Grit and the Greater Good: A Conversation with Angela Duckworth - ASCD
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October 1, 2018

Grit and the Greater Good: A Conversation with Angela Duckworth

The nation's foremost expert on grit says being a "good" person is more imperative than being "great" at something.

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Social Emotional Learning

University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth's research on the importance of "grit" to academic success sparked a new area of focus in K–12 education—as well as its fair share of criticism. But Duckworth, founder and CEO of the Character Lab, believes that the concept is often misunderstood, and that character strengths that drive achievement shouldn't overshadow those that make us good.

You literally wrote the book on grit. Yet lately you've been careful to emphasize that "grit isn't everything"—that in fact, "character is plural."

I'll first begin by saying that different communities use different terms; but when I say character, I really mean social-emotional learning. There are three families of character strengths that we see in our data: one is interpersonal character strengths. We like to call them strengths of heart. They include gratitude, empathy, honesty, and social and emotional intelligence—all the things that help you get along and contribute to the lives of other people. I think those are probably the most important aspects of character, and they're not grit. It's important for me to say that as a mother, as a former teacher, and as a scientist.

The second family of strengths, which are the ones I study as a scientist, are intrapersonal character strengths, or strengths of will. These include academic self-control, delay of gratification, grit, and related ways of thinking about the world, like optimism or growth mindset. Without strengths of will, a kid isn't getting their work done or moving toward their own personal goals.

The third category is deeply important and kind of obvious, but I think schools can do a lot better job developing them. These are strengths of mind, or intellectual character strengths, like curiosity, open-mindedness, intellectual humility, imagination, and creativity.

These strengths of heart, mind, and will collectively are what I refer to as character. But I respect other schools, communities, and individuals who prefer different terms: life skills, soft skills, 21st century skills, social-emotional learning skills, and so on.

You mentioned that interpersonal skills are the most important aspects of character. Are they also the most important to success in school?

No, and that's a great question. In fact, these interpersonal character strengths—strengths of heart—are not as correlated with grades as are the strengths of will. When I say most important, I mean most imperative in a moral or social way. I am horrified at the idea that my daughters would grow up to be unkind and unempathetic people. It's important for my kids to be good before it's important for me that they are great. As a human, I think it's most important that we treat other people with respect first and foremost.

Your work with the Character Lab has shown promising developments for measuring SEL skills. What can you share with us?

We have had success in three different ways (and some disappointments): First, we have questionnaires designed for research and self-reflection that were kid-created. We went into schools and asked kids to tell us what self-control or gratitude or curiosity look like in their daily lives. And then we had teachers rate these items on a simple scale to determine which were most common among their students, like "forgetting my homework because I wasn't paying attention." We did years of statistical analysis and looked to see which items predicted actual outcomes like GPA or the number of friends you have. And that's how we developed the Character Growth Card and came up with the strengths of heart, mind, and will.

The second thing we did was create performance measures of character, including a frustration task and an academic-diligence task. These are less fakable because they are behavioral tasks, not self-report questionnaires. But performance tasks, like the Marshmallow Test or any of the ones we developed, have a lot of error in them. It's effectively a single observation, and there are all kinds of reasons why you might not do well—you don't have very good hand-eye coordination or you were hungry that day or the cafeteria smelled like bologna. The latter actually happened to us once. Literally, the cafeteria smelled like bologna and all the kids were talking about was bologna and they were distracted and didn't do very well.

The third thing, which I think is the future, involves big data. More and more information is going online, like school records and homework completion. In fact, kids are learning more online, through Kahn Academy and other kinds of platforms. So what are the implications for measurement? Maybe we can see a future, at least for certain SEL competencies or character strengths—like persistence, challenge-seeking, and openness to feedback—where you won't have to ask a single question or ask kids to do any extra thing. Instead, you can analyze the data that's there. For example, we've been looking at the extracurricular activities that kids list in the Common App, and we're finding that the data is a good proxy for grit. When we see continuity and persistence in these extracurriculars, it's predicting all the same outcomes that a questionnaire measure of grit would.

