True Grit

(Note: this blog post appears in a different form at

The book How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough is an amazing piece of journalism/research summary, and one of those books that captured my thinking for quite a while after I finished it.

Paul Tough spent a couple years researching what he calls “social-emotional” factors that are associated with school success, and he was surprised to find that these factors seem to not only be important, it turns out that they are MORE important than factors like IQ that get a lot more attention in and outside of our school system. Tough makes the claim that our schools operate on what he calls the “cognitive hypothesis”: humans are born with a certain amount of intellectual potential, our environments influence how much of that potential we develop, and the job of the school is to help students use/develop this “cognitive potential” as much as possible. The cognitive hypothesis influences the ways we talk about students (“bright,” “A student,” “Math/science kid,” etc.) and even the structures of school (IQ/ability testing for gifted/talented programs and special education services, etc.) The cognitive hypothesis predicts that high intellectual potential will help students succeed, and schools need to be structured to help those students soar, and support students with “less” intellectual potential succeed as much as they can.

Tough spends the rest of the book carefully describing compelling research and case studies that point to the conclusion that the cognitive hypothesis might be dead wrong. Study after study and story after story pile on top on one another about how “non-cognitive” factors, like perseverance, “grit,” emotional intelligence, and curiosity may be more important in student success than “smarts.” Tough builds a compelling case, I think, that if one of our goals in schools is student success (in college, careers, and/or life), then there is ample evidence to support the claim that we better stop operating under the cognitive hypothesis and start paying attention to these social-emotional factors.

One of the researchers Tough often cites in the book is Angela Duckworth, a researcher from the University of Pennsylvania, and a recent MacArthur “genius” grant recipient. Duckworth got interested in why some people persist and persevere in the face of obstacles and others give up, how important this trait is to our success, and whether this attribute of “grit” can be measured. My favorite research finding: Duckworth studied an incoming class at West Point military academy. People who get admitted to West Point are already an impressive lot: the selection process is more stringent than any Ivy League school, and these are folks who have known much success in life. Duckworth’s team tested everything they could think of about these young people, including all sorts of intelligence and other “talent” measures, along with social-emotional factors like grit. When all the data came back, the only (only!) factor out of the hundreds of variables that actually predicted who would get through the first year of West Point and who wouldn’t was grit.

I asked some folks in my school district to read How Children Succeed and they were as impressed by it as I was, and we got more and more interested in how Duckworth measured grit. A couple middle schools started to measure grit with students, and one even got involved in Duckworth’s research team to help them collect data. Everyone was riding smoothly and happily, when suddenly I saw a blogger like to listen to lash out hard against Duckworth’s grit research. His beef is that Duckworth’s grit claim is darn similar to the same story he’s heard for years about the kids he works with (kids who live in tough family circumstances, well below the poverty line): all they need to do is get “better attitudes,” like grit, and then they can pull themselves up by their own (cowboy) boot straps.

I was shocked: I hadn’t thought of Duckworth’s research like this. I exchanged a few polite comments with some of the people in the anti-Duckworth posse, and one of the them told me to read the book Scarcity. That’s another good one, and it develops a point that Tough only mentions briefly in How Children Succeed: if kids are in conditions of scarcity (high stress, low time, low resources), maybe these conditions get in the way of using any of the social-emotional capabilities, whether or not they are “high grit” or not. Like Tough, these authors carefully use and explain research findings and case studies to prove that conditions of scarcity limit our abilities to think and use our social-emotional resources.

My conclusion right now (but it might change tomorrow) is best represented by what my friend Tom said about the controversy. He works in an elementary school with students who go home to very tough circumstances, and his mind is always on the topic of how to help all the little knee-biters in his school succeed. He said “This reminded me of Herb Kohl’s Not-learning in his essay I won’t learn from you. We need to have two eyes- one that understands the role of the individual and one that works collective to change the contexts of privilege and oppression”. I think that’s a good summary. Duckworth isn’t wrong, and neither are some of the criticisms of her, but neither of them are exclusively right. Just like always in teaching and learning, we have a bunch of different things to keep in mind, and for now, I think grit and scarcity will be close to the the top of my list.

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