A. Duckworth: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

In last week’s post I worried about the dangers of oversimplifying, with particular reference to Duckworth’s message about grit.  As a follow up to that, I think it is important to set down those insights from Grit that need to be communicated properly in schools.

  • Early on in the book, Duckworth explains progress in terms of two ‘equations’. These are ‘talent x effort = skill’ and ‘skill x effort = achievement’.  Talent is innate; skill is what you develop through deliberate practice.  Ultimately, the latter trumps the former because you can have talent but not use it but you only gain skill through effort, and that effort enables you to improve and develop your natural talents.
  • Your efforts need to be well directed, and you may need to adjust you plans on your way to achieving your ultimate goal.  ‘Try, try again, then try something different’.  (I would add here, it should be very clear exactly what that something different is.)
  • Passion is an essential component of success.  Passion, to Duckworth, is less about how intensely committed you are to achieving something and more about how far you show your commitment to that thing over time.  ‘Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.’
  • Passions are, therefore, developed, rather than found.  What is found is an initial interest, and finding that may be a process of trial and error, of starting things and abandoning them to try something new.
  • Engaging in extra-curricular activities is a good way to test your interests.  It also has proven benefits in terms of developing grit.  Research shows that children describe extra-curricular activities as both challenging and enjoyable.  This is in contrast to lessons, which are usually seen simply as ‘challenging’, and time spent with friends, which children report as very enjoyable but not at all challenging.  The balance of enjoyment and challenge provided by extra-curricular activities encourages perseverance, and ‘following through on … commitments while we grow up both requires grit and … builds it’.
  • The above perhaps explains why showing commitment to extra-curricular activities is correlated with achievement in later life. Duckworth’s own research on teachers shows that those who ‘demonstrated productive follow through on a few extracurricular commitments were more likely to stay in teaching and, furthermore, more effective in producing academic gains in their students’.
  • Your levels of grit are not static.  If you want to become more gritty, the ideal conditions are that you’re (1) doing something you both love and believe is worthwhile (2) developing your expertise in that area through deliberate practice and (3) have a deep seated faith in your project that will sustain you through the difficult times.
  • There is little value in encouraging perseverance at any price.  It is OK to give things up, as long as you are not giving them up for the wrong reasons.  You shouldn’t give something up (or allow a child to give something up) just because of a bad day, a lost match, or a clash with a social engagement.  It is acceptable to give something up at the end of a season, or after completing an examination or performance towards which you have worked.  Duckworth recommends that children be encouraged to stick with an activity for at least a year before reviewing their commitment to it.

Crucially, none of this is a case for schools to be engaging in character education.  What this does mean for schools, Duckworth suggests, is that they should aim to build a diverse and flourishing extra-curricular programme in which all children, regardless of financial circumstances, can participate fully.  They should allow pupils to test out various activities (we do this at my school through taster weeks when all clubs are open to anyone and students are encouraged to go to as many as they can), before deciding on the activities they want to sign up to do. Signing up to a club should be understood as a long term commitment not just to turn up but also to participate fully, which, if the activity is about developing a skill, will include engaging in deliberate practice outside of club meeting times.  The incentive for schools to encourage this, is that it is likely that the benefits of it will be felt not just on the playing field or in the concert hall but also in the classroom.

Image result for angela duckworth grit





The dangers of oversimplification

‘Persistence’, I often find myself saying to the cat, ‘is not a virtue’.  What I mean, of course, is that persistence is not necessarily a virtue, and this nuance matters.  Too often in education, people latch onto a big idea without proper consideration of the subtleties vital to making effective use of that idea in the classroom.  This happened with the growth mindset, and now it is happening with Angela Duckworth’s idea of grit.  If teachers and school leaders oversimplify and therefore miscommunicate Duckworth’s ideas, children will get the wrong impression about what they need to do to build resilience, and that matters because resilience is a component of success.

I say a ‘component of success’ because it is important not to overstate the case.  There is already plenty of scepticism about the precise role of grit (as there is about the growth mindset), with some research suggesting that it may have a far less transformative impact than Duckworth argues.  Whilst I don’t want to marginalise the significance of this research I am less worried about that than I am about Duckworth’s ideas being misinterpreted and misapplied.  For me, the key thing is that any attempts to grow grit within schools should not harmful and should not distract from the proper teaching of academic subjects.  Then the fact that they may only have a small effect size matters less.

