True grit or false premise: Can schools teach students to persevere and stay positive?

Grit has become an education buzz word as more schools adopt the mantra that kids learn from failure and what separates winners from losers is old-fashioned perseverance, will power and self-discipline.

Schools are now attempting to bottle “grit” and feed it to their students through a variety of character education programs. In the past few weeks, I have heard several educators reference grit as a critical part of student success.

Critics of the grit movement, including education writer Alfie Kohn, contend we ought to worry less about transforming students and more about transforming schools. He told me once: “Because, if the question is how can we train kids to be persistent and self-controlled, then the question isn’t, ‘Why are some schools so much worse than others?’ ‘Why are schools in the inner city basically now turned into test-prep factories?'”

A few years ago I interviewed journalist Paul Tough about his book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.” I wrote:

After visiting classrooms, campuses and laboratories and interviewing teachers, researchers, chess masters and students, Tough concludes that the most significant skills children must learn in their early years can’t be taught with flashcards. A chronicler of school reforms, including KIPP and the Harlem Children’s Zone, Tough became intrigued by the question of why some children thrive and others fail.  Tough came to believe success comes down to a set of character traits that, contrary to the belief they are innate, can be fostered in children.

And those traits are most important to youngsters from low-income families, who don’t have the family supports and financial resources to protect them from youthful missteps, shield them from consequences and set them back on the right track, he said.

Tough based his reporting on what he saw at KIPP, the high-achieving network of charter middle schools launched by two young teachers in Houston in 1994.

KIPP, which operates eight schools in metro Atlanta, introduced character education after watching many of its students go to college and flounder. KIPP co-founder Dave Levin realized the KIPP students who succeeded were those who showed greater optimism, resilience and social agility.

So, KIPP added character education, teaching teamwork, empathy, self-control and perseverance through an approach derived from social science and cognitive-behavioral therapy. KIPP began to evaluate students on zest, grit, self-control, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity.

downey0505I read an intriguing piece in the New Republic last year by a college professor who took an online course with Levin on the KIPP character-building efforts. Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, an assistant professor in the department of educational studies at Carleton College, found the character education and evaluation troubling, especially what he considered a detachment from morals, values, and ethics.

“While it takes grit and self-control to be a successful heart surgeon, the same could be said about a suicide bomber,” he writes. “When your character education scheme fails to distinguish between doctors and terrorists, heroes and villains, it would appear to have a basic flaw. Following the KIPP growth card protocol, Bernie Madoff’s character point average, for instance, would be stellar. He was, by most accounts, an extremely hard working, charming, wildly optimistic man.”

Snyder concludes:

While KIPP’s college-for-all orientation ultimately aims to expand opportunity, it has undeniably narrowed the scope of its character education program. KIPP and other so-called “no excuses” charter schools have latched onto the new character education as a means of eliminating the “achievement gap.” Character is treated as a kind of fuel that will help propel students through school and up the career ladder. The fact that teachers are the only people who rate students on their character growth cards is indicative of how closely character is tied to academic achievement and cognitive skills. But can we really display more than a narrow range of our character strengths in a classroom context? I can’t tell you how many of my high school friends were listless in math class but “gritty” and “zesty” on the basketball court or the football field.

KIPP and other similar schools are betting that the new character education will help students succeed academically and professionally. It is a risky bet, given how little we know about teaching character.

Take a look at Snyder’s piece, which is long and detailed. Please do so before commenting.

I am fascinated by the question of whether schools can, indeed, help students develop pluck. Increasingly, we are discovering many personality traits — both good and bad — have genetic links. We are also learning more about the long-term impact of childhood trauma. Evidence is showing that brain development in young children is curtailed by trauma.

As the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports:

Young children who experience trauma are at particular risk because their rapidly developing brains are very vulnerable. Early childhood trauma has been associated with reduced size of the brain cortex. This area is responsible for many complex functions including memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thinking, language, and consciousness. These changes may affect IQ and the ability to regulate emotions, and the child may become more fearful and may not feel as safe or as protected. Read more about the impact of trauma on brain development in Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain, a working paper from the Center on the Developing Child.

I am not sure if teachers — especially as both class size and academic expectations rise — have the time or training to address and heal childhood trauma. I think that would require the expertise of therapists and behavior specialists.

What do you think?

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Reader Comments 0

65 comments
Antagonist
Antagonist

Schools are increasingly showing students how to quickly achieve a high school class, quickly catch-up on high school credits, rush through a high school curriculum and start a post-secondary degree with secondary classes that count for high school and college credits. Sure, why not perseverance, too.

Point
Point

Schools are for educating students.  Character, morals and grit should be taught in the home.  

straker
straker

We continue to get these new ideas on how to improve school education many times a year.


