The Ted talk above is from Angela Duckworth, a Professor at U.Penn who is fast emerging, it seems to me, as an important thought leader and inspirational figure for those of us in the field of educating adolescents (and others).

Having just finished Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed, I believe Duckworth stands out significantly in that book (she’s the star); she offers a series of perceptive insights and the research evidence which underpin the book, as captured in its subtitle, Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. 

I love the quote Duckworth shares in the talk above from Darwin, which conveys much of her working thesis:

I have always maintained that, excepting fools, men did not differ that much in intelligence, only in zeal and hard work, and I still think this is an eminently important difference.

In the Tough book, Duckworth is quoted on her alternative from the norm view of school reform:

the problem, I think is not only the schools but the students themselves.  Here’s why: Learning is hard.  True, learning is fun, exhilarating, and gratifying, but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging.

 To help low performing students, educators and parents must first realize that character is at least as important as intellect.

I worry too that we forget how hard learning is, for many much of the time.   Yet at the same time, this quote only partially represents her broader argument, because when you dig deeper, she is equally worried about, or at least her research reveals that we should be equally worried, about learning that is too easy for our students, learning that is about listening to the lecture, reading the book, and “cranking out” the paper, year after year, for at least 8 of them, and then coming out of college and realizing how much more is required of success.

There is also, and I want to return to this in a subsequent post, a fascinating discussion of “under-matching,” in education: sometimes some students attend colleges which aren’t challenging enough to them, local state or community colleges overwhelmed by numbers and by needed remediation for many, but not all of their students, and those that are more prepared for the challenge are under, not over, whelmed, and, bored and disengaged, drop away.  But undermatching can occur in other dimensions too, when students perfectly competent at cranking it out and “doing school,” as Pope calls it, get by but don’t transcend.

In my own observations of highly intellectually talented students at top California prep schools, I saw far too often a stultifying dullness in what was being provided for them, resulting in an apathy about genuine learning that was heartbreaking and  which is ultimately dis-serving.  In my own recollection of college, it was only a six months or so before I dropped out, not literally at all, but in effect, transferring the largest part of my time and energy to campus activism in various forms and not doing enough for my own learning.

From her collaboration with the legendary positive psychology guru Marty Seligman, whose work has long been highly important to me,  Duckworth, as Tough explains, has derived a list of 7 key traits of character in this context, and note the way this is understood as performance character, not moral character:

Grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.

In my study of 21st century learning, I’m familiar with the emphasis placed on curiosity, (see Wagner), and social intelligence and all its significance for collaboration.  I’ve also seen optimism listed  and highlighted in the recent Marzano work on Teaching and Assessing 21st century skills, and gratitude is at the heart of much of positive psychology and the broader happiness movement, which I write about and praise regularly.

But for Duckworth, the twin towers on this list are self-control and grit, and the discussion of their importance in Tough should be required reading.

Self-control (in Tough, self-control seems to be largely, if not entirely, equated with self-discipline and conscientiousness seems to be differentiated only slightly, as a critical subset of self-control, combining motivation and volition), the essential importance of which many of us remember from the famed research about the marshmallow test (self control defined as being able to postpone gratification) administered to young preschoolers in the early seventies and which demonstrated life-long significance.  This delayed gratification demonstrated with a marshmallow at an early age, you will recall, is a better predictor of gpa and career success than is IQ, and Tough’s book provides a useful recapitulation of that research.

Watch closely in the video atop Duckworth’s graphs about West Point first-years and the Spelling Bee contenders, and how she compares self-control to grit.   In the work of evaluating our students and their potential success, Duckworth’s research findings are that self-control is a better predictor for school success (defined as GPA) than is either IQ or grit, but, she argues, grit is more meaningful for larger and longer-scale success.

Self discipline is doing your homework when you need to, staying on a diet.  Self-Discipline is great for homework and gpa, but not such a great predictor for whether you are going to found Blue Man Group and stick with it.

Click here to get your Duckworth grit score. (Scroll down and find the box on lower left, get your grit score.  Below is an image of the first screen in the survey.

Two things emerge strongly for educators considering the implications, and forgive me for stating the obvious.

