How to think about “Grit”

For the past several years, non-cognitive skills have been a dominant theme in education. While the concept has been around for some time, the current focus can be traced back to the book How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough. That book popularized the notion that a student’s long-term success was determined by a whole range of “skills” – grit, perseverance, conscientiousness, curiosity, self-regulation – that go above and beyond a test score.

Since the book was published, “grit” has been the star of the show. The book summarizes the work of psychologist Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania, who found that an individual’s “grittiness” – their ability to remain committed to a particular task over a long period of time – is more important to long-term success than a range of other academic factors.

So grit is important. What has been less clear, however, is how to make students grittier.

Tough’s latest book, Helping Children Succeed, takes up this question. And what he finds is that we’re likely going about it all wrong.

The problem with non-cognitive skills – grit or any other – is that we think of them as “skills,” rather than the collection of habits and traits that researchers have all lumped together under the non-cognitive umbrella. And because they’re not skills, students are unlikely to develop them the way they might other skills, through practice. Yet this is the dominant way we work on non-cognitive capacities in schools: by telling students to persevere, get that homework done, be gritty!

Instead, researchers find that the way to get students to act grittier is by changing a student’s context, rather than trying to change the student herself. More specifically, researchers have found that to get students to persevere through challenging academic tasks, we must impact the underlying mindsets that lie behind a students’ actions. In other words, rather than trying to develop non-cognitive capacities directly, we should be trying to impact how students think and feel about themselves, their school, their academic abilities, and their futures.

So how do we do this?

There are two sets of research worth mentioning here.

The first comes from the renowned experiments of psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Since the 1970s, Deci and Ryan have conducted a number of experiments to show that intrinsic motivation is a far more powerful motivator than extrinsic motivation, and that a student’s intrinsic/internal motivation depended on their sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This means that students need to feel that they have some sense of agency and choice, feel they can succeed in their work, and feel connected to the people they are working with, namely their teachers and fellow students.

The second piece of research comes from a highly recommended report on non-cognitive skills by researchers at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago Schools Research. After analyzing literature on a range of “noncognitive factors,” they found that the surest way to develop the academic habits essential for school success is by impacting four underlying academic mindsets:

  1. I belong in this academic community (belonging/relatedness)
  2. My ability and competence grow with effort (growth mindset)
  3. I can succeed at this (competence)
  4. This work has value for me (relevance)

This all matters a great deal because armed with this knowledge, everything we do in schools to help students build key non-cognitive capacities needs to change. Knowing that we want to develop a “skill” like grit in our students, the tendency of educators has traditionally been to enact stricter discipline policies, buckle-down, exert more control, in the name of building “character” skills.

But the research on academic mindsets seems to suggest that this is the exact wrong approach. A “No Excuses” discipline policy that’s overly controlling could detract from a student’s sense of autonomy, and place students and staff in an adversarial position that may harm a student’s sense of belonging. Missing a sense of autonomy and relatedness, a student may reject school and fall behind academically, damaging their sense of competence. If this leads to acting out and a refusal to engage, the negative cycle continues.

Instead, Tough suggests that the right approach may not be about any particular program or even a focus on a certain set of discrete “skills.” The right approach may be to simply create educational environments that offer students some sense of autonomy; that allow teachers to show students that they’re valued, liked, and that they belong; that are supportive of student success; and that offer students the chance to engage in interesting work that could stir potential passions.

So as we seek to build non-cognitive capacities in our students, the focus should be not on changing our students, but on changing the academic environment our students experience on a daily basis. The sooner we do that, the sooner we may discover that we’ve been surrounded by “gritty” students all-along.


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