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Interview with Angela Duckworth

Penn researcher and MacArthur fellow Angela Duckworth on teaching “grit” as a path to student success.

Not many education researchers win MacArthur "genius grants." Then again, not many education researchers are as charismatic as Angela Duckworth, a former business consultant and teacher whose work on "grit" as key to students' success has caught fire.

The fast-talking University of Pennsylvania faculty member's research is incredibly popular among teachers, and is increasingly being used at the school and district level. It won't be too long before federal lawmakers start proposing national "grit" initiatives—if they haven't already.

In the meantime, Duckworth continues her research, and makes time for things like TED Talks and designing a "character growth" report card for schools to use.

Q | Who came up with the term grit, anyway—and what were the alternatives?
A |
I came up with it over other terms like pluck, tenacity, persistence, perseverance. It has the connotations that I wanted. It sounds good. I think it's a good word.

Q | How is grit different from emotional intelligence, character education, executive function, or some of the other similar-sounding ideas that have come along previously?
| These terms for non cognitive skills are roughly synonymous, or at least that's my own personal take. The exception would be emotional intelligence, which for many researchers has a specific definition that has to do with understanding and managing emotions.

Q | What school district or charter network has taken the lead in implementing your ideas, and how is it going for them so far?
A | Charter school networks like KIPP and YES Prep embraced the idea of teaching these aspects [of behavior]. But we work with all kinds of schools, including a big comprehensive Philadelphia high school, Upper Darby School District [PA], Bensalem schools [outside the Philadelphia metro area], Cherry Hill [NJ], and Riverdale Country School [a private school in New York City].

Q | What kind of work are you doing with Upper Darby and Cherry Hill, and why did they come to you for help?
A | This year, we're engaged with Upper Darby in two large studies to see ­whether two different self-control techniques help kids do what they want to do versus what they feel like doing in the moment. We're just starting work this year with Cherry Hill public schools, and we're doing random assignment studies to see how to develop grit in their middle school students.

Q | How can schools measure students' grit? Is it something that can go on a report card?
A | My own child's report card has a grade for overall citizenship and conduct, but it's not very actionable feedback. It's too general. I'm trying to create something much more specific, helping students and parents understand, for example, that a child has struggled with procrastination or, perhaps, should be praised for expressing gratitude to other students. That's not ideal, either, since we still need to tell kids how to work on their weaknesses, but it's a start.

Q | Can you talk about how to teach grit in the classroom?
A | I don't know that anybody's totally figured out how to teach it: What do you do exactly, even when we do have insights from research? How do you get your teachers to speak in ways that support growth mind-set? That's why, through a nonprofit I helped cofound called the Character Lab, we're organizing some lectures for teachers about self-control, grit, and related topics. It's not totally prescriptive, because the science is still developing. We're also helping put together a MOOC for teachers to debut in 2014.

Q | Is there an app or other way to measure grit in real time, through people analytics (like in Moneyball), or through concrete tasks rather than surveys?
A | I don't have any data-mining projects or mobile software planned, but the Character Lab is thinking about creating an online growth card for schools—or even individual teachers or parents who are interested—to use over the next couple of years. And the Lab is working on measures of character that are task measures.

Q | What do you say to the people who think it's unwise to have teachers focus on grit rather than cognitive skills and concrete knowledge?
A | Most teachers when surveyed say that it is part of their job to help students develop things like grit. This is especially true at the elementary and middle school levels. They feel it's part of their vocation to teach other things that are not formally academic content. Many teachers believe [that's] part of what they do—to be a role model, to articulate and encourage these traits.

Q | Even if teachers and parents like the approach, does it conflict with students learning academic content?
A | These traits predict academic outcomes, so it's a necessity at some level to teach them. I know that instructional time is a zero-sum game, but if we want kids to do well academically, it's hard to imagine that happening if they don't have some control over their attention.

Q | So how can schools incorporate "grit" without losing class time meant for other purposes?
A | One answer is to create dual-purpose lessons that address both the cognitive and non cognitive goals. Persistence is a non graded Common Core math standard, and I think you can capitalize on opportunities to demonstrate or illustrate it.

Q | Do you really see schools teaching grit, given how many other things they're tasked with doing?
A | I recognize that behavior might be possible to change but it's not easy to change. It's not something that's going to happen in 10 hours—it's going to be a lot more investment than that. However, most successful students have cultivated these traits, so there is hope we can help others do so.

Q | Is there any danger of your ideas being oversimplified or popularized, or over-implemented in schools or by parents?
A | Some would say, "Maybe we shouldn't tell anybody about this. They're not going to understand the nuances, details, or limitations." But I would say the trade-offs are worth it. If we have stirred a conversation about effort and the tremendous importance of sustained effort over time to doing well, that is worth the potential risk to me.

Winter 2014—  

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