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'Grit' might be more important than IQ. Now schools need to learn to teach it.

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Being smart in school isn't enough. The focus has turned to whether students have grit — whether they can keep going in the face of setbacks to achieve long-term goals.

Grit has little to do with traditional intelligence. But it's highly important: Cadets at West Point who scored well on a 10-point scale of grit were more likely to complete their first summer of training. National Spelling Bee contestants with more grit advanced farther than contestants of the same age without it.

College admissions officers have said if they could measure grit in applicants and use it as a selection criterion, they would. Schools, particularly the KIPP charter schools, obsess about instilling it in their students.

There's just one problem: if grit can be taught, we don't know how to do it yet. Is it an ability that can be developed? Or is it a personality trait, like extraversion or sensitivity, that you're either born with or you're not? If it's the former, it's possible that schools could help many children be more prepared to succeed in life. If it's the latter, then schools are spending time and energy emphasizing the importance of something kids can't change.

What is grit?

Grit is sort of the grown-up version of the marshmallow test, which tested whether 4-year-olds could delay gratification long enough if they were promised a reward. Those skills in self-control are necessary for good grades in the short term; grit includes other qualities, such as resilience, that are needed to achieve longer-term goals.

The concept clearly resonates. A TED talk from Angela Duckworth, who popularized and has researched grit, has been viewed more than 5 million times; last year, Duckworth won a MacArthur "genius grant." Author Paul Tough wrote a whole book, How Children Succeed, about the importance of noncognitive skills.

One of the reasons grit has become such a popular concept is that it applies across the socioeconomic spectrum. It speaks to worries that wealthy children are being coddled, and to the reality of obstacles that children from low-income families have to overcome in order to succeed, says David Meketon, a researcher at Duckworth's laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania.

"People are just as worried about wealthy kids and their being fragile thoroughbreds and not being able to persist as they are poor kids who are struggling for other reasons," Meketon says. "It's this combination of helicopter parents on the one hand and parents that are struggling just to survive."

What we know about teaching grit

student class struggling


Researchers have learned that self-control can be taught and cultivated. The idea of growing grit, on the other hand, is in its infancy.

Teaching grit is most associated with KIPP charter schools, which consider it a central plank of their character education, along with zest and self-control. KIPP was included in Tough's book about the importance of grit. And their academic results are undeniably strong: a recent study compared students at the schools to students who'd entered the lottery to attend but weren't selected. Students at KIPP performed better academically, and they studied more, too.

But, as psychology professor Laurence Steinberg writes, kids who went to KIPP schools didn't seem to turn out any grittier: "They weren't more effortful or persistent. They didn't have more favorable academic self-conceptions or stronger school engagement. They didn't score higher than the comparison group in self-control."

That suggests that, as much value as KIPP schools place on noncognitive skills, they haven't figured out how to teach them yet.

Meketon, at Penn, says he's confident that grit can be taught — even if kids are genetically predisposed to be more or less gritty, it's possible to develop those traits. "We would not have taken all this interest in this if we didn't think it was malleable," he says. "We do, and there are a number of strategies that we're beginning to explore now." A pilot program that aims to help students overcome setbacks in math is promising, but has only been tested in a handful of schools, he said.

Developing long-term persistence can be tricky. It's particularly necessary for some physical activities, such as cross-country running and ballet, but research hasn't proved that persistence in those areas translates to the classroom. And in some cases, the abilities don't transfer, Meketon says: Kids who play sports can devote an extraordinary amount of time and energy to improvement while their sport is in season, but afterwards return to old habits.

Steinberg, an expert on adolescence, has ideas of his own on how to do so: maybe yoga, or mindfulness training.

"These kinds of activities might be harder to persuade schools to incorporate," he said, in part because they take time that would otherwise be used for more academic instruction. But he said he's convinced that they could lead to improved academic results as well.

Meketon suggests that one way to get students to persist is to help them identify a broader purpose behind their goals — not just to make themselves happy, but to help achieve something for others as well.

"We're all inclined to stop when the going gets rough," he said. "So why should we persist? Why should a young person, when it's quite frankly unpleasant? We think part of it is identifying something beyond themselves."