But, back to the idea of oversimplification.  What is Duckworth saying?  Or, rather, what isn’t she saying?  Duckworth isn’t saying that all children need to do is work harder or that they should simply try and try again.  Nor is she saying that children should never give anything up.  Leaving aside the fact that it is patronising to assume that our pupils cannot understand Duckworth’s more nuanced message, instructions like ‘work harder’ and ‘keep trying’ aren’t very easy to interpret.  At the end of last term, I did some target setting with my form.  A number of them said things like: ‘I need to try harder in French’, to which my reply would be ‘What does trying harder in French look like?  Does it mean learning vocabulary?  Or is it about making sure that you understand grammatical concepts?  How are you going to achieve these things?’  The key message we need to give students is not that they need to be working harder, it is that they need to take specific steps to remedy their areas of weakness.  Yes, it takes longer to say but it is a lot more helpful.

The ‘keep trying’ message is perhaps less problematic, but it is also flawed.   We don’t want our students to give up on important tasks but sometimes they should stop trying a particular technique and implement a new strategy.  This can be hard message to sell, particularly if the task is a big one, like answering an essay question.  A problem I often find with Year 12 and 13 students is that they want to tweak an essay, when it needs to be completely rethought and re-organised.  (‘I know we discussed how to organise my points thematically, rather than in chronological order but I have just added a couple of bits. I’m not sure if I have put them in the right place but …’)  Sometimes this is just laziness, but I’ve had this issue with plenty of hard working students too – they can’t bear to start again because, to them this means that the work they have already done has been wasted.  Even great students can be more reluctant to abandon a failing technique than they are to keep trying something which patently isn’t working.  So, rather than telling students to keep trying, we should be telling them that achieving their ultimate goal might require them to try out different, fully specified techniques and approaches, leaving earlier work aside.  They should view this process as a positive one because during it they will have acquired useful information about what doesn’t work, which will help them as they move onto something new.

If I were to make two wider points, they would be (1) that generic advice can only ever have limited value because cognitive skills are not generic and (2) that we mustn’t mistake oversimplification for clarity.  Let me be both clear and simple: specific advice is more likely to bring the clarity we want our students to have.


Licence not to thrill

Radio 4’s All in the Mind on the 13th June featured a short interview with Vladimir Sloutsky, who works in the Department of Psychology at Ohio State University.  Sloutsky’s latest research shows that small children pay more attention to what is going on around them than adults, even when asked to narrow their focus of interest.  Sloutsky and his team showed both children and adults two overlaid shapes in different colours.  They then drew the attention of the participants to one of these shapes, and asked them to make judgements about it.  The researchers then asked the participants questions about both the shapes.  The adults answered the questions about the shape to which their attention had been drawn better than the children, but the children were better at answering questions about the shape to which their attention had not been attracted by the researchers.

It was the conclusions Sloutsky drew from this research that I found really interesting. Since children are so easily distracted, he thinks that we should make the rooms in which we teach and our worksheets and resources as plain as possible.  Or, as Sloutsky himself put it at the end of the interview: ‘unnecessary information … may actually distract children, so I think having education materials a little bit faceless may look boring but then it will make information that we try to communicate through these learning materials, or in these classrooms, more interesting.’

James R. Flynn, Does Your Family Make You Smarter?

The short answer to the question asked by the title of this book is: ‘Not necessarily’.  The right family environment can, Flynn believes, have a positive impact and the wrong family environment will penalise children.  That almost certainly does not sound like a ground breaking conclusion.  It should be remembered, however, that studies of twins have consistently suggested that even identical twins separated at birth end up with very similar IQ scores as adults, which would suggest that their ability was fixed and, more widely, that environment makes little difference to children’s academic development. Flynn is sceptical about how the twin data has been interpreted because the idea that ability is fixed does not sit comfortably with the fact that in western countries IQ rose by over 30 points during the 20th century.  Part of the problem, of course, is that in interpreting the twin studies data people have assumed that the IQ test is a measure of raw intelligence.  Flynn sees IQ test scores more as a ‘barometer of cognitive progress over time’.  IQ is also, in Flynn’s view, ‘at the mercy of what kind of education your environment provides’.  In other words, intelligence and learning are more closely connected than has sometimes been thought.