However, nothing ever seems to change.


I wonder why that is?

class80olddog
class80olddog

@straker They keep coming up with NEW ideas because they lack the GRIT to deal with the same old issues that have plagued them for years:  Discipline, Attendance, and Social promotion.  Teaching good character may work in high-performing schools, but it is WAY out of the league in "failing schools".

ProHumanitate
ProHumanitate

@class80olddog @straker

Discipline the kids for not displaying or exercising these social/emotional skills but don't help teach them while they're young enough to internalize it?

What's that "ounce of prevention" maxim again?

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Kids with grit can roll with the punches.  That their "friend" does not like them today is not the end of the world.  That they made an 80 is not a crisis--they resolve to do better and plan the steps to take to do so.  Kids with grit have goals, even if they are very short term.  Kids with grit do not go along with the latest foolishness from their friends.


Kids with grit generally are raised with parents with grit--parents who behave like adults, and demonstrate the kids of skills that lead to success in our society.  Kids with grit are loved, but not treated like lap dogs.  There are expectations of them and for them.

class80olddog
class80olddog

Many things CAN and SHOULD be taught in schools other than just ABC's and 123's, I am just not sure that "grit" is one of them.  Given the data on how many HS graduates are fired within the first year of their first job for lack of "soft" skills, these skills should definitely be emphasized.  Things like showing up every day, on time, wearing suitable clothing.  Things like proper behavior in a school setting.  Things like use of proper English.  These are things that will keep a graduate out of the job market or get him/her fired quickly.  It is not a deep dark plot by white racists to make certain races unemployed.

The side benefit is that if you enforce these behaviors, your academic performance also rises.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

"And those traits are most important to youngsters from low-income families, who don’t have the family supports and financial resources to protect them from youthful missteps, shield them from consequences..."


You might consider that protecting and shielding are actually harmful "supports."  I won't argue that many well to do kids are not protected and shielded to their detriment.  And many poor kids have parents that threaten and bluster as well as the wealthy.  What kids need are ADULT parents, with clear eyes, that will support and encourage them while holding high expectations for them.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

Reading this, I was immediately bothered by the great discrepancy between the school of Carleton College in a small town in Minnesota--an expensive, private college--and KIPP, a public charter school located in a rather poor area of Atlanta.  I know Carleton College from my graduate days in the Midwest. It's a small-town version of Emory. "Grit" is going to mean different things to the students of both schools; and not just because of racial differences, but differences in socio-economic status (SES).  Put briefly, how does a young professor in the one presume to advise those who teach in the latter?

bu2
bu2

He doesn't like how it sounds, but ignores KIPPS actually studies that show that it makes a difference.


As for morals, I don't want schools teaching morals.  That's for the family.  Success techniques, that's ok.  These things are important in whatever field the kids eventually get into, whether it be a heart surgeon, teacher, carpenter or garbage collector.

Astropig
Astropig

@bu2


Agree. I'm sure that if you asked 10 educators to even define "grit", you'd get 11 opinions.

class80olddog
class80olddog

" I think that would require the expertise of therapists and behavior specialists."

Which are not the school's responsibility.  The parents (or parent) should take them to these specialists and pay for them with their insurance (which everyone is required to have now).

class80olddog
class80olddog

"One may throw sand in the bull’s eyes. It’s an old rule of logic that the competence of a speaker has no relevance to the truth of what he says, and so talk of incompetence (is) pure sand."

class80olddog
class80olddog

" Can schools teach students to persevere and stay positive?"

Can schools teach students how to perform arithmetic without a calculator?  Do that first, and then we will see.

popacorn
popacorn

 'Increasingly, we are discovering many personality traits — both good and bad — have genetic links.'

That whooshing sound you heard was this sentence flying over the heads of 90% of educators. Teacher school requires something that rhymes with 'grit', but in reality we are indeed asking pigs to sing and dance and also teach 'grit'. 

bu2
bu2

@popacorn 

Some people are more prone to be fit than others.  But the rest can train and get better than they would otherwise be.

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

Also, in terms of "grit", we're talking about refining/enhancing the very top of Maslow's pyramid - it could only be effective for kids who are already pretty solid on the lower layers.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

For those who are lacking in the lower layers, attempting to teach "grit" reminds me of the following saying:

"You can't teach a pig to sing.  If you try, it will frustrate you, and annoy the pig." 

class80olddog
class80olddog

@MaryElizabethSings @AlreadySheared Maslow is correct - you cannot teach a student calculus who is hungry and homeless - but the answers to those problems should not be addressed by schools.  If a parent gets food stamps, but does not use them to feed a child, then that child should be taken away and the parent put in jail - end of story. 

class80olddog
class80olddog

@MaryElizabethSings @class80olddog At some point you have to write off your losses and let them fail, and concentrate on the ones you CAN save.  It does no good to sacrifice the 80% trying to save 20% who will NOT be saved no matter what you do.

