“Grit,” a best-selling book by University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Duckworth, may have swept parenting and education pop culture but research scholars say they are finding mounting evidence that it doesn’t add up.
At least five studies published in peer-reviewed journals in the past two years have identified problems with the notion of grit, which Duckworth defines as a combination of perseverance and passion, and how important it is for academic success. The criticisms range widely, from statistical and methodological errors to bad survey questions. More importantly, researchers are finding that grit isn’t strongly associated with academic achievement and that other soft skills are far more powerful than grit.
Martin Credé, a social psychologist at Iowa State University, has been particularly outspoken. “Grit is probably not where schools should be spending their money and time,” he said, “because it’s not strongly related to academic success and because it’s unlikely to respond well to intervention.”
Credé first published his analysis of all the grit studies he could find and laid out the problems in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2017. To make sure education experts saw it, he wrote a critical review of grit in the December 2018 issue of Educational Researcher.
Other grit skeptics will be publicly presenting their criticisms at a symposium, “Co-Evolution of Substantive and Methodological Research: The Case of Grit, Self-Regulation, and Motivation,” scheduled for April 8, 2019, during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in Toronto.
I spoke with Duckworth at length about the academic backlash to her work.
“As a human, the criticism doesn’t feel good,” Duckworth said. “I wish I had gotten everything right. But I’m also a scientist and this is what science is. A field can never be one person’s work and scientists should disagree.”
Duckworth concedes there are problems with the survey questions that she used to measure grit in people. Her surveys don’t ask respondents about their passions or ability to have a sustained interest in something over a long period of time. Credé found that her actual questions end up measuring how conscientious a person is. In retrospect, Duckworth said, she wishes she had included more questions about the “long term.”
Duckworth was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and new to research methods when she developed her theory of grit. (She published her first paper on grit in 2007, a year after she received her PhD.) She also admits that it was a mistake to design a survey where respondents had to agree to all of her statements about perseverance, but disagree with all of the statements that purported to be about passion in order to rate highly on her grit scale. For example, a student would have to answer “very much like me” to the statement “Setbacks don’t discourage me,” but “not like me at all” to the statement “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.” One of the papers to be presented at the April 2019 symposium shows that when you rewrite Duckworth’s survey questions so that pro-grit answers are all the same, either “very much like me” or “not like me at all,” you get very different results. That casts further doubts on how Duckworth is measuring grit and, thus, her claims about its power.
Related: Grit under attack
But Duckworth says her critics are missing her point about the power of grit when they compare students’ grit scores with grades and test scores.
“Grit is something I think young people need to grow toward,” said Duckworth. “By definition, grit is passion for something that takes a long time to complete and perseverance. And I don’t think that your report card grades in elementary school, middle school and high school are, for most students at that age, the prime source of their passion. It’s not where they would apply their grit anyway.”
In Duckworth’s research, she showed how people with high grit scores succeeded in difficult activities such as Beast Barracks, the arduous cadet training at West Point, or a spelling bee.
Duckworth said she wouldn’t expect grit to be the most important factor in determining a student’s grades or test scores. “There ought to be other predictors, like self-control, that should be more predictive of grades than grit,” Duckworth said.
In a 2018 study, Allan Wigfield, a professor at University of Maryland’s College of Education, found that self-efficacy, or confidence in one’s ability to accomplish something, was far more strongly correlated with grades than grit.
Wigfield also found that perseverance alone, which is only one of grit’s two components, was correlated more with academic achievement than perseverance plus passion together.
Iowa State’s Credé discovered the same problem, finding not only a very weak association between passion and achievement but also that passion weakens the association between perseverance and achievement.
“All of us, whether we’re kids or grownups, have a tendency to give up too soon, when we hit adversity, to throw in the towel,” Credé said. “So I think perseverance, that’s worthwhile pursuing. But on the passion side, the idea that we can only be good at things if we are passionate for them and also that we don’t change our passions. I find that especially concerning when it comes to younger kids. I have two daughters. Part of their life, as I see it, is trying out things. We don’t want them to give up immediately but changing your interests and exploring things, that’s part of life.”
Duckworth’s “Grit” has sold more than a million copies worldwide since it was published in 2016. And many schools have embraced it. Some include grit ratings on report cards (though Duckworth has concerns about grading kids on grit.) It’s not uncommon to see grit posters festooned across classroom walls and hallways. In 2013, Duckworth founded a nonprofit organization to spread character training in schools, including ways to make students grittier.
Duckworth is dismayed when she hears about schools holding grit pep rallies to boost standardized test scores. “That’s not a good idea,” she said. Her hope is that kids can develop true interests that they can be passionate about their whole lives. Duckworth’s own research is currently delving deeper into passion, trying to understand how people develop it.
Duckworth has no immediate plans for revising her grit scales. But another researcher, Rick Hoyle, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, recently created a new grit scale, fixing the drafting errors that Duckworth made. He has administered it to research subjects and told me by email that he now has enough data to start writing a paper and that the results are “strong.”
However, he cautioned that even an improved grit scale isn’t going to show a strong correlation with everyday academic achievement. When grit is used to predict performing well in activities that take place over a long period of time and present obstacles and challenges, he said, then it emerges as the most important psychological trait. “I don’t see test scores fitting into that category,” Hoyle said. “Grades might, for some people, but not many.” For these outcomes, he explained, other psychological attributes, such as self-control and conscientiousness, out-predict grit.
While it remains unclear whether grit can be taught, educators should be aware that even if it is possible to teach perseverance and passion, it’s unlikely to translate into things that schools can measure and take credit for.
This story about grit in schools was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.