Monday, September 2, 2013

Grit - Angela Duckworth's TED talk

Here's the link to the video (transcript below).

"Grit" (which is really just a facet of the Big Five trait of Conscientiousness) is a very popular, feel-good notion. People like it as much as Malcolm Gladwell's popularization of the "10,000 hour" rule, because both ideas make it seem like IQ (or any other innate talent or ability) doesn't matter, as suggested in this graphic:

But think carefully about Duckworth's examples. "Grit" predicted success at West Point and in the National Spelling Bee, and among sales reps. In fact, "grit" was a better predictor than IQ in those populations. But the simple reason that IQ wasn't a better predictor of success in those population was restriction of range (everybody at West Point, Spelling Bee, etc. is already much smarter than the average person, and just about as smart as each other).

In no way should the predictive power of "grit" be used to assert that "IQ doesn't matter." That would be utter and complete nonsense. In fact, the overwhelming weight of the scientific evidence suggests that "nothing matters more than IQ" when it comes to life success. (Oh, and not becoming an alcoholic.)

Furthermore, there isn't much evidence that kids (or anyone else) can be taught or trained to increase their levels of "grit." There is some efficacy for temporarily boosting perseverance and diligence -- with ADHD medications. By the way, this is how ADHD meds got to be so widely prescribed -- parents have intuitively figured out that these drugs can help their low Conscientiousness children behave in ways that high Conscientiousness children do naturally.

The reason why people care about concepts like "grit" isn't that we really think that it is "more important than IQ" but that we have established that you can't raise people's IQs, so we are desperately looking for some trait that is associated with life success and that can be influenced by some kind of intervention.

As I said, with the exception of ADHD meds, and removing children from toxic or inept parents, good luck with that project. I won't be staying up nights breathlessly anticipating the results.

ANGELA LEE DUCKWORTH: When I was 27 years old, I left a very demanding job in management consulting for a job that was even more demanding: teaching. I went to teach seventh graders math in the New York City public schools. And like any teacher, I made quizzes and tests. I gave out homework assignments. When the work came back, I calculated grades.

What struck me was that I.Q. was not the only difference between my best and my worst students. Some of my strongest performers did not have stratospheric I.Q. scores. Some of my smartest kids weren't doing so well.

And that got me thinking. The kinds of things you need to learn in seventh grade math, sure, they're hard: ratios, decimals, the area of a parallelogram. But these concepts are not impossible, and I was firmly convinced that every one of my students could learn the material if they worked hard and long enough.

After several more years of teaching, I came to the conclusion that what we need in education is a much better understanding of students and learning from a motivational perspective, from a psychological perspective. In education, the one thing we know how to measure best is I.Q., but what if doing well in school and in life depends on much more than your ability to learn quickly and easily?

So I left the classroom, and I went to graduate school to become a psychologist. I started studying kids and adults in all kinds of super challenging settings, and in every study my question was, who is successful here and why? My research team and I went to West Point Military Academy. We tried to predict which cadets would stay in military training and which would drop out. We went to the National Spelling Bee and tried to predict which children would advance farthest in competition. We studied rookie teachers working in really tough neighborhoods, asking which teachers are still going to be here in teaching by the end of the school year, and of those, who will be the most effective at improving learning outcomes for their students? We partnered with private companies, asking, which of these salespeople is going to keep their jobs? And who's going to earn the most money? In all those very different contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn't social intelligence. It wasn't good looks, physical health, and it wasn't I.Q. It was grit.

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint.

A few years ago, I started studying grit in the Chicago public schools. I asked thousands of high school juniors to take grit questionnaires, and then waited around more than a year to see who would graduate. Turns out that grittier kids were significantly more likely to graduate, even when I matched them on every characteristic I could measure, things like family income, standardized achievement test scores, even how safe kids felt when they were at school. So it's not just at West Point or the National Spelling Bee that grit matters. It's also in school, especially for kids at risk for dropping out. To me, the most shocking thing about grit is how little we know, how little science knows, about building it. Every day, parents and teachers ask me, "How do I build grit in kids? What do I do to teach kids a solid work ethic? How do I keep them motivated for the long run?" The honest answer is, I don't know. (Laughter) What I do know is that talent doesn't make you gritty. Our data show very clearly that there are many talented individuals who simply do not follow through on their commitments. In fact, in our data, grit is usually unrelated or even inversely related to measures of talent.

So far, the best idea I've heard about building grit in kids is something called "growth mindset." This is an idea developed at Stanford University by Carol Dweck, and it is the belief that the ability to learn is not fixed, that it can change with your effort. Dr. Dweck has shown that when kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they're much more likely to persevere when they fail, because they don't believe that failure is a permanent condition.

So growth mindset is a great idea for building grit. But we need more. And that's where I'm going to end my remarks, because that's where we are. That's the work that stands before us. We need to take our best ideas, our strongest intuitions, and we need to test them. We need to measure whether we've been successful, and we have to be willing to fail, to be wrong, to start over again with lessons learned.

In other words, we need to be gritty about getting our kids grittier.

Thank you.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. When I read of Dr. Duckworth's MacArthur award, I opened her website at Penn and began to download PDF files of a number of her articles.

    And while her studies were impressive, it struck me as though they had a certain normative quality: grit and self-control appeared for all intents and purposes as the sine qua non of strength of character.

    Then it struck me, all of her studies where drawn from psychology (or educational psychology) as opposed to neurology and neuroscience. In other words, her work appeared to ignore any neurological correlates of "grit," e.g. executive functioning, blood profusion in the frontal cortices, etc. at which point, I did the obvious thing, searching on PubMed for "Duckworth ADHD" and got no hits whatsoever, which surprised me. Surely she has weighed in on the question of whether grit and self-control, on the one hand, and ADHD, on the other hand, are equivalent concepts. But apparently not. (A search of "Duckworth AL Attention" was also fruitless.)

    While Dr. Duckworth may have some valid points on social factors which can exacerbate issues of distraction, my great fear is that her work will be used to disregard strong medical evidence of neurologic and even genetic roots, and write it all off to character. (How sad.)


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