“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure . . . and in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.” – Dominic Randolph, headmaster, Riverdale Country School
Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania wrote a book with Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan called Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. This was an 800-page tome that researched the characteristics and traits that were successful from antiquity all the way through to the present, even categorizing the traits of video game characters like Pokémon and the Boy Scout handbook. They came up with 24 character traits that were important for success, including kindness, self-regulation, and gratitude. One of Seligman’s graduate students, Angela Duckworth, joined his department in 2002, and in her application essay, she wrote the following (I include it here in its entirety because I think it so important):
“The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves . . . Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating, and gratifying – but [it] is also often daunting, exhausting, and sometimes discouraging. . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”
What Angela Duckworth then proceeded to do was to create something that she called the “Grit Scale.” In this simple, self-administered test, six questions relate to the consistency of the students’ interests, and another six relate to their perseverance of effort. Duckworth found that people who are truly successful in life were focused and were not daunted by failure when they were trying to achieve their long-term goals. This simple Grit Scale was tried by West Point to predict which incoming cadets would best handle the grueling, initial physical fitness and leadership training required by the school. Then West Point compared the Grit Scale to the “Whole Candidate Score” that it had developed and had been using for some time. The Grit Scale turned out to be the more accurate predictor of which candidates stuck with the program and which candidates dropped out.
Here are some examples of statements people were asked to rate on the Grit Scale questionnaire:
- My interests change from year to year.
- I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.
- I finish whatever I begin.
- I have achieved a goal that took years of work.
The idea of measuring grit and character has begun to take hold at more mainstream schools, too. At the KIPP Infinity Middle School, in Manhattan, its cofounder, David Levin, also believed that character was the key to success, and he created the C.P.A. (Character Point Average) to go with the usual G.P.A. for each student. He then proceeded to focus on character within his school through “dual-purpose instruction,” where character lessons were integrated with the normal school curriculum. For example, when a girl was caught in class chewing gum by a teacher and lied about it, the teacher reinforced the importance of character by reminding her that chewing gum was a minor problem, but lying was a major character problem, and that the student had disappointed the teacher with her behavior.
I think these results on perseverance, focus, and character are not surprising. They are common sense, and yet these personal qualities have been hard to measure. For that reason, it’s even harder to measure their impact. But what could be a more important predictor of a student learning than whether he or she is interested, committed, and willing to work hard? There are those who have not yet developed these qualities of focus and determination who believe that the “brilliant” and “successful” don’t have to work hard, or sacrifice, for success in life and learning. In doing so, they may overestimate the innate abilities others possess and underestimate their own ability to achieve their dreams through the nurturing of their own character or, as Duckworth calls it, “grit”.
Try This with Your Students or Children
Consider reading Duckworth’s journal article below and trying out some of her questions on your children or students. How do they rank? How can you instill in them a passion to achieve focus, determination, and hard work? Not an easy task, I agree, but it is fundamentally the most important one.
Read the articles here:
What If the Secret to Success Is Failure? (New York Times)
Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology)
Stephen Smith, CEO, Co-Founder, JogNog