It was terrific to have the chance this month both to see the keynote from Angela Duckworth at NPEA and to have 90 minutes sitting with her in a small group conversation with the SSATB Think Tank.

As many now know, she has become something of “the guru of grit” in the last year or two, particularly with the attention brought to her work by the writing of Paul Tough in his book and New York Times magazine cover story.  She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  I wrote about her work, her TEDx talk, and the Tough book previously here. 

images (4)Duckworth opened her keynote with the message that academic skill development is always interwoven with so-called “non-cog” skills.

The stuff kids need to learn in school is hard.   It’s really hard.  But it is not too hard.  Every child in my classroom– whether it took two hours or twenty hours– could learn this.    It isn’t quantum mechanics, it is Algebra.    In other countries most kids get it because they have the expectation that everyone can do this and they have attitude that it just takes a lot of work to get there.

IQ is not the limiting factor for most of our children.” We shouldn’t tolerate lower expectations for some kids.

Algebra is hard in another way- psychologically, for instance.  Is it hard to persist when it is challenging.

“if you can build non-cog skills, you will boost academic achievement. It is NOT either/or, but BOTH/AND.”

The message, of course, about the value of persistence, is not just for our kids: it is for all of us.   As she explained, and tied it to her own work and the work of everyone in the audience at NPEA, doing the hard work of providing quality education to disadvantaged youth, “It’s not a one year or two year project for any of us in life, tackling something hard and trying to make a real difference.”

angeladuckworthGrit is about “remaining loyal to your commitments.  Perseverance and Passion for long-term goals. Achievement = talent x effort. Anything multiplied by 0 = 0. Grit is about some talent but more about passion and perseverance.”

But we are all deceived, so much of the time, by the false impressions most others give off of gently gliding along the surface, like a duck with no worries.    “We need to show kids, and help them see, that below the waterline we are all paddling furiously.”

Duckworth emphasized the importance of not just teaching grit in some narrow method, but of deeply “Building a culture of grit, making it self-conscious and publicly visible for all.”

In an amusing and telling example, she shared the importance in Finland of a term roughly equivalent to grit, “sisu.”   There, she explained, Sisu is surfaced constantly:  “How’s your sisu today?”  “I’m feeling a bit down in my Sisu this week.”

Duckworth, speaking to an audience whose lives are devoted to helping students succeed in K-12 and collegiate education, stated the problem boldly and baldly: “We are not succeeding– we are getting kids well prepared academically, but they’re still not succeeding in college and careers– what do we need to do differently?”

We need to research, design interventions, experiment, and study results. 

She then referred to what she called “The non-cog mosh pit” (a mosh-pit I’ve really been diving into over the past year):

  • mindset,
  • grit,
  • resilience,
  • goal orientation,
  • social belonging,
  • intrinsic motivation 

She told us she fears “The mosh pit is not useful because it is too wide, too broad, too much for kids to manage and focus on.”  

Give them something singular and specific: choose one and run with it and test along the way if it is working! 

I’m taking a pass on fully writing up her discussion of developing grit, and using “deliberate practice” as a tool for advancing one’s goals, one which both requires and builds grit, in a virtuous cycle, but if you are interested, and you should be, review the slides above for great suggestions.

Below I return to the discussion of assessing and selecting for grit.

In the Q and A section, there was one standout-question.  (As an aside, I’m increasingly taken with how much more interesting, often, presenters can be when asked quality questions, and as a presenter myself, I have to work harder to allow more time for this.)

The question was simple: What about Joy?   Grit as a characteristic doesn’t sound very joyful, and if I want my students and children to have an exuberant love of learning and to take great joy from schooling, maybe I shouldn’t emphasize grit?

Duckworth replied with a complete appreciation for the importance of the question.

“Research shows grittier people are happier.  We should note, however, that it is a rewarding kind of accomplishment happiness, not ‘fun’ happiness.  And we should not mistake that it is not always fun to work hard.”

She added that when she speaks of deliberate practice and daily disciplines and long-term pursuit of goals, she is NOT insisting or even advocating for grueling 4-10 hour work-sessions every day of the week.   Deliberate practice can be a matter of one or two hours a day, three or four days a week perhaps.

For more she recommended Seligman’s important book, The Optimistic Child.  In other parts of the program she also recommended  Dweck’s Mindset and, a true classic now available for free download at Kindle, William James 1899 (!) book, Talks to Teachers. 

In a followup session, Duckworth joined in with two educators, one from Yes Prep and one from Mastery Schools: here are their slides.

Over lunch, Duckworth joined our SSATB Think Tank on the Future of Admissions Assessment small group, for which regular readers here know I am consulting/writing, in a wide-ranging and entirely fascinating 100 minute conversation.   In person Duckworth is warm, upbeat, optimistic, and seemingly highly caffeinated: she speaks, with unflagging clarity, at a very fast clip.  It was a complete delight.

photo 2

We began with a look at the Choate Student Self-Assessment, which uses a survey instrument closely analogous to Duckworth’s own grit survey.  It provides statistically significant information about applicants’ self-control, locus of control, and intrinsic motivation– and Duckworth latched on to the importance and interesting element of “locus of control,” explaining to us she thinks it is highly similar to Seligman’s emphasis on Optimism and Dweck’s on Mindset.

After we explained the purpose of our Think Tank research, she responded by saying, in essence, “of course you are doing this work; the project of spreading the word and developing new tools for assessing the non-cog domain is on everyone’s mind right now: College Board, ACT, ETS.   Indeed, there are now growing conversations about how and when we will build a Common Core equivalent for NonCog attributes.”

