Angela Duckworth Says Grit Is Not Enough. She’s Building Tools to Boost...

Digital Learning

Angela Duckworth Says Grit Is Not Enough. She’s Building Tools to Boost Student Character.

By Jeffrey R. Young     Apr 20, 2018

Angela Duckworth Says Grit Is Not Enough. She’s Building Tools to Boost Student Character.

Angela Duckworth’s research on encouraging “grit” in students has been hailed as groundbreaking, popularized in bestselling books and TED talks. It has also been called problematic, and some have criticized the work for essentially blaming students for their circumstances.

Duckworth has faced the backlash by practicing a bit of grit herself. Take her reaction when a PhD candidate emailed her explaining that he was doing his dissertation about how the grit narrative ignored systemic barriers that may keep some students from persisting, no matter their character. She offered to serve on the student’s dissertation committee, to gain a deeper understanding of his criticisms.

More recently Duckworth is leading an effort to create materials for teachers based on her research, so that, as she says, her work around grit is more than just a slogan on an inspirational poster or a Pinterest card.

EdSurge sat down with Duckworth this week just after her keynote at the ASU+GSV Summit in San Diego, to talk about her work and what’s next for the nonprofit she created to translate her research into advice for teachers. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

EdSurge: What do you think people most misunderstand about your well-known research on “grit”?

Duckworth: Sometimes, I think people believe that I or others see grit as the only thing kids need to be successful and happy. In fact, I think character is a very long list of things that kids need to be happy and productive. It's not just grit. It's also curiosity. It's not just curiosity. It's also gratitude and kindness. It's not just that. It's emotional and social intelligence. It's not just that. It's open-mindedness. It's not just that. It's honestly. It's not just that. It's humility.

I think when we are talking about what kids need to grow up to live lives that are happy and healthy and good for other people, it's a long list of things. Grit is on that list, but it is not the only thing on the list. I'll tell you, as a mother, but also as a scientist and as a former teacher, that it's not the first thing on the list either.

Do you worry that things may have happened in the name of grit and your research that you didn't intend? Do you have any concern about that?

I probably don't know enough about the misapplication of the idea of grit. I think the more I know, the more I worry. This may be true of any idea, by the way, in education and in any other sector, that something has value and then it becomes like a Rorschach blot and people project onto whatever they want to see in that inkblot. I think grit in some ways has become that. You're going to use grit to justify and to promote the thing that you already believed anyway before you heard about grit and Angela Duckworth.

I do think that kids need to learn to work hard. I don't think we're born knowing how to work hard. I don't think it's automatic that we know how to work on our weaknesses with a certain discipline and to accept feedback on what we could do better. I think those are hard things to learn. I think schools should be a place where kids develop that. I have no problem with schools taking it as a responsibility to develop the capacity for perseverance and also passion—loving something enough to stay committed to it.

The question is, what does that exactly look like? I don't think it's exhortations of “you should be gritty” or “we'll shame you if you're not gritty.”

It is a natural human instinct to shy away from mistake-making, from confusion, from challenge. And it is therefore the responsibility of the classroom teacher or the school and the community to make sure that kids understand that when they don't want to do something that's hard, when they don't want to do something that will maybe not work out, and when they do want to quit things, that the first and most important thing is to start from understanding and accepting that that is part of the struggle, as opposed to this ham-fisted, "Well, you should just be gritty. Around here, we have no excuses for not doing well." I think growth always starts with understanding.

I understand a person wrote to you critiquing your grit narrative, and that you actually are now helping to advise their dissertation. Can you say more about the debate you’re having with that student?

There was a student who introduced himself having written a critical essay about the narrative of grit. His major point was that when we talk about grit as a kind of ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ personal strength, it leaves in the shadows structural poverty and racism and other things that make it impossible, frankly, for some kids to do what we would expect them to do. When he sent me that essay, of course, I wanted to know more. I joined his [dissertation] committee because I don't know much about sociology, and I don't know much about this criticism.

I learned a lot from him over the years. I think the lesson for me is that when someone criticizes you, when someone criticized me, the natural thing is to be defensive and to reflexively make more clear your case and why you're right, but I've always learned more from just listening. When I have the courage to just say, "Well, maybe there's a point here that I hadn't thought of," and in this case the Grit narrative and what Grit has become is something that he really brought to me and my awareness in a way that I was oblivious to before.

It seems like people at this point are hungry to know what to do with this idea of grit? Do you have anything you could tell a teacher, whether it's a college or a K12 teacher, to actually take action to help a student in their classroom?

I have a nonprofit called Just this week, we released a playbook on the science of how true experts practice. It talks about what it looks like when you're a student, because you’re not yet, or maybe you'll never be an Olympic athlete, so how do you translate this into being an eighth grader and doing your homework.

We tried in that playbook to work with both scientists and teachers side-by-side for months to craft what we think are useful activities. Like, "Here, try this classroom activity. Watch this 60 second video narrated by Wynton Marsalis, who learned a lot about practice himself the hard way.” I'm trying to do more of that work because I have realized that popularizing an idea or even drawing attention to something that has some truth to it is, it's really not enough. I really don't think it's fair for me to, or anyone else to expect teachers to implement ideas from watching a TED Talk and reading a book. I think we need to go much further than that in supporting things that we want to see happen.

I thought writing a book and doing a TED Talk was enough. I was wrong. I think that it's far from enough. CharacterLab is one step in that direction.

I’ve definitely heard a backlash in higher education against people getting up onstage and shouting their ideas. In a way, are you finding that some of those concerns are right?

I think the goal that I have, one of the goals I have in my life, is to not get cranky. I literally say out loud to myself, "Don't get cranky." Because one could get cranky about, for example, someone getting up on a TED stage and saying something in 18 minutes and not getting all the nuance and not getting all the detail. I think that is one of the complaints of academics, that in 18 minutes you're not able to people all the footnotes. I think there is some concern there for myself, too, and I had some hesitation about writing a book even, which is much longer than a TED Talk, or frankly saying anything. Because whatever you say is going to be incomplete and potentially misleading.

I don't want to get cranky because, look, I think there is a role for journalists, for writers, for podcasts. We are all just trying, aren't we? We're all just trying to actually move the ball forward. I think it's not a great thing when people get cranky about the way somebody else is trying to move the ball forward. Unless there's really a motive which is questionable, which I don't think there is. When I read things and it slightly mischaracterizes my work or I would love to be right there with my rebuttal, I try to not be cranky about it because the person who wrote that blog post or had that complaint, they are also trying to move the ball forward.

What would you do differently if you taught in a K-12 classroom, now that you know what you know from your research?

One thing I would do differently is provide a ritual and an opportunity. A ritual in my classroom where, instead of just pushing forward in the curriculum, I would actually make it much more mastery-oriented. I would make it possible for kids to catch up and to really work on the things that they didn't quite get.

One of the teachers that I most admire is this guy named Anthony [Yon]. His students just call him Yon for short. He teaches in LA Unified school district in East LA. He has this binder of the kids' tests, and it's not like you have to ask for whether you can retake the test and correct your mistakes and learn from them and get some credit for it. It's actually just set up in the classroom routine that every time he gives a quiz or a test, there's an opportunity to get your test out of the binder and rework the problems that you got wrong and try to figure out what you didn't do right and what the insight was and then move forward. I would take a page out of Mr. Yon.

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