One more thing school reformers think schools should be doing these days is teaching kids to have “grit.” To explain what this is all about is author Alfie Kohn in an article adapted from the author’s new book The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting, just published by Da Capo Press. A different version of this essay was published in the Outlook section of The Washington Post on April 6, 2014. Kohn (www.alfiekohn.org) is the author of 12 previous books about education, parenting, and human behavior.
By Alfie Kohn
The push to teach kids “grit,” to make them more persistent, has become wildly popular in the last couple of years, spurred by journalist Paul Tough’s bestseller How Children Succeed and the widely publicized views of Angela Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania researcher. The idea has been received with largely uncritical acclaim; it’s not easy to find a discouraging word, or even a penetrating question, about it in the field of education. This is odd – and, I think, troubling – in light of what a careful analysis of the concept reveals. Here are 10 specific concerns.
1. The idea is hardly new. It’s pretty much the same message that’s been drummed into us by Aesop’s fables, Benjamin Franklin’s aphorisms, Christian denunciations of sloth, and the 19th-century chant invented to make children do their homework: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
2. It’s a deeply conservative notion, part of a larger focus on self-control. The idea that there’s more to success than academic aptitude has been around for awhile. But people who pointed this out used to list altruism, empathy, and curiosity as examples of important characteristics, whereas today the claim that IQ isn’t sufficient focuses on features that basically define the Protestant work ethic. More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned self-discipline and will power, persistence and the ability to defer gratification. They have to be able to resist temptation, put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do — and keep at it for as long as it takes.
3. Whether persistence is desirable depends on your goal. Not everything is worth doing, let alone doing for extended periods. And not everyone who works hard is pursuing something worthwhile. In fact, people who are up to no good often have grit to spare. Persistence is just one of many attributes that can sometimes be useful for reaching a (good or bad) outcome, so it’s the choice of goal that ought to come first and count more.
4. Grit can actually be counterproductive. Often it just doesn’t make sense to continue with a problem that resists solution or persist at a task that no longer provides satisfaction. Hence the proverbial Law of Holes: When you’re in one, stop digging. Gritty people sometimes exhibit what psychologists call “nonproductive persistence,” whereas knowing when to pull the plug requires the capacity to adopt a long-term perspective. Continuing to do what you’ve been doing often represents the path of least resistance, so it can take guts to cut your losses. That’s as important a message to teach our children as the usefulness of perseverance.
5. Grit can be unhealthy. Following a year-long study of adolescents, Canadian researchers Gregory Miller and Carsten Wrosch concluded that those “who can disengage from unattainable goals enjoy better well-being…and experience fewer symptoms of everyday illness.”
6. What matters isn’t just how long one persists, but why one does so. Proponents of grit tend to focus narrowly on behavior, ignoring motive. Do kids love what they’re doing? Or are they driven by a desperate (and anxiety-provoking) need to prove their competence? As long as they’re pushing themselves, we’re encouraged to nod our approval.
As the epigraph to one of her articles, Duckworth chose this quote from the actor Will Smith: “I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me…but if we get on the treadmill together…you’re getting off first, or I’m going to die.” This declaration will strike many of us as frankly disturbing. It seems to illustrate a pathological fear of losing, a compulsive need to triumph over others, the rigid overcompensation that so often underlies macho boasting. To Duckworth, however, Smith won’t get off the treadmill and is therefore a model to be celebrated.
7. Some of the research cited to support grit is remarkably unenlightening when you think about it. In one study conducted by Duckworth and her colleagues, freshman cadets at West Point who scored high on a grit questionnaire (“I finish whatever I begin”) were less likely to quit during the grueling summer training program. But what does this prove other than that people who are persistent . . . persist?
8. Other grit research raises questions about the outcome variables that have been chosen. Are more A’s given to students who report that they put off doing what they enjoy until they finish their homework (as one study found)? Sure. In other words, those who do what they’ve been told, regardless of whether it’s satisfying or sensible, are rewarded by those who told them to do it. (Interestingly, earlier research, including a pair of studies Duckworth herself cites to show that self-discipline predicts academic performance, discovered that students with high grades tend to be more conformist than creative.) In short, if persistent students get higher grades, that may not make a case for grit so much as a case against using grades as a marker for success.
Another pair of studies, of an elite group of middle schoolers who qualified for the National Spelling Bee, found they performed better in that competition if they had more grit, “whereas spellers higher in openness to experience — defined as preferring using their imagination, playing with ideas, and otherwise enjoying a complex mental life — perform[ed] worse.” What’s striking here isn’t the finding itself but the lesson derived from it. If enjoying a complex mental life interferes with performance in a one-shot contest to see who can spell more obscure words correctly, is that really an argument for grit?
9. Ultimately, the case for grit doesn’t rely on research at all but on a (very debatable) set of priorities and values. It’s justified almost exclusively as a way to boost academic achievement. If that sounds commendable, take a moment to reflect on other possible goals one might have for children — for example, to lead a life that’s fulfilling, morally admirable, or characterized by psychological health. Any of those objectives would almost certainly lead to prescriptions quite different from “Do one thing and never give up.”
Furthermore, Duckworth has no use for children who experiment with several musical instruments. “The kid who sticks with one instrument is demonstrating grit,” she told a reporter. “Maybe it’s more fun to try something new, but high levels of achievement require a certain single-mindedness.” Her value judgment, in other words, is that children should spend their time trying to improve at one thing rather than exploring, and becoming reasonably competent at, several things. But for anyone who favors breadth and variety in life, no reason has been offered to prefer a life of specialization – or to endorse the idea of grit, which is rooted in that personal preference.
10. Grit isn’t just philosophically conservative in its premises but also politically conservative in its consequences. The more we focus on whether people have or lack persistence (or self-discipline more generally), the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies and institutions. Consider Paul Tough’s declaration that “there is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than the character strengths…[such as] conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance, and optimism.” Whose interests are served by the position that no antipoverty tool — presumably including Medicaid and public housing — is more valuable than an effort to train poor kids to persist at whatever they’re told to do?
In the field of education, meanwhile, some people are trying to replace a system geared to memorizing facts and taking tests with one dedicated to exploring ideas. They’re committed to implementing a democratic, collaborative approach to schooling that learners will find more engaging than what they’re offered now. But those enamored of grit look at the same status quo and ask: How can we get kids to put up with it?
Duckworth wants to figure out how to make students pay “attention to a teacher rather than daydreaming” and “behav[e] properly in class.” In her more recent research, she even created a task that’s deliberately boring, the point being to find strategies that will lead students to resist the temptation to do something more interesting instead.
Whether that boring stuff is worth doing apparently doesn’t matter. As long as kids keep at it.