Improving Education: A Little More Talk and a Little More Grit

Stephen DeAngelis

April 8, 2014

In a post entitled “Educating Our Children: The Earlier the Better,” I talked about the “readiness gap” experienced by low income children when they first enter the formal education process. In that post, I discussed a study conducted by a Stanford University team led by psychologist Anne Fernald. The study concluded that “achievement gaps begin as early as 18 months. Then at 2 years old, there’s a six-month achievement gap. By age 5, it can be a two-year gap.” [“Do We Invest in Preschools or Prisons?” by Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, 26 October 2013] Writing about that Stanford study, Motoko Rich reports, “Nearly two decades ago, a landmark study found that by age 3, the children of wealthier professionals have heard words millions more times than those of less educated parents, giving them a distinct advantage in school and suggesting the need for increased investment in prekindergarten programs.” [“Language-Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K,” New York Times, 21 October 2013] Those pre-K programs don’t necessarily need to be conducted in a school environment. The city of Providence, RI, has implemented a new, in-home program called “Providence Talks” that helps parents learn how to increase the number of different words spoken in the home.

The official website for Providence Talks touts the program as “a first of its kind initiative designed to close the ‘thirty-million word gap’ and ensure Providence children enter kindergarten ready to learn.” Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, who calls himself a “Head Start baby,” is a huge supporter of the program. He’s not alone. The program is considered so innovative that it won the grand prize in the 2012-2013 Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge. The program was selected over “304 other compelling submissions.” As a result, “Providence was presented a $5 million implementation award in addition to a commemorative model by world-renowned designer Olafur Eliasson, now on display at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art.” The program is working so well that National Public Radio did a spotlight segment about the program. [“Efforts To Close The Achievement Gap In Kids Start At Home,” by Jennifer Ludden, NPR, 17 March 2014] Ludden explains that the program involves home visits by program professionals, like Andrea Riquetti and Stephanie Taveras (no relation to the Mayor). Professional home visitors bring books with them for parents and children to read together. These visits are focused on coaching low-income parents “to speak more, and differently, to their children.” Ludden continues:

“To help parents measure progress, the city collects hard data. … [Children wear] a recorder hidden inside a bright red vest specially designed for it. The recorder logs every word spoken, all day long, and can distinguish different voices. It also distinguishes a TV, computer or radio that may be blaring in the background — words from those don’t count when it comes to building a child’s vocabulary, and in fact too much screen time may hurt, researchers say. During [follow-up visits, program professionals] bring a report that graphs the word count, hour by hour. Parents keep a log to know what they were doing at the time. Another graph tracks conversational turns, when parent and child speak back and forth.”

Ludden reports that the program is starting modestly. “The first phase of the program includes 75 families,” she writes, “all of whom were enrolled in Early Head Start. Providence hopes to expand its effort to 2,000 low-income families and counsel them from the time their child is born.” The big concern, she notes, is that because the program is voluntary, many of the families that desperately need the program won’t volunteer because of various concerns, including privacy (i.e., “fearful that someone is listening to the recordings”). According to program officials, there is no reason to worry. “There’s no transcript. A computer counts words only, then erases the recording.” Professionals also worry that only parents who are already more engaged with their children will volunteer for the program and, therefore, it won’t reach the children most at risk. Despite these concerns, Providence Talks is an innovative approach for tackling a proven educational challenge.

Another approach for helping children achieve their potential involves teaching them how to persevere. Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, coined the term “grit” for her research in this area. For her work, Duckworth received a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship (i.e., a “genius” grant). Below is a video from the MacArthur website in which Duckworth explains her work.

The premise of her work is that even smart kids can get discouraged and, without training and encouragement, they can give up on certain subjects. From what I can tell, she doesn’t go as far as Malcolm Gladwell or Robert Greene, who insist that, with enough practice at something, you can become a virtuoso or a genius in that area. To read more on that topic, see my post entitled “Innovation: Geniuses and Perseverers.” Tovia Smith reports, “Around the nation, schools are beginning to see grit as key to students’ success — and just as important to teach as reading and math.” [“Does Teaching Kids To Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead?” NPR, 17 March 2014] Smith continues:

“Experts define grit as persistence, determination and resilience; it’s that je ne sais quoi that drives one kid to practice trumpet or study Spanish for hours — or years — on end, while another quits after the first setback. … But can grit be taught? ‘I hope so,’ says [Angela] Duckworth, ‘but I don’t think we have enough evidence to know with certainty that we can do so.’ Part of the problem is figuring out how to assess grit. Duckworth says ‘these things are really hard to measure with fidelity.’ Even so, many schools around the nation have embarked on their own experiments — they see the promise of the concept as too great to wait. … One way to make kids more tenacious, the thinking goes, is to show them how grit has been important to the success of others, and how mistakes and failures are normal parts of learning — not reasons to quit.”

Frankly, I find the arguments for at least trying to teach kids how to persevere quite compelling; but, not everyone does. For example, Alfie Kohn writes, “When you hear about the limits of IQ these days, it’s usually in the context of a conservative narrative that emphasizes not altruism or empathy but something that sounds suspiciously like the Protestant work ethic. More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned grit and perseveranceself-discipline and will power. The goal is to make sure they’ll be able to resist temptation, override their unconstructive impulses, and put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do.” His criticism appears to be aimed more at the fact that, in some programs claiming to teach grit, failure is applauded as a good thing. He asserts that claims “that failure is beneficial, or that parents and teachers should deliberately stand back rather than help out” are nothing more than “fanciful thought experiments” — dangerous ones at that. He continues:

“Research certainly doesn’t support the idea that failure or disappointment is constructive in itself. A ‘BGUTI’ (better get used to it) rationale — the assumption that children are best prepared for unpleasant experiences that may come later by being exposed to a lot of unpleasantness while they’re young — makes no sense from a psychological perspective. We may want kids to rebound from failure, but that doesn’t mean it’s usually going to happen — or that the experience of failure makes that desired outcome more likely.”

I see a big difference in trying to teach someone how to persevere in the face of difficulty (i.e., teaching them how to apply skills like critical thinking and problem solving) and deliberately placing them in situations where they will fail. Failure can certainly teach us lessons; but, deliberately trying to ensure that a student fails makes no sense. At least I agree with Kohn on that point. On the other hand, Duckworth’s work doesn’t appear to me to be about applauding failure. It’s about helping children learn the value of pushing through hard times to achieve a desired goal. I’m not sure that “grit” is a new principle; but, I agree it deserves a chance to be taught alongside other problem solving skills. Despair is not a characteristic that should be reinforced in school. Replacing despair with hope is true grit.