Thursday, February 21, 2013

grit - from Mind/Shift and the Department of Education

I enjoy reading the Mind/Shift blog on KQED’s website. Recently a featured article included a topic—grit—that I have been reading quite a bit about and promoting among my team of teachers. Ms. Long and I have had some very rich conversations regarding how essential the skill is to success in class, but I think we are still both very much in need of further understanding regarding how the skill might be developed in our students.

My introduction to the idea of grit came when I discovered the work of Angela Duckworth, who I first heard about on Daniel Pink’s Office Hours podcast with Paul Tough. I shared Angela Duckworth’s Ted Talk on her research on grit with Ms. Long, and we’ve even discussed sharing it with our students. I think, in both our minds, helping the students become aware of this noncognitive skill can help us to have conversations with the students about its importance. Still, how to teach it or develop it is a bit beyond us, or at least me.

This brings me back to the Mind/Shift article by Tina Barseghian. First, I highly recommend to anyone who might take the time to read this post that you also take the time to read the original article. Second, it makes me terribly happy to see mindset take a prominent and early role in the promotion of grit. In my mind, mindset and grit are highly connected cognitive-noncognitive skills. Yes, I consider them each a skill—an ability evidenced by one’s performance. Finally, I’m similarly happy to see willpower mentioned within the realm of grit development. It seems to me that the term willpower has become more popular than my traditional favorite—self-control. Regardless, from my own experiences, willpower/self-control is conceptually so very important to success throughout life, including school.

The final section in the article, which is an excerpt from the Department of Education’s full report, is probably most important to an overly excited novice like myself. It seems to me that there should be a real fear of misuse or misattribution of the term grit, or that grit as a term could become something much more unwieldy through the connotation that it takes on. Grit is becoming a new, popular term in education, but if it balloons in popularity and does not remain grounded in the research from whence it came, it could lose all meaning altogether. 

I’ve watched Angela Duckworth and read some of her research. I’ve read other articles on grit and perseverance. I’m going to read the full report from the Department of Education. I’ve read Mindset by Carol Dweck and Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. That may sound like I’ve read a lot, but really I haven’t. And even though I’ve tried to, when time allows, immerse myself in this topic, I could have a really poor understanding of it. And even though I believe it, through personal and anecdotal evidence, I could be completely off base.

I’m a middle school English teacher. I read as much as I can. I observe my students and reflect upon my own practices as a teacher. I don’t think that gives me the knowledge, wisdom, or discernment to determine which students show grit and which don’t. And I don’t think that provides me the ability to now integrate grit development into the curriculum. But after having experienced some pretty diverse learning situations myself, and now in my seventh year of teaching, I think I do get to make some observations, or at least ask some questions.

The only observation I will currently contribute is my belief that school, especially elementary and middle school, is a developmentally rich time in a child’s life, and ignoring the importance of the noncognitive is foolish.

To argue that schools/teachers should only measure, in the form of grades, a student’s knowledge is ignorant of the fact that the measurement will inherently include noncognitive factors (page four has a nice, easy-to-understand graphic). And to argue that schools/teachers should only measure, in the form of grades, a student’s knowledge is ignorant of the job market our students will be entering.

Perseverance is almost always the first word used to define grit. I can’t remember a time in my life when I haven’t had to persevere to learn something, from my youngest memories to last week. Nothing has come easy for me. When my mom had me practice my addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division flash cards, I had to persevere until I learned the facts. (I will leave the discussion of the importance of facts to those more inclined to believe that every person has a smartphone/tablet/computer with high speed internet, and knows how to ask the right questions to get the right answers, and has all day to do it.) Now I don’t have to persevere when I figure the tip or tax on a bill, but there once was a time when I did have to persevere. Noncognitive factors played a role in the formation of my cognitive proficiency. When I have to create a data table in Excel in order to analyze the data created from a Performance Series Assessment, I often have to persevere with the program and with my own memory in order to make the tools do as I wish. It’s a slow process. It’s a process that I am compelled to do, one which I do not do voluntarily. Noncognitive factors enable me to see the task through to the end, when my cognitive abilities slow me down or otherwise fail me.

This leaves me with a few questions.

Is it possible to point to grit being manifested through a student’s actions? I can point to a metaphor that a student has written on a piece of paper. I can point to a student displaying the proper form of a throw-in in soccer. Can I point to a student showing grit? Is it a single moment in time? Is it the display of certain actions over time? If it is the display of certain actions over time, do we then call it a process? If it is a process, does that change our stance toward assessment, especially assessment which only allows for a single, defined attempt?

Maybe, most importantly: If it is possible to point to grit, can it then be taught or developed?

And just for fun, let’s follow this rabbit hole. For all those feigning concern (lawmakers, talking-heads, statisticians) out there—if it can be taught, how will it be assessed? If it can be assessed, what company will get the contract for the development and scoring of the assessments? If it can be assessed, how will we remediate those who can’t pass the assessment? If it can be assessed, what company or guru will develop the professional development books/training on it, so that teachers can be taught how to properly teach it? If it can be assessed, how will teachers be held accountable for not properly teaching it? If it can be assessed, what national program that ties funding to the assessment results can be developed in order to motivate state departments of education to do what the federal government wants them to do? If it can be assessed, and if a national program can be developed, what lobbying groups will hold sway over the lawmakers and what corporations will fund the talking heads in order to influence public opinion on the matter?

No, not all of those questions are important or valid. But if the Department of Education is putting out a 107 page document on the topic, I’m quite confident somebody has something in the works. I just want to see how it can help improve me as a teacher and help my students have a better life. Is that too romantic? 

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