True grit isn’t easy to teach, warns the resilience ‘genius’

17th June 2016 at 00:00
Celebrated US expert says grit is a key to success in life – but she urges caution over character education

“What I’ve noticed about this country,” Angela Duckworth says, “is that there’s this enthusiasm for teaching character.”

The Pennsylvania-based professor of psychology is in London to promote her new book, Grit. In it, she argues that success is determined not only by innate talent, but also by what she defines as “grit”: passion and perseverance.

Gritty people, she argues, are the ones who relentlessly pursue their goals, despite setbacks and failures. They are the ones who have a passion, and are single-minded in their pursuit of it. They are also consistent in their interests and enthusiasms: they have a clear goal, and are not easily distracted by new ideas or projects.

“When you look at world-class experts, they do a lot of practice that’s very targeted, and they get better,” Professor Duckworth says. “They break down the big task into tiny elements, and practise it until they get better.”

Of course, this is not the first time that England has heard about the importance of grit. Education secretary Nicky Morgan has repeatedly emphasised the importance of character education. In December 2014, she allocated £3.5 million to be spent on classes and extracurricular activities that built grit and resilience.

And, in April this year, she reiterated her focus on “every young person developing that resilience, that grit, that persistence, that determination”.

Professor Duckworth thinks about this for a moment. “I have two feelings,” she says. “One is enthusiasm. We’re broadening the scope, when we talk about kids, beyond standard grades. We’re saying, ‘Resilience matters. Grit matters. Social skills matter. Whether they feel happy matters.’”

Her second feeling, however, is less unequivocally positive. “Caution,” she says. “I don’t want people to feel that these are easy things to teach, or that teachers should be expected to teach them.”

Professor Duckworth’s own story is now almost as well-known as her book. When she was a child, she was repeatedly told by her father, “You know, you’re no genius.”

She went on to take degrees in neurobiology and neuroscience at Harvard and Oxford universities. Her PhD was from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied with Professor Martin Seligman, considered the godfather of positive thinking (see TES next month for an interview).

In 2013, she was awarded the MacArthur “genius grant”, thus proving to her father the validity of her own theory: that hard work and determination matter much more than innate ability.

The 46-year-old is still at the beginning of her research into grit; she doesn’t have all the answers yet. “There’s no comprehensive programme to make a school grittier,” she says. “Grit is only relevant when you’re talking about long-term, meaningful goals. I’m not saying children have to do the same thing for ever. But one of the challenges – or tasks – of childhood is to explore things, so you find something that will hang around for a while.”

To teach grit, therefore, one needs to help pupils identify their passions. “By high school, I think children should be encouraged to find something interesting enough that they would be able to do that for more than a year,” she says. “Creating human beings who are able to substitute nuance for novelty is a big project in childhood.”

The art of self-control

Perhaps more immediately relevant for pupils and their teachers, she says, is self-control: mastering the art of delayed gratification. For example, while checking Snapchat may be more immediately gratifying for a teenager than doing homework, the latter will deliver longer-lasting benefits.

“If you’re talking about their report-card grades, then, yes, self-control is more important than grit,” Professor Duckworth says. “But, if you’re talking about their development as a person – developing interests in things; a capability to practise, to persevere – then I think they’re equally important.”

Her book draws its case studies from among the professional and competitive elite. But Professor Duckworth worked as a maths and science teacher in low-income areas of New York City, San Francisco and Philadelphia. So she is aware that the least-advantaged children are often those whose lives have already taught them the value of grit.

“I think one of the things that we have to be very humble about is our inability to really know what’s going on in a kid’s life,” she says. “The obstacles they had to tackle, even before getting to school that day. We should be cautious about saying those kids aren’t resilient in conventional ways.”

But, she adds, teachers can help pupils to transfer some of the resilience skills they have learned in one domain – at home, for example – to another domain. Equally, there are some children who will pick themselves up easily after a sports-related disappointment, but will struggle to do the same after a bad maths test. “I don’t think it’s about being poor,” Professor Duckworth says. “Kids are still kids, right? It’s not like these posh schools’ kids already know how to do everything. I don’t think human beings, in general, are fantastic at transferring skills.”

This month, she will welcome 24 US middle-school teachers to her laboratory, to help translate her findings into professionaldevelopment materials and lesson plans. She and the teachers will work together for three years. “Grittier teachers have students who do better over time,” she says. “Modelling passion and perseverance to your own students – that predicts students’ achievement.”

‘Honesty is key’

As a university tutor, Professor Duckworth attempts to do this for her students. For example, she says, writing her book was the hardest thing she has ever had to do: there were days when all she wanted was to hurl her laptop into the ocean. Then she would go into the lab and tell her students that she was struggling, and that she was often in tears. “Teachers should just be honest with their kids,” she says. “About how they’re passionate and persevering, but also that it’s hard.”

She recommends, therefore, teachers ask themselves certain questions: “Am I a challenging teacher? Am I really holding kids to the highest expectations? Am I asking them to do things that they can’t do? Am I challenging them to get a little bit better every day? Am I pushing them a little bit outside of their comfort zone, but always within their reach?”

@adibloom Grit: the power of passion and perseverance, by Angela Duckworth, is published by Vermilion

CV: Angela Duckworth

Born 20 April 1970 in Philadelphia

Harvard College Undergraduate degree in neurobiology (1988-1992)

University of Oxford MSc in neuroscience (1994-1996)

Management consultant McKinsey and Company (1996-1997)

Maths teacher The Learning Project, New York City (1997-1998); Lowell High School, San Francisco (1998-2000)

Chief operating officer (2000-2001)

Science teacher Mastery Charter High School, Philadelphia (2002)

University of Pennsylvania, department of psychology MA and PhD then research associate, then assistant and associate professor, then professor (2002-current)

Founder and scientific director Character Lab (2015-current)

How gritty are you?

Rate yourself against the following statements, from one (very much like me) to five (not at all like me):

New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.

I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.

Now rate yourself against the following, from one (not at all like me) to five (very much like me):

I am a hard worker.

I finish whatever I begin.

To calculate your grit score, add up your total points and divide by four. The maximum on this scale is five (extremely gritty), and the lowest is one (not at all gritty). For a fuller version of the test, including a breakdown of where your score places you, see Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit.

The grit delusion: Professor Duckworth’s advice to pupils

Are certain generations predisposed to grittiness? And where does the line fall between grit and delusion?

These were among the questions asked by pupils and teachers at Wimbledon High School, in south-west London, during a talk by psychologist and author Angela Duckworth (pictured).

“In her experience, the older you get, the grittier you get, which resonated with a number of us in the audience, as we approach middle age,” says Jane Lunnon, Wimbledon High’s headteacher.

Professor Duckworth discussed the difference between grit and delusion. “It’s very easy to see the word ‘grit’ and assume it’s about marine bravado: just keep going,” says Ms Lunnon. “But it’s actually much more nuanced.

“Grit is about asking yourself tough questions about why you are pursuing a particular goal. Then recalibrating that goal, so you’re not spending for ever on something that isn’t going to work.”

Before leaving, Professor Duckworth offered a final piece of advice to pupils. “She told them to choose one thing to do in a year,” Ms Lunnon says, “and aim to do that one thing really, really well.”

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