About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Bullets and Grit

This blog was first published yesterday (May 14) in Valerie Strauss's Washington Post column, "The Answer Sheet." See it here.

*****
            One of the many frustrating things about education policy and practice in our country is the continual search for the magic bullet—and all the hype and trite lingo that bursts up around it.  One such bullet is the latest incarnation of character education, particularly the enthrallment with “grit,” a buzz word for perseverance and determination.  Readers of this blog are familiar with my concerns and can read my earlier posts by clicking here, or go to a 2014 report on character and opportunity from the Brookings Institution in which I have a brief cautionary essay.
           
            In a nutshell, I worry about the limited success of past attempts at character education and the danger in our pendulum-swing society that we will shift our attention from improving subject matter instruction.  I also question the easy distinctions made between “cognitive” and “non-cognitive” skills.  And I fear that we will sacrifice policies aimed at reducing poverty for interventions to change the way poor people see the world.

            In this post, I would like to further explore these concerns—and a few new ones—by focusing on “grit,” for it has so captured the fancy of our policy makers, administrators, and opinion-makers.

            Grit’s rise to glory is something to behold, a case study in the sociology of knowledge.  If you go back ten or so years, you’ll find University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth investigating the role of perseverance in achievement.  This idea is not new in the study of personality and individual differences, but Duckworth was trying to more precisely define and isolate perseverance or persistence as an important personality trait via factor analysis, a standard statistical tool in personality psychology.  Through a series of studies of high-achieving populations (for example, Penn undergraduates, West Point cadets, Spelling Bee champions), Duckworth and her colleagues demonstrated that this perseverance quality might be distinct from other qualities (such as intelligence or self control) and seemed to account for between 1.4 to 6.3 percent of all that goes into the achievements of those studied.  (Later studies would find several higher percentages.)  These findings suggest that over ninety percent of her populations’ achievements are accounted for by other personal, familial, environmental, and cultural factors, but, still, her findings are important and make a contribution to the academic study of personality—and support a commonsense belief that hard work over time pays off.

            It is instructive to read Duckworth’s foundational scholarly articles, something I suspect few staffers and no policy makers have done.  The articles are revealing in their listing of qualifications and limitations: The original studies rely on self-report questionnaires, so can be subject to error and bias.  The studies are correlational, so do not demonstrate causality.  The exceptional qualities of some of the populations studied can create problems for factor analysis.  Perseverance might have a downside to it.  The construct of perseverance has been studied in some fashion for over a century.

            But Duckworth and her colleagues did something that in retrospect was a brilliant marketing strategy, a master stroke of branding—or re-branding.  Rather than calling their construct “perseverance” or “persistence,” they chose to call it “grit.”  Can you think of a name that has more resonance in American culture?  The fighter who is all heart.  The hardscrabble survivor.  True Grit.  The Little Train That Could.

            Grit exploded.  New York Times commentators, best-selling journalists, the producers of This American Life, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, educational policy makers and administrators all saw the development of grit as a way to improve American education and, more pointedly, to improve the achievement of poor children who, everyone seemed to assume, lacked grit.

            I’ll get to that last part about poor kids in a moment, but first I want to ask some questions few policy makers are asking.  What is an education suitable for a democracy?  What kind of people are we trying to develop?  What is our philosophy of education?  With these questions in mind, let’s consider some items taken from the two instruments Duckworth and colleagues have used in their studies.  The items are listed under grit’s two subscales, the factors that comprise grit:

Consistency of Interests Subscale:
·    New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.
·    I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.
·    I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.

Perseverance of Effort Subscale:
·      Setbacks don’t discourage me.
·      I finish whatever I begin.
·      I have achieved a goal that took years of work.

These items are answered on a five-point scale:
Very much like me
Mostly like me
Somewhat like me
Not much like me
Not like me at all

            Let me repeat here what I’ve written in every other commentary on grit.  Of course, perseverance is an important characteristic.  I cherish it in my friends and my students.  But at certain ages and certain times in our lives, exploration and testing new waters can also contribute to one’s development and achievement.  Knowing when something is not working is important as well.  Perseverance and determination as represented in the grit questionnaires could suggest a lack of flexibility, tunnel vision, an inability to learn from mistakes.  Again, my point is not to dismiss perseverance but to suggest that perseverance, or grit, or any quality works in tandem with other qualities in the well-functioning and ethical person.  By focusing so heavily on grit, character education in some settings has been virtually reduced to a single quality, and probably not the best quality in the content of character.  The items in the grit instruments could describe the brilliant surgeon who is a distant and absent parent, or, for that fact, the smart, ambitious, amoral people who triggered the Great Recession. (Macbeth with his “vaulting ambition” would score quite high on grit.)  Education in America has to be about more than producing driven super-achievers.  For that fact, a discussion of what we mean by “achievement” is long overdue. 

            But, of course, a good deal of the discussion of grit doesn’t really involve all students.  Regardless of disclaimers, the primary audience for our era’s character education is poor kids.  As I and a host of others have written, a focus on individual characteristics of low-income children can take our attention away from the structural inequalities they face.  Some proponents of character education have pretty much said that an infusion of grit will achieve what social and economic interventions cannot.

