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For more than a year, social justice activists have been attacking one of education’s latest buzzwords:  grit. They’ve been arguing that it’s wrong, and possibly racist, to blame low-income black and Hispanic students for not having enough of it. And they contend that education reformers should focus on fixing systems that keep families trapped in poverty, instead of trying to “fix” students. (For examples, see here and here).

Now a second front of attack on grit has opened up, led by nerdy quantitative researchers. In a Saturday session of the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Washington D.C., on April 9, the academic daggers were out and the sparks were flying.

Seated at the dais was Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist, who took the familiar word “grit” and fashioned it into a psychological term that has captivated school leaders, teachers and parents across the country. Her theories on grit, which she defines as a combination of passion and persistence, have been popularized by a best-selling book and many magazine articles. Essentially, she argues, those with more grit do better at school, in college and afterwards in the working world. And Duckworth believes grit is something you can build; you’re not just born with a fixed amount of it. The MacArthur Foundation awarded her one of its coveted genius grants in 2013. Schools around the country are now trying to teach grit, and some are even testing for it (something Duckworth opposes).

Last Saturday, Duckworth was presenting a scholarly paper she’d written with a colleague, about a half-dozen promising experiments to help people increase their grit. Yet she was flanked by other researchers, presenting rival papers, unable to prove that grit can be properly measured in children, or lead to better test scores and grades.

“Grit is the new kid on the block. But it’s been embraced without an adequate research bedding,” said Dale Schunk, a prominent educational psychologist at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, who was assigned to comment on the papers publicly. “We need evidence. The bottom line is, before we recommend that teachers improve grit, we need to make sure it boosts achievement.”

During the Q&A session, some psychology researchers pointedly asked why the field needed a new term, “grit,” when previous scholarship had already identified various psychological keys to academic success, such as self-control, “self-efficacy” and “self-determination.”

Duckworth admitted that the two main components of  grit —  sustained effort and interest — had already been established by earlier scholars. Her main contribution was to fuse the two, and measure it.

“If you choose to call it something else,” she said, “I’m not going to be the person who says you shouldn’t do that. For me there’s a real puzzle here. Why do some kids keep trying to do things, and it’s high-quality effort and it’s sustained over time? That’s the real puzzle. If you prefer to study behavior self-regulation, or some closely related construction, like conscientiousness, it’s all good, as long as we get at what’s really going on.”

Unsolicited advice? Give it

In Duckworth’s presentation, she began with the premise that simply telling kids to show more grit isn’t effective. So she and her Penn colleague Lauren Eskreis-Winkler came up with an indirect approach to boost grit, by asking subjects to help others improve their grit. First they experimented on a group of adult smokers, asking half of them to write a sympathetic letter to someone else who was struggling with nicotine cravings. Those who dispensed advice reported that they felt more committed to their own goal of quitting smoking. The same was true of unemployed adults, writing advice to other job seekers, but the boost wasn’t quite as large. In both experiments, those who didn’t dispense advice felt less committed to their goals.

So they applied the technique on children. They asked a group of middle-school students to advise an imaginary fourth-grader on how to keep trying when faced with a challenge. Afterward, they were able to complete a challenging series of Khan Academy math problems more accurately than peers who hadn’t first dispensed the advice. The results were strongest for low-achievers. For kids who were already doing quite well, the dispensing of advice had no effect on their math achievement.

Duckworth and her colleague tried a similar experiment on community college students, who were identified by administrators to be “at risk” of dropping out. Those who dispensed advice to other students on how to get through community college received higher ratings by college counselors in their weekly counseling sessions.

While promising, all of these are small, early-stage studies with only short-term results. Meanwhile, other researchers are struggling to confirm Duckworth’s work and replicate her research. One University of Kentucky researcher tested whether students with more grit really do better in school and found that they didn’t. Instead she found that “self-efficacy,” or confidence in one’s ability to complete tasks, was directly related to achievement. Another Ohio State researcher presented findings from a college course expressly designed to boost grit. But the students’ grit did not improve.

Duckworth remained good-humored throughout the attack, which seemed to be as much about professional jealousy as research evidence. It also shows the power of academic research when it lands upon easy-to-understand English words. She opined that her term has stuck, while others haven’t, because “grit has a nice ring to it.” In the meantime, she encouraged colleagues to keep slinging arrows: “If this session generates research — critical research — so much the better.”

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