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Education Nation: True Grit


Why do some students wilt in the face of difficulty while others rise to conquer it?

That question was at the center of a panel discussion at the 2012 Education Nation summit in New York on Monday. 

And the answer? That crucial ingredient that leads some kids to success where others falter? It’s not native intelligence or socio-political background. The secret sauce is grit.

This is the conclusion that Carol S. Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor, came to after a career of studying what she calls “mindset.” 

Grit is essentially the ability to stick with something in spite of distractions, physical or emotional discomfort or lack of immediate success. And Dweck divides children into two groups representing different mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. 

Kids with a fixed mindset, she said, are more likely to believe that they have a certain amount of intelligence and that’s it. You’ve either got it or you don’t.

Children with a growth mindset, however, have a bit more of that grit. They’re more likely to view intelligence and education as a process that comes complete with struggle and even failure. 

These two mindsets shape and in many ways predict the achievements of young learners. The fixed mindset feels defined by setbacks and strives to not look dumb over actually processing new knowledge. The growth mindset, however, believes intelligence can be developed and enhanced through learning and experience. 

Effort, or grit, promotes growth – and setbacks are a part of that growth. 

This all sounds like common sense, but what's a well-meaning parent to do? Can you foster grit? Yes. For starters, it turns out that over-praising our children does them a disservice. 

“Praising intelligence or talent creates a fixed mindset,” Dweck told the audience of educators and entrepreneurs. “It makes kids worry about difficult tasks and it sabotages their resilience.” 

Parents and teachers should instead praise the process. Reinforce good learning and thinking techniques regardless the outcome of those efforts, she said. 

“Students learn when they do something hard. Their brains forge new connections,” she said, calling it “a human right for all children to be in schools that promote that growth mindset.”

Psychology professor Angela Duckworth took the mic next and not only echoed Dweck’s research, but called her a personal “hero.”

Nobody starts life with a set of skills that makes them a great violinist or gymnast or mathematician, Duckworth pointed out. 

“This requires effortful practice, doing things you don’t know how to do. Things that make you anxious, that are sometimes tedious,” she said. 

To be an Olympic gymnast or a professional ballet dancer or a leading scholar “takes thousands of hours of practice,” she said. “It’s a personality trait called grit.”

Grittier individuals get farther in formal education, said Duckworth. Grittier teachers have students who learn more. Grittier juniors are more likely to graduate on time. Grittier kids do more hours of deliberate practice. 

The good news? Grit can be learned. 

After Dweck and Duckworth spoke, NBC anchor Brian Williams moderated a discussion with them that also included Paul Tough, journalist and author of “How Children Succeed,” and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Williams revisited the idea of praise, half joking that if you go into any child’s room today, you see trophies for everything, “for having a measurable pulse, for having eyes and hair.” 

We have praised our kids endlessly, Brooks agreed, and guess what? They ended up believing it. The problem with all this praise is that it makes kids less inclined to struggle in the name of acquiring more knowledge. After all, they're already perfect.

What parents and educators need to do is get into the habit of redirecting praise to make it more character-building. Try praise along the lines of “You worked really hard on that!” or “I like how you continued working until you finished the job. It would have been easier to just quit, but you stuck to it and worked hard.”

“Mindset and grit: it’s not a luxury,” said Dweck. “It’s what makes kids learn and achieve.” 

And it starts at home.