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“Can Grit Be Measured?” Yes… but to What End?

March 29, 2017

As noted in many previous posts, there is a belief that something called “grit” can help determine which students will succeed in school despite adversity… and IF that is the case then developing a means of measuring would be informative to colleges and universities who are trying to determine who will be able to adapt to the more rigorous environment students will face once they get on campus

A column by George Anders in yesterday’s EdSurge online publication poses the question “Can Grit Be Measured?”, explains what grit is, and then explains how University of Pennsylvania Professor Angela Duckworth is striving to answer that question despite it’s complexity. Anders writes:

Grit is important. Many K-12 educators and researchers all share that starting point. If children try hard, stay on task, and keep pressing through difficulties, good things happen. When school systems want to track the role of grit, or help instill it, however, everything gets trickier.

While I am afraid of the consequences that might result if we developed a “Grit Quotient” of some sort, I do agree with Ms. Duckworth’s assertion that any measurement of “grit” should be done without adding another standardized examination. But after reading Mr. Anders’ article, I’m not at all confident that the embedded metrics or the “bean counting” metrics Ms. Duckworth advocates will be at all helpful or informative in classrooms.

The one embedded metric described in Anders article is particularly appalling:

One approach that intrigues Duckworth: keeping tabs on students’ moment-by-moment habits when doing schoolwork online. Some students are easily distracted by ads, games or other diversions, she notes. Others can power through their work without interruption.

Also worth tracking, she says, are the ways that students respond after getting two or three online problems wrong in a row. Does their attention drift? Do they give up entirely? Or do they redouble their efforts to learn a difficult lesson?

Both these approaches have the benefit of assessing students without interrupting their normal learning day. As Duckworth observes, the school year already is filled with special-mission tests that interrupt regular course work. The less time commandeered by any grit-specific evaluations, the better, she says, adding: “The goal is something that takes zero extra time.”

Implicit in this approach is the idea that a student’s “normal learning day” includes on-line instruction. Also implicit is the idea that a student who has a singular focus, who “can power through their work without interruption” is somehow superior to a student who might occasionally daydream or “multi-task”. Finally, the idea that a student is deficient because they “give up” on an on-line task assumes that the task itself is not flawed or that the way the task was explained on line was sufficiently clear.

The idea behind what I call “bean counting” is also questionable. Mr. Anders writes:

Another simple measure that’s worth a look, she says, is the degree to which high school students persist with one activity across multiple years, taking on more responsibility in domains such as band, theater or a sports team. Students with an enduring passion for one field could be showing more grit that their peers. Such data is readily available, she notes; it passes her zero-time test.

Implicit in this “grit” measurement is that the “fields” in school reflect the “fields” outside of school, and if someone is passionate about a field, that passion is transferrable to another field. This are both self-evidently wrong. There are students who have passions for things that are not the part of any school curriculum yet are more predictive of success than any “field” currently taught in school. Entrepreneurship, for example, is not a part of any “field” in school… nor are creative thinking, interpersonal skills, intra-personal skills, or many other “soft” areas that are increasingly recognized as crucial to success outside of the classroom.

Ultimately Ms. Duckworth is seeking a measurement that meets the ideal of being cheap and fast, a measurement whose ultimate use seems to be to sort and select as opposed to assisting the student in gaining self-awareness and self-understanding. As long as measurements are used to sort-and-select they are reinforcing the factory model and not the network model that is predicated on each student learning about themselves… learning their strengths and determining what brings them joy and finding a way to parlay those strengths and joyful experiences into a productive career. Grit is not an entity that can be teased out and applied to meet the needs of our economy. It is a by-product of joyful engagement  in mastering a skill.

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