A Grit Critic

Oh no he didn’t! Alfie Kohn just criticized grit. I didn’t think that was allowed. Better someone of Kohn’s stature than I. Ultimately, however, I think I have to side with grit on this one.

I should say up front that Alfie Kohn’s writing has helped change my thinking on a number of important topics in education and parenting over the last decade. His recent critique of “grit,” Angela Duckworth’s popular term for “the tendency to sustain perseverance and passion for challenging long-term goals,” however, is not his best work. I was excited when I first saw that Kohn chose to challenge this trendy topic because I’ve had vague doubts about it since it first emerged a little less than a decade ago. Kohn’s critique, however-and here the teacher in me will come out-is specious, lacking a single example and using, instead, a series of leading questions or truisms. It also takes a curious political turn that must make Angela Duckworth and other members of the UPenn positive psychology movement scratch their heads.

Kohn’s criticism appears in his newest book, in the April 6, 2014 Washington Post, and in the most recent edition of Independent School (to which I know you all subscribe…to be fair, it’s worth reading if you like thinking about schools). After reviewing the places that have popularized the idea of grit (Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed, and the KIPP academies, among others), Kohn begins to sow doubt:

“not everything is worth doing, let alone doing for extended periods, and not everyone who works hard is pursuing something worthwhile”
“persistence can be counterproductive and even unhealthy”
“Gritty people sometimes exhibit what psychologists call ‘nonproductive persistence’”
“The motives for displaying grit also raise important psychological questions. What matters isn’t just how long one persists, but why one does so.”

Hard to argue with such blanket statements. Though he points to specifics that reveal some of the assumptions underlying grit apologists (Kohn observes that though Paul Tough lists “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence” early in his book as important traits for student success, he doesn’t mention curiosity or self-confidence again throughout the book.), Kohn doesn’t use a single example of a student being too gritty in the wrong direction-a student who could benefit from giving up.

I think I understand Kohn’s concern. He doesn’t want American schools to turn into the caricatures we’ve read of education systems in South Korea and Singapore. He doesn’t want students to turn into what David Brooks described as “Organization Kids” in one of my favorite Atlantic articles-so focused on success-at-all-costs that they lose sight of life’s meaning. They become obedient lemmings rather than creative leaders. It reminds me of the backlash against Amy Chua, aka “Tiger Mom.” Up to a point, I agree. But at any high school in the country, including elite boarding schools, the group of students you need to worry about on this score represents a minority of the student body. The vast majority of students could stand to be a bit grittier-and they would enjoy school more if they developed this skill because the learning part of school actually becomes more fun the harder a student works at learning. Many teachers and parents pull their hair out wondering what it will take for a given student to achieve his or her potential. Often the answer is the combination of skills reflected in the word grit.

I really do hope I will have the chance to discuss this with Kohn at some point because he’s such a thoughtful observer of education. This last point-that learning, especially at the high school level, becomes more fun the grittier a student becomes (up to a point, and then they are just grinding it out, which isn’t all bad either)-bears spelling out. It’s true in academic pursuits, in the arts, athletics, and just about anything else you can think of. But don’t take my word for it. Here is a great example-if a little dated (most of us can’t fathom getting excited about Greek)-from C.S. Lewis, Oxford and Cambridge don and author of The Chronicles of Narnia:

An enjoyment of Greek poetry is certainly a proper, and not a mercenary, reward for learning Greek; but only those who have reached the stage of enjoying Greek poetry can tell from their own experience that this is so. The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire. His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural or proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it. Of course, he gets it gradually; enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery, and nobody could point to a day or an hour when the one ceased, and the other began. But it is just in so far as he approaches the reward that he becomes able to desire it for its own sake; indeed, the power of so desiring it is itself a preliminary reward. -C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” 1942

