What is Grit?
A while has passed since I heard Angela Duckworth present her now infamous research about ‘grit’ at the 2015 Times Education Festival. I rarely make an effort to wait, like a child at a pop concert for an autograph, but this time was different. I was as excited as anybody about this new psychological construct.
Her research identified a positive correlation between passion and perseverance for long-term goals (Grit) with success. In her most well-known research, Duckworth tested her hypothesis on cadets at West Point Military Academy. The most gritty cadets, she concluded, were the ones who made it through the Summer training camp. In self-evaluations taken prior to the summer training, the successful cadets had demonstrated that they had greater passion and perseverance than the cadets who dropped out.
One of the most surprising findings, Duckworth muses, is the lack of correlation between talent and grit. She argues that there is perhaps even an inverse correlation. Since then, many in education have saluted this as an indisputable silver bullet for disadvantaged and talentless children. Grit, it seems can get anybody (even those with little talent) anywhere.
One of the most surprising findings, Duckworth muses, is the lack of correlation between talent and grit.
This is hugely misleading but not complete nonsense. We know from Dweck’s work on mindsets that the brain is ‘plastic’ and most things, within reason, are achievable with considerable effort. Grit, it seems, does contribute to long-term success but is this so surprising?
How does grit contribute to long-term success?
Within Duckworth’s construct of grit are concealed a host of virtues and traits that are ‘far more robust psychological constructs with a longstanding history of academic conceptualisations and research’ than grit, (Kristjánsson et al., No Date).
Of these ‘hidden gems’ the big five trait: conscientiousness, is certainly a more significant determinant of success than grit. Willingham points out that conscientious people: ‘tend to be orderly in their habits, are industrious and like to get things done, take responsibilities seriously, and are dependable’, (Willingham, 2016). This already sounds quite a lot like grit to me. Willingham goes on to review the virtue of self-control, or temperance, which is the ability to regulate actions. Another word used here is phronesis which Ian Morris describes as practical wisdom: the ability to make judgements and balance virtues for good.
Is ‘grit’ always a desirable virtue?
So if self-control and conscientiousness are reliable psychological constructs, what do passion and perseverance add? To answer this question, I asked Howard. J Curzer of the Texas University Philosophy Department for his views.
I learned from Howard that if either passion or perseverance are not reasonably tempered they can be counter productive or vice-like. Let’s return to Duckworth’s cadets to illustrate Howard’s point. Consider for a moment the cadet whose passion is so strong that he pushes his body harder than most would deem reasonable and perseveres for much longer than many would believe is necessary. Is this grit, or plain foolishness?
The cadets who decide that success at West Point is just not worth the considerable effort, for them, may be making wise choices. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t resilient, passionate or perseverant.
Although the self-control and determination of the successful cadets are hugely admirable and joining the forces is considered a courageous and noble decision, are we right to describe the drop-outs as failures? Personally, I don’t think so.
Traits and Virtues
For most of us, traits and virtues are indistinguishable from each other. However, virtues differ from traits mostly because virtues are simply describing good traits: traits that are morally and ethically good for society or the individual. It’s considerably more complicated than this but for the purpose of this post, it should serve as a useful distinction.
Traits are ‘U’ shaped and the best place to be is at the bottom of the ‘U’ bend – most of the time! Too little of a trait is a weakness (honesty for example) and too much of another can be considered to be a vice (passion being an obvious example).
Should we teach grit?
For the teaching of grit to be desirable it has to significantly add to the predictive validity of conscientiousness and self-control. At present, this is not the case. Whilst we hope to encourage our pupils to be passionate about learning and to build resilience, we need to do so alongside other virtues: empathy, compassion, courage, respect, resoluteness, creativity, benevolence, curiosity, devotion, cooperation, forgiveness, gratitude, humility, patience, kindness, loyalty, reliability, resourcefulness, openness, responsibility, selflessness, reverence, tact, trust, toughness, zeal to name quite a few.
Ian Morris, in his 2016 presentation at the Telegraph Education Festival, distinguishes between four distinct areas of virtue: moral, civic, intellectual and performance. This is a useful distinction within The Jubilee Centre’s framework for character education and helps us to know what to do next with grit.
First, we need to stop telling pupils that they can achieve anything through just grit (passion and perseverance). It is difficult to flourish without the necessary resources, teaching or when hardship falls upon us.
Aristotle described the latter as being ‘broken at the wheel’. Grit is important but our disadvantaged children, especially, need far more besides.
Grit is not their magic bullet to a fruitful and successful life – although it may well play a significant part.
How can we teach grit?
The Jubilee Centre is quite clear about teaching the virtues within character education. Virtues, they say, are both taught and caught. In other words, we can teach students the features of virtues and we can model virtuous behaviour for them.
An excellent example of teaching ‘grit’ in action is in the work of Andrew Carter and the ‘tougher minds‘ programme which has long-term goals, grit and self-control(temperance) at its centre. Students have abstained from mobile phones, computer games and television in prioritising hard work and study. The results have been impressive.
Passion and perseverance (grit) are clearly desirable virtues so long as they are reasonably tempered. Neither construct has a particularly long history in psychology or philosophy but to deny them their seat at the table may be premature. Grit is an important virtue to develop in our children, but taken too far could be at the detriment of their well-being and happiness.
In conclusion, Angela Duckworth’s research on grit is significant and it is a virtue worth teaching. We are well placed to teach ‘grit’ within the broader context of character education.
Grit is not a silver bullet (a direct and effortless solution to a problem) for disadvantaged children in education. If taken to be so, we might just as well be saying “just try harder.” We know that’s not right.