The Weak Case for Grit

It might surprise you to find out how little evidence there is to support the idea that boosting students’ “grit”—their propensity to tenaciously attack difficult problems they encounter rather than give up—is a reliably effective way to improve their school performance or to close long-standing education gaps. After all, you’ve probably heard otherwise. Grit is everywhere. By the time you read this, it will have been a golden child of the world of education for well over a decade. It’s a sexy, appealing idea: grit predicts success, grit can be measured, and grit can be improved.

Jesse Singal | NAUTILUS

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Grit’s popularity is largely due to the work of the concept’s inventor and chief evangelist, Angela Duckworth. A MacArthur-grant-winning social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, she has made very bold claims about the importance of grit for years, and those claims have been echoed by other big names, too. In her 2013 TED talk, which has almost 21 million views as of August 2020, she presents grit as a new way of looking at, among other things, the old problem of school achievement: “In education, the one thing we know how to measure best is IQ. But what if doing well in school and in life depends on much more than your ability to learn quickly and easily?”

She made similar claims elsewhere. “My lab has found that this measure beats the pants off I.Q., SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations,” she told The New York Times. The cover of her bestselling 2016 book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, has the sort of blurb most publicists could only dream of. “Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success,” enthuses Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist, “but Duckworth is the one who found it.” The secret of success.

You can measure your grit in about three minutes simply by filling out a 10-item scale on Duckworth’s website—items like “I finish whatever I begin,” “I am diligent. I never give up,” “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones,” and “I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.” For each one, you mark whether the statement in question is “Very much like me,” “Not like me at all,” or something in between, and when you’re done the website spits out your grit score. I got a 2.4 out of 5.0—extremely low, I was informed by the presumably unimpressed algorithm. Under the hood of these tests, two different grit “subfactors” are being measured: perseverance, or the extent to which someone doesn’t get discouraged by challenging circumstances, and consistency of interest (sometimes referred to as passion), or the extent to which someone doesn’t flit around from thing to thing.

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