Don’t Teach Grit. Embed It.
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Don’t Teach Grit. Embed It.

In Paul Tough’s new book, he writes that the people who are best at engendering “noncognitive”—or character—abilities like grit in students hardly ever mention these skills in the classroom. It’s an observation that has won attention and admirers such as New York Times columnist David Brooks.

But what has been left unsaid is how our current system of education works systematically against instilling these skills in students, and how we could naturally embed the development of grit in students—in a way that doesn’t talk explicitly about grit—by moving to a competency-based learning system.

In today’s system, time is held as a constant and each student’s learning is variable. Students move from concept to concept after spending a fixed number of days, weeks or months on the subject. Educators teach, sometimes administer a test, and move students on to the next unit or body of material regardless of their results, effort and understanding of the topic. Students typically receive feedback and results much later and only after they have progressed.

The system signals unambiguously to students that it doesn’t matter if you stick with something because you’ll move on either way. This approach undermines the value of grit along with the development of noncognitive skills like agency and curiosity, as it ignores the potential to reward students for spending more time on a topic. It also de-motivates students, as many either become bored when they don’t have to work at concepts that come easily to them, or fall behind when they don’t understand a building-block concept and yet the class continues to progress. As a result, they develop major holes in their learning.

Contrast this with a competency-based learning model in which time becomes the variable and learning becomes the constant. Students only move on once they demonstrate mastery of the knowledge and skills at hand. If they fail, that’s fine. They stay at a task, learn from the failures, and work until they demonstrate mastery and then move on.

Without talking about grit or perseverance, competency-based learning systematically embeds the building of those skills into its design and fabric.

Moving to a competency-based learning system may have one other benefit for enhancing our understanding of grit and other noncognitive skills. A key question in the field right now is how to measure skills like grit to help students build these strengths. Some want to use these measures to help paint a fuller picture of the quality of a school. But this desire is fraught with risk; Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively about grit, has cautioned that “we’re nowhere near ready—and perhaps never will be—to use feedback on character as a metric for judging the effectiveness of teachers and schools.”

What I wonder though is if in a competency-based learning system powered by digital learning, can we measure skills like grit—without an explicit assessment or survey—by understanding and recording how students spend their time? Can data from edtech tools provide insights into what students do when they fail? Are they despondent? Do they remain upbeat? Do their reactions vary based on the subject in which it occurs? Do students pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and attack the work again and exhibit real resilience? Do they need time and space—and can they create that time and space intentionally—before diving back in? Or do they just struggle to re-engage? How do they develop passions—and how does working in areas about which they are not passionate affect their grit?

And how do the answers to these questions change over time and based on different circumstances—many of them outside of school—in students’ lives? Can we see evidence of students building their grit—as well as their agency and self-control, curiosity, optimism, and more—not by asking them what they do or by giving them a test, but by observing what they actually do and where they actually spend their time? Just as the best way to instill grit isn’t by teaching it explicitly, I suspect we’ll learn that the best way to measure grit isn’t by explicitly assessing it either.

It would be nice to see those researchers working at the cutting edge of noncognitive skills investigate how a competency-based system might enhance what they are learning about what we need to do to transform our schools to help students build the knowledge, skills, and dispositions for all of them to fulfill their human potential. For example, what could an Angela Duckworth learn by studying student behaviors on a system like Khan Academy or in a closed network of schools like AltSchool that can track individual students’ activities and responses to times they struggle?

We won’t get to a world in which we develop non-cognitive skills in students systematically and at scale so long as we remain stuck in our current time-bound educational system. Pushing students to persevere and develop their personal passions requires a different model that better encourages and rewards risk-taking and exploration.

Michael Horn (@michaelbhorn) is an EdSurge columnist and Principal Consultant for Entangled Solutions

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