The Trouble with Grit

When I wrote “How Children Succeed: Who’s Telling the Story?”, I was struggling with the premise of Paul Tough’s new book, which is getting a lot of play these days.  As I said, in the post: [Ira] Glass, and other media meisters, are spinning his notion of the importance of grit into yet another teaching strategy, the latest in a huge arsenal of silver bullets for a broken education system.”

So I was delighted to find company @ AT THE CHALK FACE. Here are a few excerpts from a recent post by Katie Osgood, who challenges Tough’s take on poverty, his ideas about character education, and the KIPPS schools, which teach same:

I teach on a child/adolescent inpatient unit at a psychiatric hospital in Chicago.  We teach very similar types of social skills (I refuse to call it “character” which adds an implicit deficit understanding of children’s behavior.)   In the mental health field, clinicians and mental health workers have been teaching these skills for decades. This research is nothing new. As a trained special education teacher, I spent a large part of my education graduate program learning the direct instruction of social skills.  Schools have emphasized social/emotional learning for as long as I have been a teacher.

KIPP’s approach to character education is eerily divorced from the reality of inner city children’s lives.  They teach, reinforce through praise, grading, or punishment, traits like “grit, self-control, or optimism”.  They even give out report cards to measure the unmeasurable “character” of children.

Osgood then goes on to tackle the “structural problems of poverty, citing a recent talk, in which Alex Kotlowitz, who wrote a blurb for Tough’s book, and is the author of There are No Children Here, asks Tough about poverty:

Kotlowitz: “So I read this book, and one of my fears, in some ways, is that people will read this book and think…all kids need is some ‘pluck’, some ‘grit,’ and they can get themselves out of there [poverty].  Does it in turn ignore/neglect, those larger structural issues that are clearly so important to these communities…?”

Tough: Yes, those kinds of neighborhoods could use all kinds of structural change…But I also really believe that education, maybe not the education we have right now, but education can reverse things very quickly.  That if a kid grows up in that neighborhood and gets the right kind of support, the right kind of intervention, they can end poverty for themselves, um, right away, and it doesn’t have to take a huge change for the whole neighborhood.

What do you think of grit as an ed reform strategy?  And what are the effects you’ve seen from poverty and toxic stress? Let me know.


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4 comments to The Trouble with Grit

  • Peter

    This can only happen if the goverment steps in and makes a change to the whole community, by educating them on how to make the change and supply them with the recources and funding to support this. This will not happen over night, it will be a long procces and a long time to make the generations of this community to understant the importants for this change.

  • On some days, I see the effects of toxic stress and attachment disorder on about hourly basis at my school. Most of the general population has no idea how debilitating this can be, and most have never even heard of attachment disorder or toxic stress. Perhaps Tough’s book will change that.

    At the root of the biggest successes that Tough cites – the parent training that builds attachment and the mentoring program to high school students – is a strong relationship. What Tough doesn’t talk about, is that children with significant attachment disorder issues do not see adults as people who can help them, let alone connect with them. They have not had the positive attachment experiences in early childhood that would make them think otherwise. So these students become oppositional, and then they end up getting in trouble for being disrespectful, for not controlling themselves, or perhaps at KIPP, failure to self-regulate. These relationships only come over time, and in today’s schools, we are focused too much on short-term solutions.

    For those students that are able to build relationships, we have to wonder how can we expect those relationships to emerge in the classroom when class sizes are big, and getting bigger? And can we really expect them to develop when the education system has narrowed the curriculum, so that the focus is competitive grading and testing?
    Success seems to be defined in purely academic terms these days, and to Tough’s credit, I appreciate that he is questioning that.

    Where do we go from here is the important question. Tough’s book doesn’t need to be co-opted by the Ed Reform movement. I’d advocate that the point of the book is twofold — that schools should focus on more than just academic achievement and producing good test takers, and that childhood poverty can severely impact one’s ability to learn, and we need wide-scale changes to address poverty across the nation so that this cycle can stop. Unfortunately, based on Tough’s adulation of KIPP’s character report card, I don’t think he gets it.

  • In these discussions, aims, goals, outcomes, curriculum, methods and academic achievement, get all tangled up, and sometimes even discussed as if they are interchangeable.
    1) An educated person looks like: focus and self-control, perspective taking, communicating, making connections, critical thinking, taking on challenges, self-directed, engaged learning (Ellen Galinsky)—call it grit.
    2) Almost any academic curriculum will suffice as a vehicle for acquiring these vital life skills. More time discussing standards is a complete waste—what constitutes academic achievement has been known and measurable for a good fifty years or more—more or less.
    3) Educating for grit (another name for a fully developed prefrontal cortex) requires constructivist delivery systems like complex projects requiring creative thought and collaboration. Academics are best taught in this context.
    4) Authentic assessment of academic achievement is necessary, and standardized tests should be given no more than annually and understood to be a small part of all that matters to a fully educated human.
    5) Measure what matters: Galinsky’s Seven Life Skills. She has identified the critical elements of “grit”: self-direction, love of challenge, ability to work with others, persistence, resilience, self-discipline, love of learning, ablility to change are other names for the same thing. We have all known that these are the essential elements for success and for leading a good life. Good schools have never taken their eye off this ball, even as they attend to academic achievement (properly understood as a by-product of “grit”).
    6) The top-down management of a bureaucratic educational system driven by accountability for what is easily measured pays attention to thoughtless, narrow academic skills to the exclusion of all the other important things that children need.
    7) At the core of grit is the spirit of each individual human being. Kids naturally love a challenge, they love learning, they love working with others, they love being active and creative, and in a context where they get this, they behave responsibly.
    8) If a school is soulless, education becomes sterile, and achievement is minimized.
    PS: Yes, Kids growing up in impoverished, high stress neighborhoods with low attachment come to school at a big deficit. And this is no reason for them to get less of what all kids need: activities in which they experience that they matter (because they create, work with others for a meaningful purpose and make a difference.) just because it may be harder for them is no reason to give them less of it.

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