I was in fifth grade, I used to be so good at math. And then when I came to Lenox Academy, like I just hit a wall. I was like what, letters in math? And I just couldn't understand anything. And some days I wouldn't even go home to study because I was like, I'm just going to get low grade anyways even if I study.
SMITH: It's exactly the kind of mindset problem that Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck has been warning about for years. Kids with a fixed mindset, who believe high-achievers are born, not made, don't want to risk looking like a loser, she says, so they run from challenge. But kids who believe success comes from effort are grittier and ultimately do best.
It's why Lenox Academy launched their kind of crusade to build up what's called a Growth Mindset.
ALINA BLAZE: It's the term in every class use the growth mindset, have a growth mindset. It's just you can put towards the effort and get something you want.
SMITH: Eight grader Alina Blaze says it's not unlike what Grandma always said: You can do anything, just practice, practice, practice and don't give up. But what convinced her, Blaze says, is the science.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The most revolutionary finding is that when you learn you actually build up your brain, making it smarter and stronger. Grunt...
SMITH: The Brainology program, developed by Dweck, starts with a kid-friendly computer-animated crash course in how the brain works like a muscle
NYASHKA LAURORE: I learned how every single day, the more you learn things the more neurons that pop out of your brain.
SMITH: Even after a few lessons, sixth grader Nyashka Laurore says she already felt more capable.
LAURORE: I was like, the more I practice the more that at school wouldn't really be something I can't do.
QUINT: That's right and if I drew a line between these two points...
SMITH: In classes at Lenox, when kids get practice making graphs, for example, they also get practice being gritty.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: They equal to six?
QUINT: That they all, what do we mean those points equal six?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: They equal to...
SMITH: Eight grade math teacher Christa Quint lets students squirm a little through an awkward silence.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: That causes them to be equal to six, like the weights?
SMITH: The idea is to make kids comfortable with struggle so they see it as just a normal part of learning.
QUINT: It's OK. She's, just give her a second to answer 'cause she's becoming...
SMITH: The focus is always more on effort than answers. Giamportone says teacher have done a 180 on how they see students and how they speak to them.
GIAMPORTONE: You're so smart...
GIAMPORTONE: ...that just does not happen anymore. Please, for you to perform this well, you had to have put forth a lot of effort.
SMITH: Some schools actually grade students on Growth Mindset and grit. At Lenox, it doesn't make it to report cards, but kids do get evaluated on it, by other kids.
NATHAN CURLEY: Who today really worked hard to overcome obstacles and challenges?
SMITH: History teacher Nathan Curley calls out to a ring of eighth-graders, who are rating their classmates on things like learning from past mistakes.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Well, normally, Timothy, he don't pay attention that well. But he's able to take charge and...
CURLEY: I think that if I was outsider and I was hearing this conversation, I might think that this was some kind of hippy-dippy love fest. And I'd think: The kids need to learn. But what you see is actually a more rigorous and risky learning environment.
SMITH: Curley says in three years, he's seen kids grow less afraid of making mistakes and more willing to ask for help. Test scores have jumped 10 to 15 points.
Eduardo Briceno, head of Mindset Works that developed the program, says it makes sense, that if grit begets success that Growth Mindset begets grit.
EDUARDO BRICENO: It's really hard to have high tolerance if you believe that your abilities or intelligence are fixed. Because if you believe you can't change my own abilities, then trying hard doesn't make any sense. It's like pounding your head against wall.
SMITH: The number of schools using Brainology will double this year to a thousand. But even Briceno concedes they are still just small islands in a culture that may give lip service to earning an A for effort, but still rewards grades and scores above all. It's a reality parents know all too well. As Giamportone says, they all love the idea of their kid learning to be more resilient. But he says no one likes when their gifted kid comes home with his first C.
GIAMPORTONE: We get pushback from parents when they come here. And now: Oh, my God...
GIAMPORTONE: ...this never happened before. But, you know, those are the tough conversations.
SMITH: Especially when the long and short-term prospects for growing grit are still unknown.
ANGELA DUCKWORTH: We don't know whether we've had any effect. The jury is out, at least for us.
SMITH: University of Pennsylvania Psychology Professor Angela Duckworth, who coined the term grit, is also experimenting with making middle schoolers grittier. Her efforts also focus on making kids believe that frustration and mistakes are part of learning. But she says a limited intervention, if not consistently reinforced in and out of school, can only have limited results.
DUCKWORTH: It just seems to me extremely implausible that that's going to permanently and impressively change a child.
SMITH: Indeed, even after three years at Lenox Academy, sometimes all it takes is one bad test score for kids to lapse back into the old I'm just not good at math.
But teachers say there are also encouraging signs, like 8th grader Alina Blaze who says she's definitely grittier- not only in school but also out. She recently decided to take up the viola again, three years after she quit, because she was afraid she'd embarrass herself.
BLAZE: I found so difficult to learn. And I said you know what? I'm just not good at this. I might as well not try. And then soon enough I just put viola up their on top of the closet and that was the end of that.
SMITH: But now, as Blaze puts it, she believes you can teach old dogs new tricks,
BLAZE: I think that if I just put in enough effort into it, I can be the next Yow Ming.
BLAZE: Yo Yo Ming, I'm sorry.
SMITH: His name is Yo Yo Ma.
BLAZE: Yo Yo Ma...
SMITH: Mistakes like that one will always be kind of embarrassing, says Blaze. But now she recovers more easily. She's one who's got the message, as they like to say around here, that the secret to success is failure.
Tovia Smith, NPR news.
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