Before you became a research psychologist, you left a lucrative career in management consulting to teach seventh-grade math at a New York public school. What inspired that choice?
Really the blip is consulting work rather than the switch to education. During all my undergrad years and in high school, I was involved in tutoring and public service. At Harvard, I spent over 35 hours a week doing service. I was a Big Sister, I worked for the homeless, the elderly; it was the epicenter of my focus. When I graduated, I started a summer school for low-income kids for two years that’s still in existence. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
I had taken two years to get a degree in neuroscience at Oxford then management consulting came after that. The reason I left is because I felt a compulsion. I really cared for kids and learning for reasons I don’t even know myself. I had this strong intuition and observation that kids were not doing what they could be doing. I felt that kids weren’t anywhere near the limit of their potential and I wanted to work on that. That’s what brought me back as a teacher and, in a way, that same question brought me back out of the classroom.
You had this realization when you were teaching that sheer talent didn’t always predict success. How did you adjust your teaching methods afterwards?
I don’t know if I adjusted my teaching methods. I think I was increasingly sensitive to the fact that if you could get kids to try hard, they could do great things that would surprise themselves and you. The trick is to get them to try hard. I don’t think I did anything terribly innovative. I was a good novice teacher but I did the things that were obvious. I stayed for lunch for extra tutoring, gave kids my cell phone and was available. In my first year of teaching, I ended up doubling the math time that a conventional school would have. But I don’t think any of these things were path-breaking or unusual.
Now, as a researcher, you’re best known analyzing personality traits and the role they play in educational achievement. Because a trait like grittiness involves perseverance over time, how do you test for it in a 15 minute lab experiment?
Questionnaires are the most common but maybe the most flawed way to measure grit. The methods we’re developing examine biographical evidence. If you’ve been a gritty person, you should demonstrate that in some measurable way in your life. Like, you’ve participated in sports your whole life or in student government or in ballet. For lower-income students, it could be demonstrated in paid work. We’re looking for continuous engagement in activities, something multi-year with some evidence of advancement.
Based on your observations, is grit more commonly inherited or learned?
It’s really not an either-or question. With every trait study that measures things like IQ, liking broccoli, being an extrovert, being nice, it’s found that these traits are all partially heritable and partially environmentally determined. Genes have an influence. We don’t know which ones, but there’s a genetic piece to every trait, not just grit. But heritability is not complete. There haven’t been genetic studies on grit but we often think that challenge is inherited but grit is learned. That’s not what science says. Science says grit comes from both nature and nurture.
Is there a sensitive time or place in one’s life for learning grit?
The short answer is: I don’t know. We haven’t done a study.
There was a belief for a long time that once someone’s character is set, it never changes. There’s this saying, “Give me the child; I’ll show you the man.” But empirical data shows the contrary: people do change in their traits and that continues all across the life course. Earlier in life, in childhood and adolescence, change is more dramatic. But people in their fifties still evolve.
I don’t think there’s a critical period where if you go beyond it, you can’t change. Earlier in life you’re more likely to be vulnerable to change than later.
How would you grade our country’s education system and the attempts to reform it?
I’m not a policy oriented person. I’m constrained to what I study. But educational policy has not yet taken adequate note of the whole child. Kids are not just their IQ or standardized test scores. It matters whether or not they show up, how hard they work. No Child Left Behind leaves a lot behind in that sense. Things that I don’t study — honesty, empathy, gratitude — but these are important things and they aren’t measured. One thing I’d like to see changed is for education policy to accommodate a much richer portrait of who students are. But overall, it’s not useful to have a psychologist grade the entire system.
Then what are educators doing right and what are they getting wrong?
I understand the use of standardized tests. It’s not that they shouldn’t be used but they shouldn’t be the only things used. As far as what we could improve: I’ve learned that science is an approach to figuring out the answers to problems and questions. The scientific method, where you measure things carefully and think hard about causal relationships, can be applied to education and that’s what we do in our research. Typically, innovation happens when there’s a single teacher whose methods aren’t examined in a consistent way. I’m sure there are creative things going on and because we haven’t applied the scientific methods, we don’t know what those things are. I’d like to see teachers embracing the scientific methods so they can systematically measure things.
There’s been a rise of teaching programs like Teach for America that hire young, college grads to teach at schools for a limited amount of time to “close the achievement gap.” What’s your take on these initiatives?
We’ve worked with TFA and programs that are similarly oriented. My personal view is that they’re terrific at giving young adults a great opportunity to directly engage the problems of education. Maybe they won’t all stay in education but it’s useful that people who will eventually be in positions of influence will have a direct, personal understanding of what’s going on.
Despite my volunteer work, I didn’t know these things until I was a teacher standing in front of a classroom trying to get kids to learn things. There’s tremendous value to get people who go to Harvard and Yale to care about kids. It would be hard for them to care as much if they read about kids from a New York Times oped in the comfort of their Upper East Side apartment.
Are there educational policies in place that support students with grit and self control over sheer talent?
I know that in Illinois, they have state standards for social, emotional and learning competency. Grit is obviously one. I think Illinois could be singled out for naming these things. Also, in the common core, there’s a non-graded item for persistence for difficult, frustrating problems. I think there is a shift in the conversation. Most parents would say they do care if their kids can persevere and resist temptations. It’s not a new resolution, just parents and educators remembering what they’ve long held to be important.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
We’re doing the things we’re already doing but with a little more freedom. We’re working with kids and teachers. I co-founded a new nonprofit called The Character Lab with Dave Levin and Dominic A.A. Randolph. It’s a fun trio because Levin has a network of public schools, Randolph has a network of private schools and I’m a researcher. We founded it to get more of interdisciplinary partnerships and research done to focus on character skills like grit, self control and social intelligence. That’s an exciting new direction. We’re raising money and gave out a first round of grants to psychologists working in partnerships with schools.