A better solution would be for mothers not to have children that they cannot care for and don't want after age 5.

class80olddog
class80olddog

How do you "teach" grit?  What you SHOULD do (in my opinion) is set hard targets and enforce accountability - THAT is what teaches grit and determination.  Those who wish to succeed will achieve these goals.  Things like perfect attendance (and zero tardies), always turning homework in on time - complete, behaving in class.

The opposite is when we give students endless chances to "make up work" and no punishment for poor attendance.  That is tearing down "grit" in our students.  When we show that being lazy is acceptable, there is no reason for them NOT to be lazy.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@class80olddog 

And, how many years have you taught students, old dog?  Were you an educational leader?  Are you a retired teacher? Retired teachers have worked with thousands of individual students in the course of their professional careers.  They have seen the full gamut of human beings, and they usually know how to foster human development.

class80olddog
class80olddog

@MaryElizabethSings @class80olddog I apologize, I am a lowly manager and business leader and, as such, should not be commenting on the lofty principles of education, of which I know absolutely nothing.  Sorry.  I will confine myself to our company, we will institute testing to determine if prospective employees can read and write, and we will just not hire those who fail our test.  The educational system can do whatever the h*ll it wants to do.  As a taxpayer, though, I will ask my representatives to cut education funding to 25% of the current level, since that was enough back in the sixties.  Y'all have a good day!

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

"I am not sure if teachers — especially as both class size and academic expectations rise — have the time or training to address and heal childhood trauma. "  !!!

This gets my vote for understatement of the year.

Astropig
Astropig

Just more "mission creep" that has got us to the point we are at today.


Here's an idea that's so crazy that it might just work: Schools should teach the subject matter as prescribed by the curricula and parents handle the personality building.



MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Astropig 

More evidence you have never been a teacher, Astropig.  Your "solution" is so simplistic as to be inane.

Astropig
Astropig

@MaryElizabethSings @Astropig


I've been a teacher. The little 'Pigs would tell you that they're pretty happy with how things have turned out. Believe it or not,I did it without your help.

30097
30097

@Astropig 

Funny how the blog lefties always insist only they represent the teachers' viewpoint. And that all 100,000+ Georgia teachers agree with them.

Astropig
Astropig

@30097 @Astropig


The whole premise of this is that somehow teachers are on some moral plane that would allow them to teach things that are properly learned at home,taught by loving parents.Teachers are just folks.They have an unusually public job,but they are fallible human beings with their own demons,shortcomings and hypocrisies. Why are they any more qualified to practice soulcraft than anyone else? I know a couple of teachers whose own kids are trainwrecks. The last thing in the world I would want them to do would be to teach my kids anything other than science and math.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Astropig 

Did you last 35 years as an educator, Astropig? Were you an educational leader?  Are you a retired teacher?

Astropig
Astropig

@MaryElizabethSings @Astropig


What difference would my answer make? You'll just go on a rant about Thomas Jefferson, Jim Crow or the "segregated south you grew up in" in the 1890's or some such nonsense.

popacorn
popacorn

@MaryElizabethSings

Honey, your little quote thingie has left you permanently exposed. Your validity meter is now on 0.  

bu2
bu2

@Astropig @30097 


Look at what they try to teach in International Baccalaureate.  Kipp just has a different set of principles.  Every school tries to teach socialization and the ability to work with others.


Indirectly, when we teach about these "great men" like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, we point out some of the hardships they overcame.  In other words we are teaching them about "grit."


KIPP just does this in an organized manner and has done studies that show these things work.  The educational bureaucracy hates KIPP because they have succeeded doing things differently and doing it in poor neighborhoods.


This author doesn't address their studies.  It just doesn't "feel right" to him and doesn't include moral indoctrination of politically correct values, of which "grit" and "self-control" and "individual responsibility" don't fit.  Too much of what we do in education is based on what "feels right" and not enough on what has been demonstrated to work.  And when studies are done, they are usually the type that would be laughed at in other fields.

Astropig
Astropig

@MaryElizabethSings @Astropig


Expose away. I'm not ashamed of what I believe.


Thomas Jefferson once said "Tis better to believe a pig than a retired educator that does the Lindy hop on the precipice of sanity"


Okay, I changed one of his quotes around a little bit,but people with perfect perception will understand that it was for the good of all mankind.



bu2
bu2

@MaryElizabethSings @bu2 @Astropig @30097 


Yet, you don't address them just as the author didn't address KIPP's studies.


