‘Grit’: The New Education Flavor of the Month?

Is a focus on non-cognitive skills just a distraction for education reformers?

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I recently met Angela Duckworth, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who recently received a MacArthur Fellowship (also known as a "genius grant") acknowledging her insightful work on "grit" and "self control" as better predictors of success than factors such as IQ. She was not only super smart but also quite witty and cool – the kind of person whose instincts you are likely to trust.

Duckworth has worked closely with the charter school management network KIPP, which has made "building grit" (or as she calls it, "living life as if it were a marathon, not a sprint") a part of its curriculum. You can watch her TED Education talk here.

Duckworth's work is particularly interesting to me both because I was a psychology major in college and because I am the mother of an 8 year old and as any parent does, I want to be sure I am teaching what matters.

But I'll confess that the education reformer in me first found all the talk and research around the importance of non-cognitive skills a distraction designed to undermine the focus on testing and accountability that we finally were able to bring to the forefront through No Child Left Behind. After all, couldn't you use sitting through a long test and persevering to ace it as a way to build grit? Would it not be easier to focus educators on hard metrics such as the ability to read proficiently by the third grade (think Campaign for Grade Level Reading) than on some vague character-building exercise that you can't measure easily without sending someone like Duckworth into every classroom? And hasn't Nobel Laureate James Heckman's work on early childhood education, which is often cited by President Obama to make the case for high quality pre-K, taught us that these non-cognitive skills are built mostly in the first three years of the brain's development?

I am still grappling with these questions, but I strongly believe Duckworth's ideas merit more research. Identifying and learning how to instill character traits that could be the foundation of achievement both inside and outside the classroom would be a game-changer.   

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