            Can I make a recommendation?  Along with the grit survey, let us give another survey and see what the relationship is between the scores.  I’m not sure what to call this new survey, but it would provide a measure of adversity, of impediments to persistence, concentration, and the like.  It, too, would use a five-point response scale: “very much like me” to “not much like me.”  Its items would include:
           
·        I always have bus fare to get to school.
·        I hear my parents talking about not having enough money for the rent.
·        Whenever I get sick, I am able to go to a doctor.
·        We always have enough food in our home.
·        I worry about getting to school safely.
·        There are times when I have to stay home to care for younger brothers or sisters.
·        My school has honors and Advanced Placement classes.
·        I have at least one teacher who cares about me.

            My guess is that higher impediment scores would be linked to lower scores on the grit survey.  I realize that what grit advocates want is to help young people better cope with such hardship.  Anyone who has worked seriously with kids in tough circumstances spends a lot of time providing support and advice, and if grit interventions can provide an additional resource, great.  But if as a society we are not also working to improve the educational and economic realities these young people face, then we are engaging in a cruel hoax, building aspiration and determination for a world that will not fulfill either.

            The foundational grit research primarily involved populations of elite high achievers—Ivy League students, West Point cadets, National Spelling Bee contestants—and people responding to a Positive Psychology website based at the University of Pennsylvania.  It is from the latter population that the researchers got a wider range of ages and data on employment history.

            I was not able to find socioeconomic information for these populations, but given what we know generally about Ivy League undergraduates, West Point cadets, etc., I think it is a safe guess that most come from stable economic backgrounds.  (In one later study, Duckworth and colleagues drew on 7-11 grade students at a “socioeconomically and ethnically diverse magnet public school” where 18% of the students were low-income—that’s some economic diversity, but not a school with concentrated disadvantage.)  It is also safe to assume that the majority of the people who are interested in Positive Psychology and self-select to respond to an on-line questionnaire have middle-class employment histories with companies or in professions that have pathways and mechanisms for advancement.  So the construct of grit and the instruments to measure it are largely based on populations that more likely than not are able to pursue their interests and goals along a landscape of resources and opportunity.  This does not detract from the effort they expend or from their determination, but it does suggest that their grit is deployed in a world quite different from the world poor people inhabit. 
           
            It is hard to finish what you begin when food and housing are unstable, or when you have three or four teachers in a given year, or when there are few people around who are able to guide and direct you.  It is equally hard to pursue a career with consistency when the jobs available to you are low-wage, short-term and vulnerable, and have few if any benefits or protections.  This certainly doesn’t mean that people who are poor lack determination and resolve.  Some of the poor people I knew growing up or work with today possess off-the-charts determination to survive, put food on the table, care for their kids.  But they wouldn’t necessarily score high on the grit scale.

            Personality psychology by its disciplinary norms concentrates on the individual, but individual traits and qualities, regardless of how they originate and develop, manifest themselves in social and institutional contexts.  Are we educators and policy makers creating classrooms that are challenging and engaging enough to invite perseverance?  Are we creating opportunity for further educational or occupational programs that enable consistency of effort?  Are we gritty enough to keep working toward these goals without distraction over the long haul?

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Thinking Harder about Soft Skills

           Before we had grit, we had soft skills.  From Department of Labor reports to testimonies from business groups, experts for several decades have been underscoring the importance of qualities such as punctuality and responsibility, self-monitoring and time management, the ability to communicate and work with others. Though employers certainly mention hard or cognitive skills – from literacy and numeracy to occupation-specific knowledge – soft skills continue to be much discussed and desired as crucial work skills for our time.
 
            The emphasis on soft skills makes sense, of course.  We all value them in our children, in those we work with, in ourselves.  But let us acknowledge at the outset that soft skills do not play out in a social-economic vacuum.  Showing up on time or managing one’s time, for example, can be affected by unreliable transportation, untreated medical problems, family emergencies, or pure and simple exhaustion.
 
            There are further limitations with the way we think about soft skills.  One is the very separation of hard and soft skills themselves, as though they are neatly distinct and fixed. But, they are, in fact, intimately connected. You can’t very well manage your time, monitor your own performance, or help others if you know little about the field in question. As part of the research I did to write Back to School, I observed adults in community college occupational programs as they developed skill in areas as diverse as fashion and welding. While it is true that some students were from the beginning better than others at showing up for class on time and organizing their assignments, as students collectively acquired competence, soft skills developed apace. Students became more assured, more attentive to detail, more committed to excellence, and they got better at communicating what they were doing and formed helping relationships with others.
 
            Furthermore, soft skills are affected by the setting we’re in. I stay focused and persevere when writing something like this blog, but my diligence, not to mention my literacy skills, collapse with tax forms. I witnessed a striking example of the powerful effect of context a while back when I was visiting a high school carpentry program. On the bus over to a Habitat for Humanity construction site, a young man was as obnoxious as could be, mouthing off and insulting other students; several times the instructor who was driving the bus had to tell him to cool it. But the minute he walked onto the job site, his behavior and demeanor changed profoundly. His arrogance and nasty streak disappeared. He was focused on the tasks in front of him, politely raising questions to the instructor, and considerate of the students working with him. The demands of work he cared about brought out the best in him.
 
An ineffective way to develop soft skills in children or adults is to focus on soft skills alone, to lecture about them in the abstract or run people through games or classroom exercises that aren’t grounded on meaningful, intellectually relevant activity.  If we want to foster soft skills, we’ll have to start thinking about them in close connection with the cognitive content and interpersonal dynamics of the work people do.  That work has to have some kind of meaning to those involved.  And it has to provide enough security for them to get to work on time.

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