Can grit be taught?

Nicky Morgan, the ex-education secretary, has said in her book “Taught not Caught. Educating for 21st Century Character” that there should be an emphasis on character skills such as resilience, persistence, grit and leadership as well as academic study. She continues with this theme and asks the question, ‘Does Grit Improve Grades’?

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Children differ widely in how well they do in exams and there is continuing investigation trying to understand which factors can predict or explain the differences.  Research has shown that grit is associated with academic achievement and life outcomes, even when intelligence and other personality factors are taken into account.

According to Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who first popularised the grit concept in 2007, “grit is passion and perseverance, sticking with your future, day in and day out”. She believes that if we can teach children to be “grittier” in schools, we can help them achieve greater success.  Her 2013 TED talk on the topic has been viewed over 8 million times online, and her 2016 book ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ was an instant best seller.

Dr Duckworth formed a model, the Grit Scale, to be used in schools which focuses on 8 character strengths: curiosity, zest, gratitude, grit, growth mindset, self-control with learning, understanding others and self-control with others.  Studies in the US have shown that promoting the development of good character skills in schools seems to lead directly to positive outcomes in both behaviour and academic achievement. In the UK there are head teachers in both the independent and state sectors that have long argued that schools can excel both in academic rigour and at teaching character.

Duckworth’s concept has made its way into US national education policy with states required to include at least one non-academic factor in their school evaluations, examples given are grit and gratitude. It is reported that schools all over America are exploring how they can incorporate grit into their curriculum, and in California they are already grading schools and students on grit.

However, some psychologists and policy analysts question the methodology behind Dr Duckworth’s research, which has chiefly relied on students answering questionnaires on how gritty they think they’ve been.  It is also noted that much of the research to date has used restricted samples, for example undergraduate students and children who were finalists in a spelling competition.

Little is known about the association between grit and academic achievement in the general population, why people have different levels of grit or if genes / DNA have a part to play. Some critics also argue that grit places too much weight on individual student behaviour, and as a result attention is directed away from other factors that prevent academic success. Indeed, some researchers think that emphasising grit can even produce negative outcomes, such as killing creativity.

A UK study of 16 year old identical and non-identical twins, which looked at the origins of grit and its association with GCSE exam results, found that grit had little impact on exam grades. The results showed that whether or not a person has more or less grit is greatly influenced by their DNA. This finding helps to explain some of the differences between people’s level of grit. Their conclusion was that while increasing grit or perseverance could have long-term benefits for children, it is unlikely to improve their academic achievement.

Ultimately, it would appear that we just don’t know that much about grit yet. Grit research is still in its infancy, and more is needed. Even Angela Duckworth has admitted she doesn’t know if we can actually teach it in schools. Nicky Morgan writes that many head teachers she met believed that schools can develop character and character traits to the benefit of students, and that character can be taught directly in the classroom and conveyed more indirectly through a positive school ethos.