Carol Dweck recently came out to say growth mindset was being misinterpreted and misapplied in schools. Are there cases where schools are also getting grit wrong?

I think Carol Dweck and I might both worry that our message is not being heard as we intend. Grit is not about blaming the student. I think it's an easy misinterpretation. To say that grit is important doesn't mean that when kids are not performing well, it's their fault, instead of needing more support, better instruction, and more opportunities. I remember when the New York Times reviewed my book two years ago, my feelings were hurt a little bit. The review suggested I'm tone-deaf to the need for structural change and that I didn't understand the plight of poor kids. And I thought to myself, "My own father wouldn't speak to me for six months when I went into education to teach disadvantaged kids in cities like New York." I sure as heck am not out for ignoring the problems that I confronted as a teacher on a daily basis.

So I think the misunderstanding is an easy one, which is that growth mindset and grit are about the individual, and therefore not about society and culture and structural change. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, what does give a kid the hope that they can change and learn, what does give a kid resilience and passion, are their experiences. There's a responsibility for society, classroom teachers, superintendents, headmasters to create the circumstances under which growth mindset and grit and other aspects of character can grow.

When it comes down to the tactical things that go wrong, a teacher who hears about growth mindset and grit may say to a struggling kid, "Oh well, at least you tried hard." That's not what Carol and I want. At the tactical level, we would advise saying something like, "Well, let's get out that last test and let's go through every problem together and figure out what went wrong. And then let's practice what needs to go better next time."

So developing grit is not just on the student, but also on the community and systems?

Yes. It's a combination of both. When I talk to my own kids, I talk to them about taking responsibility. I want kids to feel like they have agency, which they do. So I'm not saying it's only the responsibility of the schools, the teachers, and society. I'm certainly not saying it's only the responsibility of the kids. I really think of it as joint work, but we have to set kids up for growth and success. I've been in classrooms where I have thought to myself, "I can't see how a gritty kid would even survive here. It is so poorly managed, it is so hostile in its culture." I wouldn't want to go into that classroom and say, "Well, it's on you kids." But I also wouldn't want to go into that classroom and say, "It's 100 percent your teacher's responsibility, and you are all passive receptacles." I want kids to have agency, but I also want society to take responsibility.

A lot of people say poor kids already have large reserves of grit that they don't get credit for. Are there certain types of grit that are being overlooked in schools, like the grit it takes to hold down a job after school, raise a sibling, and still make it to class every day?

That's a really excellent point. If I look at a kid's record and they spent four years on the tennis team and they ended up the captain and they overcame an injury … it's obvious that kid has grit. But what about the kid who is holding things together at home and taking care of a sibling or making dinner or helping to pay the bills?

We had support from the Gates Foundation to look at high school seniors and ways of measuring and thinking about predictors of college persistence. And when we looked at their activities, we were very intentional in asking, not just what sports have you done, but also what are you doing as part of a religious tradition or household responsibilities or paid work? Kids don't think that's what colleges want to see on applications, so it doesn't occur to them to write down that they were working at Domino's 20 hours a week.

That said, I think that when kids can demonstrate or be gritty in an area like that, they—not because they're poor, but just because they're human—sometimes need help in transferring that asset into a different domain of life. So just to use an example that has no class lines: Say kids are on a soccer or basketball team, and they're very gritty and resilient and they can take feedback and they're coachable on the playing field. But then they're in math class and all of a sudden they're shut down, and the teacher says, "Let's try that problem again" and they're like, "No, I can't do it." I've taught kids like that—I'm like, wait a second, where does all your grit, your resilience, your growth mindset, your terrific coachable attitude go? They sometimes need help in understanding that it is the same situation. They need to be able to say to themselves, "I'm being challenged, I'm being asked to do something I can't yet do. But I can do it with some support and some practice and effort."

Grit, as you describe it, is one part passion and one part perseverance. What practices support each area of grit in the classroom?