So, your family can make you smarter, but in what ways?  Flynn’s work suggests that the family has a notable impact on a child’s vocabulary, factual knowledge and understanding. To elaborate, a child’s development will be influenced by: the range and sophistication of the language used by their parents; the facts that their parents discuss and share; and ‘how they observe their parents speaking and acting to cope with life’.  The family has less impact on ‘cognitive abilities that are test specific’ i.e. the kind of skills more likely to be used in tests than practised or even encountered at home, such as ‘block design and object assembly’ (e.g. doing a 3D jigsaw puzzle) and ‘picture completion’ (spotting something missing from a picture).  It would be interesting to know if families could have a positive impact on these areas if these skills were routinely practised at home.  Perhaps studies to test this are already underway …

How much smarter can your family make you?  Up to 7 IQ points, Flynn argues.  And the wrong family environment can cost you 9 IQ points.  The impact of family environment only seems really significant up to the age of 17, but after that age we tend to choose environments (universities, workplaces, relationships) that are consistent with our ‘genetic quality’.  Flynn also argues, though, that ‘genes and luck notwithstanding all of us, both in childhood and in maturity have the capacity to choose to significantly enhance our cognitive performance’.  There are many ways in which we can do this from taking on mentally challenging tasks to choosing not to retire early to pursue a life of uninspiring daytime television.  ‘Personal autonomy’, Flynn concludes, has a ‘powerful role’ in determining a person’s ‘cognitive abilities’.

Flynn’s book may, perhaps, have been good for my ‘cognitive abilities’ because, at times, I really had to persevere to follow the arguments made.  A reader with a better understanding of both IQ tests and statistics would be at an advantage.  They would also be in a position to evaluate Flynn’s case, which I have done no more than set down.



The Flynn Effect

Next week, I am going to discuss James Flynn’s most recent book Does your family make you smarter?  But before I did that, I thought I should briefly discuss the research that made Flynn’s name.  In the 1980s and 90s, Flynn published a number of papers on IQ scores. These papers discussed what has become known as the ‘Flynn Effect’ – the average increase in IQ scores between one generation and the next from the 1930s onwards.  Flynn noted the increase in all 20 countries that he studied, which included the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Israel, Japan and Brazil, as well as a number of countries in mainland Europe.

More interesting than the effect itself, is the question of why the effect has arisen.  Many theories have been suggested, some more plausible than others.  The hypothesis that people have got more savvy about working to time and are thus more likely to make educated guesses and skip over problems that they cannot solve quickly in order to give themselves more time to finish those they find more straightforward, has been discredited by subsequent research.  The claims that higher IQ scores are a result of better nutrition helping our brains function more effectively has also defied proof.  On the other hand, the theory that the increase in IQ scores is a result of a corresponding increase in the amount and level of education people generally receive probably has some merit.  Flynn himself inclines to the view that it is not that people are getting brighter but rather that they are getting better at the sort of problem solving that intelligence tests require.

In support of his own hypothesis, Flynn likes to quote a pre-Second World War study in which A.R. Luria asked Uzbekistani peasants to answer the following riddle: ‘All bears are white where there is always snow, in Novaya Zemlya there is always snow; what colour are the bears there?’.  The peasants’ typical response was to refuse to speculate on something about which they knew nothing.  They did not see the riddle as a puzzle to be solved not because they were stupid but rather because they had not had the kind of education which encouraged that kind of thinking.  Equally, the fact that the average westerner is quick to come up with the answer ‘white’ is primarily a result of their education and conditioning. All of which leaves us with the reassuring but not very interesting conclusion that education does make you smarter.  But does your family have the same effect?  More on that next week …




‘Daydream believer’, Caroline Williams, New Scientist, 20th May 2017, pp. 27-30

In the last few weeks, a number of students have told me that they find revision difficult and asked for some advice.  A couple of times, when I have been giving my standard reply (flash cards, self testing, spaced practice), I have been given the distinct impression that I was giving the wrong answer.  What the students seemed to be hoping for was some kind of miracle cure.  ‘Actually there’s this new device.  You connect this end to your brain, the other end to your folder, have a little lie down and in ten minutes you’ll find you know everything.  Argos are doing a discount on them this month but they’re going fast.’  The bad news is, of course, that there are no short cuts.  Learning requires time, effort and concentration.  Thanks to this New Scientist article I do, however, have some comfort to offer to those whose particular bugbear is maintaining focus on the task in hand.