This quotation comes from Lewis’s discussion of different types of rewards and motivations. He’s not trying to make a case for grit. But he puts his finger on long-term learning and what often (always?) must undergird it. I’m finding this to be true right now with the piano. I never learned to play an instrument as a child. I sang a little through high school but never very well, and I never learned how to read music. Now my children are learning the piano on the one in our home. It’s been a goal for many years so each week I have the last lesson after each of my kids go. I am having to learn all over again how to be gritty-how to delay gratification, avoid distractions and other urgent calls for my time so that I can spend 30 minutes with the teacher and, at most, five minutes a day in the intervening six days. It’s certainly kind of fun to experiment, less fun to practice scales over and over. But I go back to it-or try to-because I can anticipate a time down the road when, if I just consistently put in the effort now, I’ll be able to make music, at least at a basic level. Of course, my prefrontal lobes are as developed as they are probably going to get-may even be in decline already-so I have an advantage over a six year old or sixteen year old in terms of resisting temptation, but I can say that grit is a difficult thing to exercise. Yet it’s essential if I want to achieve this goal and if I hope to realize ever-deeper satisfaction from playing the piano.

Now, that anecdote doesn’t by itself disprove Kohn, but while I agree that intrinsic motivation is the best way for learning to happen, the fact is that there are all sorts of really important things that students of all ages should learn that they are not intrinsically motivated to learn. And that’s where grit comes in. Is it like a certain version of the Protestant work ethic, as Kohn suggests? Yes, and I see that as a good thing for most students. Great schools are comprised of great teachers who discern on a student-by-student basis where students needs grit, where they simply need to fall in love with a subject or discipline, and, in some cases-and to Kohn’s point-where they need to take time to stop and consider the broader purposes that animate all of this striving.

If I have/take/make the time, I hope to write soon about the key role that a wonderful English teacher named Steve Scheifflin played in helping me A) realize what I was capable of on my own as a student and, therefore, B) begin to love learning and, therefore, C) develop grit.

Failing Well

I found myself on ice regularly this winter. At the school’s rink, to be more precise, every Sunday afternoon with my three year old daughter taking advantage of the town’s “Family Skate.” I don’t really know how to skate so it’s overstating it to say that I was teaching her to skate. What I could do was get her out to the middle of the rink and encourage her to try to move. Of course, the first few times she tried to do so she fell down, which came as a bit of a shock. Eventually she wanted off and eventually I complied. Absent the ability to instruct any more specifically about what to do, I found myself repeating, “But if you don’t fall down, you’re not learning.”

The unwitting truth in that phrase reminded me that it applies to people who are thirteen and thirty as much as it does to three year olds. Falling down on the ice—failing—hurts. It hurts physically (I put myself in the infirmary as a boarding school student trying too aggressively to learn to skate…and hadn’t skated again until this winter) and emotionally (I haven’t yet met the person who enjoys falling in public). And the same goes for falling down in other contexts—whether learning in a classroom or leading a school. But, at the risk of a cliché, it’s from the process of attempting and failing that we learn. Which means that one of the most important things we can do as educators, parents, and leaders is to create the context within which it is safe to go through this process and to do so publicly.

A book about leadership that I’ve been reading recently, James Kouzes’s and Barry Posner’s The Truth About Leadership, makes this point nicely at the adult level:

Whenever you’re challenging the status quo, whenever you’re tackling demanding problems, whenever you’re making meaningful changes, whenever you’re confronting adversity, you will sometimes fail. Despite how much you see challenge as an opportunity, despite how focused you can be, despite how driven you are to succeed, there will, no doubt, be setbacks. Think again about leaders throughout history who are remembered for their greatness. Some lost battles, some were imprisoned, some saw their businesses shut down, and most were ridiculed while trying to achieve the extraordinary. Mistakes happen. Defeats occur. Failure is inevitable. None of these are dirty words to leaders. Rather, they are signs that you’re doing something tough, exacting, and out-of-the-ordinary. That’s why you need grit. It’s also why you need to see failure as learning.

I argue that this can apply equally well to students, which means one of the tasks of teachers is to teach towards this—something that is perhaps more complicated or nuanced than teaching towards a test. In this same chapter, Kouzes and Posner quote now-famous University of Pennsylvania professor, Angela Duckworth, and her work on grit. Defined 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.”

This is not to condone mediocrity or poor performance. Failing continually at the same thing is closer to madness than to learning. Instead, this speaks to the importance—for adults and students alike—to cultivate the willingness to grow, learn, experiment, and, yes, fail, even if your mom isn’t there to pick you up.