16 May 2017
At the core of school’s work is student learning, it’s what schools are there for and because teachers are who they are, they are always looking to improve on this. Teachers are committed to get each student to maximise their learning outcomes.
Earlier education practices worked on the premise that students came with certain abilities and we should stream them in homogenous classes so they would learn best. Initially this ‘sorting’ was based on intelligence. Of course some students are born with a natural gift for schoolwork but this talent is only the potential for success.
Recent research has established that the major indicator that will determine a child’s success is not their ‘intelligence’ but their character. So it stands to reason that we should focus on developing character! The question is what sort of character?
What our students need to achieve sustained excellence in anything they do, is the traits of hard work and ability to stick at a task and see it through. Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed identified seven characteristics of a successful student, the first being ‘grit’.
Grit describes a passion for success and requires perseverance, hardness and resilience, sticking to a problem until it is solved.
A simple but telling example of how grit works comes from the different results nationalities get in the PISA Scores for mathematics. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, describes how some students would take 22 minutes to work out a complicated math question. Unfortunately the average student gives up after only THREE minutes, preferring to ask for help than work through the problem. Those students who persisted for that extended period of time got the solution. Their grit ensured success and they would continue to keep in trying as the work becomes harder in the senior years.
Encouraging kids to step out of their comfort zones and take learning and social risks is one of the great challenges for teachers and parents. It’s critical that we challenge children and young people to attempt activities where failure is a real option. Overcoming setbacks and pushing through difficulties is how character is formed. Too often we try to protect our kids from the consequences of their mistakes but it is through mistakes and the taking of the responsibility of those mistakes character is built.
A word, or two of warning; grit has become extremely popular in modern times. Angela Lee Duckworth on a TED Talk that has had over 10 million views talks about her experiences. It’s hard to argue with TED, but I often do however there is a problem with this adoption of grit to the extent that supporters will accept that it is acceptable that kids do not have a balanced approach to life. They argue that great achievements come from individuals that are extremely single-minded. I would argue that, for a child we do require balance.
A second problem is that the total belief in grit promises success. It is like the myth of meritocracy and the mantra of neoliberalism ‘by hard work to the top’. The hidden message given to a child by ‘grit’ is that if you fail it is because you didn’t try hard enough!
So what to do? I agree that grit; perseverance, delayed gratification and the like are qualities we should teach to all our kids. And I agree that character is a better indicator of success for a student but this is only on a personal level. Kids are unique - all have different abilities but while ever we measure success in relation to a population some kids despite all the resilience and perseverance will never top the class, will never win an Olympic Gold Medal. They need to know they are not failures but the best of people.