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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Thursday, June 23, 2016

"Grit" Revisited: Reflections on Our Public Talk about Education

            "Grit" is in the news again big time with the appearance of Angela Duckworth's alliterative best-seller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. I wrote about both the conceptual and methodological problems with grit last year, and given the attention Professor Duckworth's book is attracting, I thought it would be worthwhile to repost what I wrote below and add a few thoughts here.

            The book is drawing its share of mixed and negative reviews for superficiality bordering on pop psychology, for its narrow conception of character, for its focus on individual personality traits over social and economic factors, and for problems with methodology. Most of these characteristics were evident in Professor Duckworth's work long before the publication of her book, but it seems that they got amplified as she (and most likely her editor) prepared her book for a general audience.

            Given the number of mixed to negative reviews, it would seem that the opinion-makers are finally countering their original enthusiasm for grit. The ledger is balanced. Those of us with concerns about grit can relax.

            Well, no. The meteoric rise of grit reveals troubling problems in the formation of our public discourse about education. I and many others have written about our policy maker's culpability in the formation of this discourse, but here I'd like to consider another dimension of the circumstances that give rise to phenomena like the one we’re witnessing with grit.

            With some notable exceptions, not many journalists who cover education--and even fewer opinion page columnists--have a solid background in the field. The people who review the few books on education that get coverage--most of which are written by other journalists--are often culture critic types who are bright, to be sure, but not schooled on schooling...so they go to school quickly on the Internet, which will yield the mega-hit hot topics (grit, for example) and the people who champion them. This state of affairs hardly generates the kind of knowledge (and more to the point, understanding) that complex topics in education demand. Every concern now being raised about grit was there in plain sight for anyone who did some homework and consulted with a few dispassionate psychological or educational researchers. Oh, that those who contributed to the original frenzy had done so.

            The situation I just described leads to a small and closed circle of voices. The concept of grit got the huge attention it did because it was seen as a way to help poor kids persevere in school and achieve their way out of poverty. When the journalists and other writers I mention above are astute enough to question such claims and want to underscore the challenges of poverty, they will find via their search engines trending books and reports on education and poverty that suffer from the same one-dimensional and hot-topic focus as the treatments of psychological traits and character education.  So we end up with a constrained, sometimes problematic, concept of poverty used to counter a constrained, sometimes problematic, concept of character.

            I'm not sure how we get out of this mess, though I've been thinking a lot about it lately. I'll post those thoughts as soon as I can tame them into coherence.


            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. I pulled much of this material together in "Being Careful about Character," a chapter in the 2014 revised edition of Why School?.
            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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Friday, June 17, 2016

Scrutinize Everything

What follows is lighter fare than you'll usually find on this blog, probably a welcome relief. The American Scholar has a regular section in their on-line publication called "Teaching Lessons." [Here] The section offers brief reflections, anecdotes, or lessons learned about teaching. The one below, "Scrutinize Everything," is drawn from my first year in graduate school, and, whew, did I ever get schooled.


“Aristotle is in serious difficulty!” Professor Cohen exclaimed as he leaned forward, gripping the podium with his right hand and pounding on it with his left. I was in my first year of graduate school, taking the eminent literary theorist Ralph Cohen’s course on English Romantic literature, burning every ounce of intellectual oil I had to keep up with his argument dismantling a claim Aristotle makes in his Poetics. Week by week, Cohen mercilessly took down other giants in the Western literary canon, as well.

I was a late bloomer who hadn’t even planned for college until my senior high school English teacher got me fired up about books and ideas. Through four years at a small liberal arts college, I expanded my reading considerably, questioning philosophical claims and literary interpretations while also trying my hand at writing them. Cohen upped the ante, demonstrating that you can go to the very foundation of a system of thought and find it wanting. Even venerable, old Aristotle was in a tight spot.

Anyone and anything are open to scrutiny—I took that lesson with me into my own teaching. One of the first jobs I got after graduate school was in a program to help Vietnam Veterans prepare for college. I built a writing course on the kinds of readings the vets would likely encounter during their freshman year: short stories and poems, sociological observations on American life, passages from science textbooks like a discussion of the Big Bang. We read carefully, closely, and then wrote. Read and wrote. Somewhere in all this, I told them the Ralph Cohen story, both for comic effect and also to push them toward more critical reading. At the end of the semester, my students gave me a leather portfolio. Across the bottom it read in gold script: Aristotle is in serious difficulty.

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