First, if we want to identify the students who are most likely to perform well in our schools, and if we want to identify the students who are most likely to emerge from our schools with the greatest liklihood of making a true impact upon the world, we would do well to recast and broaden our evaluation of applying or incoming students to include self-control and grit on a scale equal to or greater than IQ (which is effectively what most standardized aptitude/admissions tests measures).

Second, and of greater importance, we have to consider what we are teaching in our schools.  Are we teaching self-control and grit, together and separately, as much and as well as we are teaching higher order thinking and intellectual development generally?    Tough, in his book, confronts this squarely when it comes to independent/private schools (and by extension, other schools of affluence , in his extended discussion of Riverdale Country School and its head of school, Dominic Randolph.   At these types of schools, our students are most certainly developing their intellectual skills,  and self-control is, for many or most students, coming along just fine.

But what about grit?  Tough discusses what a staggering large proportion (one third to one half) of Ivy league students graduate into positions and then careers in management consulting and investment banking, partly in fairness because they need the money to pay off their loans, but for many, Tough says, because they don’t have any idea what else they would do or how to make an alternative happen: this is the path of least resistance.

I’m reading Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well now, and am intending to circle back soon with a post unpacking more of what Duckworth, Tough, and Levine suggest in specific action steps for educating for self-control and grit/perseverance.

Two criticisms of self-control and grit are prominent, one explicit inside of Tough and one coming from outside Tough’s work.  The first, which Tough shares and recognizes without expressing a strong opinion about,  comes essentially from Marxist analysts, who argue that self-control education is a corporate society’s idea: let’s teach our students to “self-control” themselves so they will follow our directions and do what we say without forcing our hand.   And indeed, there is some research to suggest that “self-control” heightening does come at the expense of some creativity.

Tough reports a divide among self-control advocates between those who see it as entirely a good, and some who see it as entailing a trade-off.  Clearly we should consider each program promoting self-control with a certain skepticism, and consider the implications of what its effects might be.

Second come from Alfie Kohn, in a HuffPo essay that has been widely circulated in the last month.  Kohn’s take overlaps with what Tough describes as the Marxist critique, when he says arguments for the importance of grit (etc)

sounds suspiciously like the Protestant work ethic. More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned grit and perseveranceself-discipline and will power. The goal is to make sure they’ll be able to resist temptation, override their unconstructive impulses, and put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do.

The rest of Kohn’s essay, however, focuses exclusively on the role of failure, and he makes a compelling case that

studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure. (They also come to prefer easier tasks and lose interest in whatever they’re doing.)

there’s reason to doubt the popular claim that kids have too little experience with failure. Or that more such experience would be good for them. What is clear is that the very environments that play up the importance of doing well make it even less likely that doing poorly will have any beneficial effect.

OK– but to my eyes there is something of a disconnect between the first Kohn quote and the second.   We can continue to assert that supporting and strengthening students’ self-control and grit will enhance their likelihood of success in life without   deciding we have to create more experiences of failure for kids.    I don’t read Tough recommending that the deeply disadvantaged kids in KIPP schools or Chicago housing projects need more experience of failure, but that they need more intentional development of grit and perseverance.   In his discussion of the Brooklyn middle school chess team, he does celebrate the tough feedback the coach gives those chess players when they lose– but to me there is still a ray of light between  this chess competition context of tough feedback and what Kohn describes as experiences of failure.

The main place we find failure celebrated by Tough is in the title of the New York Times Magazine article a year ago– and it is true that Tough  pulls in some quotes from the headmaster of an extraordinarily elite school musing that those kids need more failure in their lives– but that is a pretty small subset of the general population of kids, and it’d be interesting to see Kohn and that headmaster (Dominic Randolph) play that out.

In thinking about educating for greater grit and perseverance, it is hard to overlook recalling the incredible power of Dweck’s growth mindset, and that the more we can do to help students recognize that their success is the result of their attitude and effort, and not their innate ability, the better.    This was reiterated only yesterday in a fascinating NPR report/article comparing Japanese and US students and their struggle— (and, it is worth noting, there are some important sharp differences between the NPR article and the Kohn piece).

For example, Stigler says, in the Japanese classrooms that he’s studied, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through hard work and struggle.

More to come…