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"Grit" Is Not Enough: Beware the Silver Bullet

Back in April, 2013, MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Angela Duckworth took the stage at TED and talked about Grit: The Power of Passion & Persistence. In that talk, she proposed two elegant ideas:

  1. The ability to persevere & overcome challenges in pursuit of one’s passion—not talent or IQ or SAT score—is “the secret to outstanding achievement.”
  2. This ability (which she calls “grit”) is a skill that can be honed, improved & taught.

This attractive concept was championed by educators & politicians. Schools across the country even started to implement grit into the curriculum. When the inevitable book was published earlier this month, it became an instant New York Times Bestseller.

But several key aspects of Duckworth’s research have recently been called into question by several articles (see Slate & NPR), as well as one notable study about to be published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology.

These critiques raise several concerns. It seems that some claims about the results of Duckworth’s research were either overstated or poorly worded, leading to misinterpretation & sensationalization.

Another criticism is that the studies suffered from too narrow a population sample to make meaningful statements about the general population. After all, it’s quite likely that you’ll find individuals with grit when your test group is already highly driven, like West Point Cadets or Ivy League students or competitors in the National Spelling Bee.

And many of the pronouncements about grit ignore systemic imbalances in socioeconomic status as well as the role that racial bias and institutional racism plays for many children.

Some even claim that Duckworth’s studies show that grit is simply correlated with success, rather than being a predictor of success. Others questionwhether grit is actually unhealthy, or if it can even be effectively taught.

In this swirl of claims & counter-claims, it can be hard to figure out where the truth lies. But at its core, the problem is not seeing grit as a factor that aids in a person’s success. The problem is seeing grit as the key factor in predicting a person’s success.

“Grit” has been offered up as some new silver bullet to cure all of our educational ills. And things are never that simple.

Education is complex because people are complex.

It's important to cultivate grit & determination on the path to success. They are smart skills. But so are curiosity & courage. So are flexibility & creativity. So are collaboration & compassion. So is a love of learning. So is focus. So is a sense of self-worth & purpose.

And “success” is not as narrowly defined as either side of the grit-debate would have you believe. We need to encourage our children to define success on their terms, rather than seeking someone else’s success.

Taken on its own, grit may not be enough, but it’s still important. And when the news attention shifts to a new trend in education, grit will still be an essential ingredient for success.

It just won’t be a silver bullet.

Here's a list of the links referenced in this post:

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