Of the different components needed for “world class schools” in America, I believe that student “grit” is the crucial ingredient too often overlooked.
There has been much recent research on the concept of “grit” defined by educational researcher Angela Duckworth as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals“. Grit entails “working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.”
The concept of grit is indirectly emphasized in a recent thought-provoking editorial by David Brooks of the NY Times titled “The difference in moral and cognitive learning”. It can be found at: http://www.chron.com/opinion/outlook/article/The-difference-in-moral-and-cognitive-learning-4321096.php.
In his column, he finds a profound difference between Asian and American education. He posits that American learning focuses primarily on understanding and mastering the external world while Asians “tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.”
America was settled by people who also believed that hard work and the cultivation of related virtues resulted in success. Consequently, we became the most prosperous nation in the history of the world. But that prosperity is now threatened from within. Over the past 60 years, our country has over-emphasized IQ and individual “rights” along with instant gratification. We have under-emphasized hard work and perseverance. When a bright child gets a low grade, parents now tell us the child is bored because the teacher did not challenge young Einstein enough. So the responsibility for challenging the child now seems to belong to everyone but the child. When an average child fails a test, the parents now often say the grading system is unfair or the homework too excessive. So making school work easy or entertaining seems to be the desired accommodation. In short, we still want the American dream – but disregard the primary means for achieving it. Grit!
Malcolm Gladwell made a similar point in his book “Outliers”. He cites research that shows people designated “world class” in their profession had in common 10,000 or more hours of practice. World class violinists were those who practiced the most. Their natural ability as a 5-year-old was NOT the major difference in their world class accomplishment – despite modern myth to the contrary. “Average” students who persisted out-performed child prodigies who lacked persistence. Grit mattered more.
I’m not saying that everyone should work hard at the same educational or life goals. Some have gifts and talents for academia; others for “hands on” jobs; others as leaders or “worker bees” in their chosen field. We need them all – and we should honor the persistent pursuit of excellence in each field!
We have become an “entitlement” nation redefining the American dream as a right, regardless of effort, to a good living, various creature comforts, and 24/7 entertainment. Yet there are individuals and groups among us who quietly pursue the American dream as it was once envisioned. For example, here in Pearland, it is undeniable that many Asian students out perform all other student groups as measured by state tests and SAT scores, class rank, Ivy League college acceptance, and hours of community/civic service. Why? In many cases, our Asian students are first or second generation immigrants. It is widely known that many such students go above and beyond what is required of them – and devote long hours to study. So how do you reach the top here in Pearland ISD? WORK HARD! GRIT!
Brook’s editorial speaks of the Asian mindset as cultivating virtues including “sincerity, diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers. In Chinese culture, the heroic scholar may possess less innate intelligence but triumphs over hardship.” He goes on to say that “Western schools want students to be proud of their achievements while the Chinese emphasize that humility enables self-examination.” He adds that “Western students often work harder after you praise them, while Asian students sometimes work harder after you criticize them.” (Incidentally, any criticism of a student in American public schools is now widely labeled as abusive – and often involves parent paid attorneys!)
Brooks also comments that American efforts to completely separate public education from the teaching of morals is partially responsible for the difference between Asian and American learning. I would add that the removal of most or all moral teaching from the American public schools since the 1960’s has deepened that educational deficit. We no longer hold in common bedrock American values, substituting instead a vague and confusing moral relativism emerging from drugged out ’60’s Hippies: “Do your own thing!”, “Fight the Power!” “Freedom!” “Expand your mind!” “Your truth is what works for you.”
Wake up America! The moral virtues that preach hard work and perseverance remain available for ALL to cultivate. They are not the exclusive property of any one individual, culture or historical period.
Our school district is now developing K-12 instructional lessons on the virtues of hard work and perseverance. Though a formal program emphasizing GRIT will emerge in Fall 2013, you may see signs of this rising emphasis this year at different schools within our district.
What a concept! Hard work produces results! Call the media!
Want to read more about Angela Duckworth’s research on grit?: http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/tomorrows-college/grit/angela-duckworth-grit.html