We have an "Expert Practice Playbook" on our website to help students build mastery toward a specific skill with ongoing practice and teacher feedback. It was codeveloped by Anders Ericsson, who's the world expert on world experts, and a team of teachers. What expert practice is not, is rote, drill-and-kill kind of practice. For example, homework could in many cases be better designed. Is it really focusing on a particular skill? Is it a skill that the kid really needs to improve upon, as opposed to, "Oh, I'm going to fill up a half an hour of time?" And are they getting feedback? With a lot of work that kids do in class or at home, the feedback is not the way it's supposed to be, which is immediate and formative. If you're giving out an essay in English class with one comment on it four months later—which happens—there's no incentive for the kid to take the feedback and improve. What I'd like to see is that the essay comes back in as quick a time turnaround as possible with really helpful comments.

Another thing teachers could do is provide a structure where kids can improve. I really like schools that are trying to innovate in that way, making it mastery-oriented, where you can take the same test over and over again—or different versions of tests—and your grade reflects that improvement.

What about kids who haven't found a passion? Can they be gritty?

Grit really starts with passion. People always focus on the work ethic part of it, but I actually think that the passion comes first developmentally. Usually it starts as interest, curiosity. In a fully grown mature adult, you usually find that there's also purpose and meaning and the feeling that you're in service of something greater than yourself. But when you're 9 or 10, you're usually not that other-oriented, and you're not quite able to think of that bigger picture. What you are doing is discovering, "I like rocks" or "That was fun. Turns out I like being outside a lot." I think this idea of curiosity being central to grit is so important. If you look at graphs of curiosity or engagement in school, the graphs are downward ski slopes from 5th grade on. Wouldn't it be great if those graphs went up? That for every year a kid was in school they were more intellectually curious about something?

In a grittier world, we really wouldn't be forcing kids to do tons of practice on hard things that they don't care about; we would find ways to have them be playful and enjoy things.

What does a grit-informed school look like?

I would say that it is a school where kids are probably doing more project-based learning. Oftentimes schools, for example, assign a senior thesis or a senior project, something where the kids take ownership and have choice, so they're able to do something which is of personal interest to them.

It would look like teachers being demanding, yet supportive, like the greatest teachers always are. I was recently interviewing a paragon of grit, Toby Cosgrove, who is dyslexic and only diagnosed in his early 30s. But despite his struggles academically, he had become the head of the Cleveland Clinic and arguably the best heart surgeon in the world. We were talking about teaching, and he asked me, "You've probably had over 100 teachers. Who do you remember?" I immediately remembered my English teacher Mr. Carr. He was just about the hardest teacher I ever had, but he loved and cared so much for us. He was that combination. And I think that's what a gritty school and a gritty classroom looks like. It's really demanding. It asks for things that you don't think you can do, but then you have this person who has so much unconditional support, that you surprise yourself with what you can accomplish.

Your family lives by the Hard Thing Rule. Tell us about it.

The Hard Thing Rule is that everyone in the family has to do one hard thing like yoga, running, or the viola that requires daily deliberate practice. My kids have to complete what they start: So they're not allowed to quit sports in the middle of the season or quit instruments before the tuition payment is up. They can quit at the end of a commitment, but they have to then pick the next hard thing. Part of the rule is that they pick their own activity; I don't want to choose what my kids do with their time. I don't think that's where passion comes from.

What if schools had a Hard Thing Rule, where everybody in the school is doing something hard? They would have to finish their commitments. For younger kids, it might be a commitment of two weeks. For older kids, it might be as long as a year. And they would have some autonomy in saying, I want to do violin or gymnastics or community service. I think those are good rules for any school.

On a final note, you often reference MLK's quote, "Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education." How far have schools come, and how far do we have to go, in achieving Dr. King's vision?

We're now in kind of a renaissance of understanding what we probably just forgot for a while, which is that kids are people; they're not just test scores, and they have responsibilities to themselves and to others. They need our help in developing. I would say that what we're on the cusp of is doing what schools have long been understood to do, which is educate the whole child. What I'm really excited about is the possibility that science—which has advanced a lot since Martin Luther King Jr. and since Aristotle and Benjamin Franklin and John Dewey—will help us go farther than we have before.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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