I would guess you are making some clichéd thoughts and many assumptions as well, but since you haven't really said anything, I can't be sure.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@bu2 

Generalized Assumption: "The educational bureaucracy hates KIPP because they have succeeded doing things differently and doing it in poor neighborhoods."

Generalized Assumption and Cliched Thought:  "Too much of what we do in education is based on what 'feels right' and not enough on what has been demonstrated to work."

Generalized Assumption and Cliched Thought: "And when studies are done, they are usually the type that would be laughed at in other fields."

Generalized Assumption and Cliched Thought: "It just doesn't 'feel right' to him and doesn't include moral indoctrination of politically correct values, of which 'grit' and 'self-control' and 'individual responsibility' don't fit."

bu2
bu2

@MaryElizabethSings @bu2 


I can't tell you how many times on this blog and elsewhere I have seen the educational establishment attack KIPP.  Frequently they don't do it by name, but its obvious.  I have never seen someone from the educational establishment say something good about KIPP.


I am sure you yourself had said the same thing on things that "feel right."  Like some of the testing and teacher evaluation methods that haven't been demonstrated to work but just get implemented.  So that's one for YOUR assumptions and clichéd thoughts.


The majority of studies I see on the education field that get reported in the general press have holes you can drive a truck through.  You can usually see it in the first couple of paragraphs with any knowledge of statistics.  It makes one wonder if somehow graduate students in education are able to skip statistics classes.  So yes, in a science field, they would laugh at these studies drawing the conclusions they do.


On the last, yes an assumption.  But I've seen that same argument made about KIPP critics.  And I have seen KIPP critics attack KIPP's "values."  So an assumption, but a pretty safe one.  He's attacking success techniques being taught because they don't have a moral component taught too?

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@bu2 

"I am sure you yourself had said the same thing on things that 'feel right.'  Like some of the testing and teacher evaluation methods that haven't been demonstrated to work but just get implemented.  So that's one for YOUR assumptions and clichéd thoughts.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

In terms of your last sentence above, you assumed even there.  You were wrong.  I would never write with such vague language as "feel right" regarding testing and teacher evaluation methods.  For example, read how specifically I address one of the teacher assessment instruments being used today in my following words on my own blog.  See this link, entitled "Assessing Teachers and Students."

 https://maryelizabethsings.wordpress.com/2012/02/25/about-education-essay-5-assessing-teachers-and-students/

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@bu2 

"The majority of studies I see on the education field that get reported in the general press have holes you can drive a truck through."

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Yet, you fail to name one specific study nor do you cite any specific criteria established within that study.  Instead you write in broad, sweeping language such as ". . .have holes you can drive a truck through."  Assumptions and cliches through a colorful but overused, hackneyed analogy.  (truck through a big hole)

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@bu2 

"I can't tell you how many times on this blog and elsewhere I have seen the educational establishment attack KIPP.  Frequently they don't do it by name, but its obvious.  I have never seen someone from the educational establishment say something good about KIPP."

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

If the educational establishment (not specific enough - what part of the "educational establishment") does "attack KIPP" as you stated, then logically how can you state your next sentence, i.e. "frequently they don't do it by name, but its (sic) obvious."  Are you certain KIPP was the school which was "attacked" if the acronym "KIPP" was not even named?  Aren't you simply assuming from preconceived ideas? 

 In terms of your last sentence above, just because YOU have "never seen someone from the educational establishment say something good about KIPP" does not mean that others in traditional education have not complimented the work done by KIPP.  Where is your data to have proven your point?  You are inferring from a personal observation only.  That is an assumption.

bu2
bu2

@MaryElizabethSings @bu2 


The educational establishment as a whole is very opposed to Charter schools, which, of course, KIPP is.  And its an organized group that replicates its model.  Its the type of thing you repeatedly argue against.

bu2
bu2

@MaryElizabethSings @bu2 


There was a previous blog by Maureen that attacked "grit" without mentioning KIPP.  I pointed out at that time that it was an attack on KIPP.  If you are familiar with what KIPP does, it was obvious what the author was talking about.  If you aren't, its worth learning about.  But then its a charter school and you have made it clear how opposed you are to charter schools.



MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@bu2 

If KIPP has an interest in profit for its organization, especially for its managers, then I am opposed to that in public education. Public education must never be designed primarily for profit.  The future will show the intent of each charter school in that direction.  To the extent that traditional public schools now engage in using public education for profit for individuals, that, imo, must be stopped.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@bu2 

You are wrong on that statement, bu2.  You are assuming, again, as well as thinking in generalities.  I have said, in fact, that I support public charter schools which work in harmony with traditional public schools and are monitored closely for cohesion and accountability by school systems.