What is the key to turning potential into performance? Why is it that some talented individuals fail to fulfil their early promise? Why do some students bloom later than others and go on to outperform everyone’s expectation? A psychologist in America has been investigating these questions and believes she is starting to uncover the answer: it’s all about gritty you are.
Angela Duckworth, a psychologist and former teacher, is leading research into grit, something she describes as being a combination of passion and perseverance, determination and direction. Her findings are being more and more commonly applied in schools in America, and now in England too.
Duckworth’s seminal grit study focused on two areas: the US military and a student spelling competition.
To be accepted at the United States Military Academy at West Point, you have to be very clever, incredibly fit and demonstrate excellent leadership skills. From the many who apply, only a few who are chosen. But despite this arduous application process, almost 10% of participants drop out after two months, with many citing the physical and mental toll of the training as a reason for leaving. The difference between those who quit and those who successfully complete training? Their levels of grit.
When investigating which children did best at a national spelling contest grit emerged as a key factor determining which children would do best. The students who stuck with their practice and homework for longest did better. Talent was still a factor in these two studies, but it was what the participants did with it that mattered more.
In these studies, grit was measured using a self-report questionnaire where participants rated themselves. In the subsequent years, armed with each participants grit score, Duckworth and her team were able to successfully predict which participants would succeed and which would fail. These findings advanced our knowledge about what might make people successful as it combined separate concepts such as motivation and work-ethic into one construct.
Should we teach grit in schools?
Keen to harness the findings of this new research (and off the back of this TED talk), more and more schools are trying to help their students become grittier. This has taken the form of workshops, guest-speakers, projects and reducing the taboo around failure and mistakes. This is being done to try and improve grades and develop key life skills.
But what effect does grit actually have on students’ test scores? A recent study found that student’s level of grit only accounted for 0.5% of their GCSE results - hardly a ringing endorsement. Angela Duckworth herself suggests that self-control is a better predictor of test scores than grit, and that grit may be a better predictor of not dropping out of school, instead of exam results (though more research on the underlying mechanism as to why this may be the case is still needed).
The challenge regarding grit is can the findings from the military and spelling bee be applied in schools? For example, the military study was great at predicting which super-talented recruits would quit. But pupils have to stay at school until they are 16. Or how about the spelling bee, where the participants were already very motivated and high achieving? Does this apply to students in schools who have not been very successful previously?
There are also questions about whether applying grit interventions is the right fit for young children and teenagers. As mentioned, it is a self-report questionnaire. You score lower on the grit scale if you agree with the statement “my interests change from year to year”. But having changing interests is part of being a teenager – it’s a time when you are meant to sample different things and explore what your passions and strengths are.
But just because grit has limited impact on exam results doesn’t mean it has no value – teaching the importance of passion and persistence, and how to nurture them is a beneficial life skill. What’s more, even small changes can benefit lots of students. A recent review on 88 grit studies found that grit is “only moderately correlated with performance” and that interventions designed to enhance grit may only have a small effect on success. However, the authors note that this sort of impact can have a very meaningful impact in the real world, “a grit intervention that increases the retention rate in college by even a single potential point would potentially benefit thousands of students”.
For her part, Angela Duckworth has preached caution on how people utilise her research. She acknowledges the importance that talent and chance can play and says grit is an incomplete theory – but it is still an important one that needs further research.
Subtle and Stealthy
Duckworth suggests that grit can be fostered in four parts; developing interest, practising effectively, having a sense of purpose and self-belief. For those who are running grit-focused interventions (or any psychology-based interventions with students), it is recommended that these interventions should be “subtle and stealthy”.
One way a school can stealthily help students develop these skills may be something as subtle as maintaining an environment where the fear of failure is reduced. This usually comes from the top down, so teachers can emphasise a ‘no-shame’ policy when students make mistakes during a challenging task. Another tactic can be tweaking the language used in the classroom, where setbacks are seen as temporary and a learning curve. In both of these, the environment sets the tone and creates a space for psychological skills to flourish.
There is an art to this science. Research suggests that interventions that are small and that are woven into daily routine are more likely to have a longer lasting impact. The problem with being too explicit about these types of interventions is that students can quickly learn what the right answer is and either say what they think you want to hear, or rebel against these principles.
How gritty someone is may have an impact on who survives and even thrives in certain situations. Psychological research and workshops can aid us in helping students flourish and fulfil their potential. So what can we conclude for now about grit research? Interesting? Very. More research needed? Definitely. Well suited for interventions for school children? Maybe.