She said this is a great thing for our society.  “The culture is shifting right now in such a significant way to recognize, appreciate, and form a common understanding of these concepts and their importance.”

“I can totally see why SSAT and independent schools would be taking a lead on this: Independent schools have so much more room to innovate and experiment.  Go for it.”

That said, she knows the wording continues to be tricky– what we call “non-cog” is still most certainly the result in very significant part of cognition– and so is somewhat oxymoronic.    What might we call it instead?  “Personality, temperament, dispositions, character– they all have their drawbacks too.”   In the extensive work Duckworth has been doing with David Levin of KIPP schools and Dominic Randolph at Riverdale Country School, they are using more and more the word “character” though she acknowledges the term has its detractors and its baggage.   But, she told us, Levin is confident that through their efforts and their impact, they’ll change the problematic semantics of the term and breath into it new life.

She described for us a bit her work with an exciting new initiative, working with Levin and Randolph, called the “Character Lab” in New York City.    Among its excellent elements is a Teenage advisory boards, giving feedback to the lab researchers on what will and won’t work with teenage students.     The website for the character lab is listed but not yet launched, but bears close attention in the coming months and years.

The Character Lab

Part of what is so exciting about the work being undertaken at the Character Lab is next generation work in assessing for character, including new and improved questionnaires, online performance game based activities, and situation judgement tests– all still in development and not yet available.  (Duckworth suggested they may still be seeking pilot schools and programs, and if you’d like your school to be a part of this, you might email the folks there and inquire.)

So what about assessing grit in high stakes situations, such as admission to selective schools? 

“I don’t endorse using grit assessment for high stakes evaluations”

Duckworth is an academic, and understandably wary of her work or words being misunderstood or applied in settings beyond their intent.  She is confident that her grit self-assessment tool is research based and effective– but she urges it not be used in high stakes ways where it can easily be faked or gamed.  She says that in addition to fakability, other problems are encountered.   Some inflate their scores not to “win” but just out of conscious or unconscious social desirability seeking, and even more problematic is that of reference bias.   When answering questions about how grittier you are, or are others, what are you comparing yourself or someone else to?   What frame of reference are you using?  Deciding your agreement to a statement “I am a hard worker” is highly problematic: the harder you work, often, the more often you spend time around people who are themselves mostly hard workers.

Quantifying these traits in high stakes ways is problematic too– there is a danger of numbers with decimal points, because people believe they are more scientific than they really are.  (Conversely, if you really want people to trust or give credence to your numerical reporting, always use a decimal point because people lend those numbers much higher deference because they seem so much more scientific).

“I think caution is merited.” Self-report, as well as parental and teacher reporting, are all problematic, though often in different ways.  In her most amusing statement during our discussion, she said “Look, every assessment is sucky in its own way, each has its own degree and dimension of suckiness.”

What to do?  “Triangulate.”   Assess for grit by using multiple measures: self-assessment, teacher assessment, perhaps parental assessment, and resumes.   “Average them and the problems begin to cancel out.”

This was striking to hear, though perhaps it isn’t really surprising, because it aligned exactly with what was explained by the ETS evaluation expert, Rich Roberts, regarding the Missions Skills Assessment.  He used the same word, triangulation, as the technique by which what might otherwise be inaccurate measurements become more reliable.   Read my post about MSA here. 

As she explained in her presentation that morning, see slide 24, you can discover much about grit from student resumes.  Duckworth at NPEA   21k12

Really look to see if students have pursued one or two things, no more than that, at some length and depth, over several years.     Harvard Admissions Dean Fitzsimmons told us the same thing when we discussed this topic with him.

She continued with her advice, getting to the nitty-gritty.  Do questionnaires  make them good– ensure those statements are clearly and succinctly getting at exactly what you want to get at– use as few and short a tool as you can, make them real, grounded in experience, with language and concrete details familiar to kids.

If you can, and it is expensive, do a rubric: for each criteria, spell out in concrete and vivid detail what each category (1-7, say) looks like in practice, with associated observable actions.   Train people how to use these rubrics when interviewing or evaluating essays– train them carefully.

What about tasks?  Simulated performance tasks, for instance, or situation judgement tasks, to elicit this information?   They are great– and very hard to execute, expensive, complicated, hard to assess. “We are so far from having a library of tested, effective, quality tasks.”   But, they are working for it– as in the Character Lab (above).

When we pointed out that Choate has had relatively good success in research demonstrated validity of their self-assessments: what students say about themselves does correlate with their academic achievement a year or two later, she rallied a little bit from the depths of her skepticism.

“Yes– kids are shockingly honest on their surveys. Even adults are more so than you’d expect.”

“Often the problem is mostly a matter of inflation– few score themselves opposite of what they are, they just, pretty regularly/widely, inflate it a bit, so that they give themselves an extra point– which when you are comparing applicants, means it cancels out.”

“People are honest, research says, in part because they believe the psychologists designing the assessment have some sneaky way of telling when they are being dishonest– which we don’t, most of the time– but people think that and it keeps them honest.”

Grit matters.   Duckworth pointed us to a lovely speech on the importance of grit given to parents at Taft School by its Head, William McMullen.   She pointed out we already see evidence of grit in what we collect– GPA is partly a result of grit, and not just cognitive/intelligence; recommendations do give us good evidence on this.

Let’s take grit, and the breadth of non-cog attributes, seriously and keep seeking ways to better recognize it, better select for it, and, most of all, better support and develop it in our students.