Research by Jonathan Smallwood from the University of York has shown that although people who are prone to daydream are not as good as others at giving their full attention to the outside world, they are generally more adept than others ‘at retrieving information from memory’.  Daydreamers can also comfort themselves with the knowledge that allowing your mind to wander has been shown to have a positive impact on creativity and problem solving.  Why?  Because it enables your brain to make ‘connections between pieces of information’ in a way it doesn’t when you are ‘too focused’.  The final piece of good news for daydreamers is that allowing yourself to daydream through a straightforward or mind-numbing task, such as tidying up, organising your folders or making a sandwich, will make it easier for you to focus when you settle down to do some important work.  Although, apparently, if you must daydream, you should do so about the future, rather than the past.  Thinking about the past has a tendency to depress our mood; focusing on the future seems to have a positive impact on our ‘mood and motivation’, even if our thoughts are ones of future failure.  But whatever the possible benefits of daydreaming, when you are revising you will need to focus.  So, what will help to keep daydreaming in check?  Williams’ article has five pieces of advice.  I will deal with the three least controversial first.

  • Get enough sleep.  The more tired we are, the more likely we are to give in to ‘internal and external distractions’.  A second reason to prioritise a good night’s sleep is that sleep helps us ‘consolidat[e] memories’.  There is even research suggesting that an hour of sleep shortly before an examination can be more efficacious than an hour of revision.
  • Manage your stress levels.  This is easier said than done, obviously, but important because an adrenaline rush does not boost concentration.  On the contrary, noradrenaline, which your body releases when it’s stressed, inhibits your brain function by binding ‘to receptors in [your] cognitive control circuits’.  This seems like a good reason to revise well in advance, when you are less stressed about the forthcoming examination.
  • Use incentives.  You have to be judicious in your use of incentives, though. Continual small rewards work less well as a motivation to complete a task than one big reward at the end.  You may also need to make sure that someone else is doling out the treat, because people in charge of their own rewards are prone to succumb to temptation too early.

So far, so uncontroversial.  The fourth and fifth pieces of advice Williams lists are more eyebrow-raising, and I wasn’t entirely convinced either were an ideal solution for the daydreamer in search of focus.

  • Try doodling.  This advice comes in response to research which showed that being allowed to doodle during a dull aural presentation improved people’s recall of that presentation.  (I presume that this was when compared to those not allowed to put pen to paper, although that wasn’t clear.)  Williams goes on to point out that relevant doodling will be more helpful than general scribbles.  Surely, then, taking notes on the presentation would be more useful still?  The latter is what I would prefer to advise.
  • Use ‘deliberate distractions’.  Playing music while you work will apparently prevent you from becoming distracted by other possible stimuli.  Nilli Lavie from University College London, on whose research this finding is based, explains this with reference to what she calls ‘perceptual load theory’.  This theory suggests that because you only have a limited amount of attention, one distraction can fill it sufficiently to exclude other distractions.  I think the implication of this is that if you are the sort of person who is easily distracted, a small distraction like music, which allows you to keep working, albeit less efficiently, is preferable to a big distraction, like phoning a friend, which would stop you working altogether.  I was curious to know if all forms of music are equal.  Is music with lyrics more distracting than that without, for example?  Does the volume of the music matter? Is this research really a justification for my form to listen to Harry Styles while doing their homework?  The more serious problem is that this still admits that listening to music is a distraction, at which rate I would have thought that it would be better to train yourself to work without it.

All of which brings us full circle, really. Revision requires effort.  It won’t always be interesting but you just have to get on it.  The best I can say, is that there is a certain satisfaction in lodging information in your long term memory, and that knowledge, once acquired, is a very useful thing.



