What is grit? Can it be measured accurately, and is it different from other personality traits? If so, how well does an individual’s level of “grit” predict how successful that person will be in the future? And is grit an innate characteristic, or can it be improved with practice?
The answers to these questions suddenly matter a great deal for schools. As states begin to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, there’s widespread interest in incorporating “non-academic” factors such as grit into the way states define what it means to be a successful school.
Marcus Crede photo via Iowa State University
To learn more about grit and the research behind it, I reached out to Marcus Crede, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Iowa State University and the author of a provocative new study called “Much Ado about Grit: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of the Grit Literature.” After reviewing the full academic literature on grit, Crede challenges much of the popular narrative. For example, his study finds that grit is barely distinct from other personality traits and that standardized test scores, attendance, and study habits are much better predictors of long-term success than grit.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. Continue reading
In a fascinating New Yorker piece, James Suroweicki makes an interesting connection between the performance revolution in professional sports and Elizabeth Green and Dana Goldstein‘s recent books on teaching. Suroweicki notes that a performance revolution has occurred in sports because athletes, coaches, and managers shifted from believing that athletic skill is something innate that people have or don’t to believing that innate ability is only the foundation for athletic prowess and that constant, carefully designed training is critical to developing/maintaining/honing the skills that drive a competitive edge. He argues that a similar evolution in thinking has driven productivity increases and higher performance in areas of the economy from classical musical performance to manufacturing, but that we have not seen similar progress in education because the education field continues to view great teaching as an innate skill that someone either has or doesn’t and to consequently underinvest in training.
It’s a provocative argument that clearly resonates on some levels but is ultimately, I think, incomplete. In part, because Suroweicki discounts the (clearly not enough) progress that has been made in improving educational outcomes over the past 15 years. Two additional observations I’d add to this:
- There’s obviously a link between the idea that teaching is an innate skill you either have or don’t have and the notion that firing “bad” teachers is the way to solve the problem of poor quality teaching. The same value-added analyses that have demonstrated the significant impact of teachers on student learning in recent years may also have reinforced the notion that teaching is an innate skill one either has or doesn’t have, because these studies have tended to find that most common proxies for teacher quality (type of certification, master’s degrees, years experience, etc.) predict only a small portion of the variance in student learning between teachers. This result doesn’t actually mean, though, that the core of what makes a great teacher is some sort of innate secret sauce or generic “talent” you’re either born with or aren’t. It just means we’re not measuring the right things–and that our conventional metrics of teacher quality and conventional approach to teacher training around lousy.
- Focusing on the “you’ve got it or you don’t” attitude as applied to teachers overlooks an even bigger factor in our educational stagnation–the same attitude applied to students. Much of our education system continues to operate on the assumption that “being smart” is something innate that kids either have or don’t, not something that kids become as a result of hard work and effective teaching. But as Amanda Ripley and others have documented, the nations that are kicking our butts academically don’t tend to view educational success that way. Schools here at home that succeed with low-income kids also tend to take the attitude that smart is not something that you are, but something you become by working hard. Recent research supports that view. But it’s still far from the norm in our education system. And until that changes, training teachers better will probably not, on its own, drive the change we need for kids.