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Grit
Posted 08/28/2016 01:34PM

Grit may be the hottest word in education right now. But it is far from fad or just a trendy word that will likely fade. Grit is here to stay -- especially because it speaks to staying power but also because a body of compelling research confirms that grit can be taught and can result in talent and expertise and happiness.

Angela Duckworth, PhD, a Macarthur Fellow, a professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, defines grit as “passion and perseverance for especially long-term goals.” We might also define grit as purposeful effort, drive, determination, and stick-to-it-ness.

Last week, I wrote about the importance of deliberate practice and the science of expertise. I suggested listening to a podcast on deliberate practice and checking out the book Peak. The critical message in deliberate practice is this: with the right kind of training any individual can attain abilities at just about anything. Thus there is a bit of overlap in discussing grit this week since it’s difficult to discuss grit without talking about deliberate practice and vice versa. But that is exactly the lesson we want students to internalize: diligence with zeal; effort with purpose; practice with enthusiasm -- these intersections lead to fabulous gains.

Grit is featured on York’s Community Reading list this year because we agree with and love its core message: we can all do something to intentionally cultivate grit in ourselves and others. In the book, Duckworth shares her life story and her research, and she profiles gritty people (successful people, experts), those she describes as paragons of grit. Part II of the book discusses four qualities that gritty people embody: interest, practice, purpose, and hope. There’s something here for everyone to consider, from artists and athletes to writers and scientists, from novices to those on the path to mastery.  

Here’s an introduction to some elements of the book that might entice folks to pick it up and have a read.

In the “Practice” chapter, Duckworth discusses quantity of practice versus quality of time devoted to practice. That interest in better time on task led her to the research of Anders Ericsson, the expert on experts. Duckworth offers the following graph to summarize Ericsson’s learning: “if you track the development of internationally recognized performers [Olympic athletes, chess masters, prima ballerinas, expert radiologists], you invariably find their skill improves gradually over years” -- and Ericsson found that skill development takes shape in 10,000 hours of practice over 10 years. The quality of that practice -- the difference in the practice that results in the expertise -- is what Ericsson, Duckworth, and others now refer to as deliberate practice.

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In the chapter “Parenting for Grit,” Duckworth addresses this question: Is grit forged in the crucible of unrelenting high standards or is it nurtured in the warm embrace of loving support?” The answer, she indicates, is we need more data. But she does provide discussion of a body of research that represents how many psychologists now categorize four parenting styles as well as an argument for which style is best for children. The figure she provides here includes two continuums and four quadrants. Neglectful parenting results in a “toxic emotional climate” that Duckworth deems incompatible with grit development. Authoritarian parents are demanding but unsupportive, while permissive parents are supportive and undemanding. Neither is as effective as wise parenting. Wise parenting recognizes that children need “love, limits, and latitude to reach their potential.” 

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Duckworth informs us that study after study over the past forty years suggests children of wise parenting fare better than any other household:

“Teens with warm, respectful, and demanding parents earned higher grades, were more self-reliant, suffered from less anxiety and depression, and were less likely to engage in delinquent behavior. The same pattern replicates in nearly every nation that’s been studied and at every stage of child development. Longitudinal research indicates that the benefits are measurable across a decade or more.”

For skeptics of the all powerful grit, the book’s “Conclusion” does remind us that “grit isn’t everything.” Here Duckworth praises morality and character. “In assessing grit along with other virtues,” Duckworth writes, “I find three reliable clusters.” Those are 1) intrapersonal character (grit, self-control, self-management skills); 2) interpersonal character (gratitude, social intelligence, or what David Brooks calls “eulogy virtues”); and 3) intellectual character (curiosity, zest). Duckworth’s longitudinal studies show different outcomes for these three virtue clusters: for academic achievement, the intrapersonal cluster is most predictive; for positive social functioning, interpersonal is more important; and for a positive, independent posture toward learning, intellectual virtue is best.   

If you’d like to explore deliberate practice, grit, and Angela Duckworth a little more before diving into the book Grit, listen to this great podcast from Freakonomics here: how to get more grit in your life.

Sean Raymond, Assitant Head of School and Academic Dean

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