Beware of Bias and Value Variability As You Promote Persistence

My first day on the job at the sprinkler repair company, the crusty old boss drove me to a vacant lot, pointed to a hard dry spot and told me to dig a hole three feet square until I hit the water main. He came back at lunchtime and I pointed to pipe five feet down. He said, “fill it in,” and walked away.

I guess I passed the grit test, I worked there for a couple of summers but that day one test was the worst sort–artificial and purposeless.

Grit, or more broadly the ability to sustain effort through difficulty, is critical to career and life success. But promoting it thoughtfully is a challenge.

Most of my engineering education felt like digging that hole–an often pointless and artificial grind. Yes, I left gritty but the experience was awful and left me otherwise unprepared for managing projects in a complex world.

Persistence is a heritable trait that can be developed with deliberate practice. More specifically, it’s productive persistence that is valuable. Persistence is just trying harder or longer, while productive persistence means deploying a variety of strategies when things don’t work–looking information up, trying different approaches, asking for help and seeking to understand deeper.

Attention was brought to the disposition by Carol Dweck’s 2006 book on Mindset. She argued that effort mattered, that human capabilities weren’t fixed but could grow with sustained effort. Journalist Paul Tough popularized grit with his 2012 book How Children Succeed. In 2016, Penn professor Angela Duckworth wrote what many consider to be the definitive book on the subject, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Duckworth’s Character Lab defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Revising an essay repeatedly or not quitting a sport in the middle of the season, according to the Character Lab, are examples of gritty behavior.

Duckworth notes that people stick with stuff that interests them. She adds that it is important to try various activities and try to stick to them for periods of time in order to discover where the interest lies. Persistence also improves with purpose, notes Duckwork, work is done for a public purpose or social good.

Building Brains that Persist

The ability to sustain effort, as ACT noted in an introduction to their Holistic Framework, is an important predictor of education and work success. In addition to self-control and goal orientation, persistence is a key component–it includes working hard, making progress on relevant tasks, and maintaining focus despite setbacks or difficulties.

Skill building sprints are important opportunities to build reading, writing and problem-solving capabilities. By incorporating principles of deliberate practice–goal setting and progress monitoring–they can also contribute to productive persistence.

Even more important are periodic extended challenges–multi-step projects, often connected to real community issues, that result in public products. Big integrated projects take self-management, collaboration and persistence through intermediate setbacks. As Duckworth noted, motivation may be boosted by connecting to public purpose and allowing students some voice and choice in topic and product.

In attempting to build persistence (and other important outcomes) through projects or skill sprints, it’s important to recognize that every learner is different. The Digital Promise Learner Variability Project, which summarizes decades of research on how people learn and how they are motivated, suggests, among other things, that providing voice and choice in assignments can increase motivation and self-regulated learning.

An appreciation of learner variability is important when promoting productive struggle. “It’s important to allow learners to wrestle with challenges and even struggle a bit to develop grit,” said Vic Vuchic Chief Innovation Officer at Digital Promise Global (and Learner Variability lead). But he added, “if a learner continuously struggles for too long, there could be underlying challenges that require more support like Executive Function challenges, trauma, health, emotion (anxiety) and other variabilities that impact how the individual learns that may not be a lack of “grit”, but a lack of understanding how to set themselves up for success. Teachers can suggest strategies and coach learners through this.”

Educator Bettina Love recently made the case that teaching ‘grit’ to African American students, without also removing the institutional barriers in their way, does more harm than good.

The Learner Variability Project details the importance of reducing the barrier of negative stereotype threat and also of identifying students experiencing trauma. Evidence-based strategies are provided to help motivate learners and create a sense of belonging for each student.

Final Word of Caution

In conclusion, challenge students to do more than they thought they could. Co-construct purposeful community-connected projects to build agency and persistence. Challenge them to struggle with work worth doing.

As you help young people build the habit of sustaining effort:

  • Don’t let building grit become an excuse for a boring curriculum;
  • Be cautious of your personal and collective bias about a student or group;
  • Recognize the psychological and contextual dimensions of learner variability and how they may impact persistence;
  • Don’t use shame and embarrassment as an opportunity to build grit; and,
  • Give them a break–learners can work hard for two, perhaps four hours at the maximum. A school day can’t be eight hours of deliberate practice.

And, perhaps most importantly, we should be helping young people build purposeful persistence–sustained efforts toward goals important to them and thier community. In a recent podcast, Seth Godin described the mindset for the new economy as “generous persistence for those we serve.”

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This post was originally published on Forbes.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Tom Vander Ark

Interesting that David Epstein calls BS on the Duckworth West Point research for selection bias and urges caution on narrow focus (opposite of curiosity)

Tom Vander Ark

Listen to the most recent Hidden Brain podcast where Shankar interviews James Heckman on grit and the benefit of rich preschool experiences

Tom Vander Ark

Epstein cautions narrowing focus on Curious Mind

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