J. Garvey, The Persuaders: The hidden industry that wants to change your mind

This is not a book about education but it is a very erudite and enlightening examination of the world in which our pupils are growing up.  A world in which, Garvey argues, rational argument is increasingly losing out to other attempts to persuade.  These attempts include: ‘product placement, infoganda, astroturfing, crowd manipulation, newsjacking, framing, spinning, propaganding, agenda setting, message carpet-bombing, anchoring and the nudging of your choices, beliefs, desires, values, decisions and actions’.  The lowest estimates suggest that the average adult encounters several hundred ‘persuasive messages’ a day.  It is hard to believe that secondary age children encounter any fewer, and my suspicion would be that they encounter a greater number than many adults.  The book is full of examples of persuasion in action in the modern world.  Here are just a few:

  • The story of Nayirah.  In 1990, shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a 15 year old Kuwaiti girl gave evidence before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.  She spoke of the atrocities that she had witnessed whilst volunteering at Al-Aden hospital in Kuwait.  Her evidence, which was considered compelling, contained horrific details of babies being taken out of incubators by Iraqi soldiers and left on the floor to die. Nayirah’s testimony was reported in the major papers, and made all the main news programmes.  George Bush made several references to her testimony when seeking to bolster his case for war on Iraq.  The problem?  Nayirah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US.  Independent investigations found no evidence that Nayirah had ever volunteered at Al-Aden hospital, nor any evidence that Iraqi soldiers had removed babies from incubators and left them to die.  It was lobbying firm Hill and Knowlton that brought Nayirah’s ‘evidence’ to the attention of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.  Hill and Knowlton were acting for their clients, Citizens for a Free Kuwait, who wanted America to take military action against Iraq.  Nayirah was just one part of Hill and Knowlton’s extensive campaign to win over American ‘hearts and minds’ to the idea of military action against Iraq.
  • Public relations firms operating fake Wikipedia accounts and manipulating Google searches to promote the interests of their clients.  Representatives from Bell Pottinger Public Affairs have spoken with apparent pride about their work covering up the scandal of child labour in Uzbekistan.  Their devious work meant that anyone typing “Uzbek child labour” or similar into Google was directed to sites about how the Uzbek government was dealing with the problem, rather than sites critical of that government.
  • The ‘careful’ use of language.  People are more likely to feel sympathy for a ‘refugee’ than an ‘illegal immigrant’.  Equally, people are more likely to be shocked by the idea of ‘torture’ than of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’.
  • Suggestive questioning – this is increasingly being used by pollsters. Garvey quotes a particularly egregious example from the 2000 presidential election in America, when voters were asked: ‘Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?’  The question planted a false idea in voters minds.  The pollsters were hoping was that the voters would see McCain with his adopted daughter, who is of Bangladeshi origin, add two and two, make five, and decide that McCain was not trustworthy.
  • Marketing techniques that aim to increase sales by worrying the consumer. Manufacturers of air conditioning units have, for example, found it effective to market their products as good for security because they enable people to keep cool at night without the ‘dangers’ of opening a window.
  • The use of nudges by UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) to increase the number of organ donors.  These nudges included showing potential donors pictures of smiling people who had already donated, and telling people how many lives they could save by donating their organs.

If I were very cynical, I would probably have sat down after reading Garvey’s book, and worked out how to incorporate the persuasive techniques he describes into my classroom practice.  Indeed, I probably already use some of them without even registering what I am doing, but my interest in all this from a teaching point of view is not a cynical one.  It stems for my desire to ensure that my students are savvy about the world that they live in. I hope that the better they know and understand how the world operates, the more successfully they will navigate it.  Although that itself is double-edged, because if we do live in an age that gives the lie to the liberal idea that rational argument will always win out, navigating the world successfully might well require more guile than intelligent reflection, and I am not intending to start teaching guile anytime soon.  (Mind you, if I found out that someone somewhere was teaching a skills based course entitled ‘Emulating Machiavelli’s Prince’, I would only be mildly surprised.)  Even helping students to recognise and reflect on the various forms of persuasion to which they are subject each day is not an easily achievable goal. The kind of behaviours that Garvey describes are necessarily hard to spot because, of course, none of them would be successful were it easy to tell if and how manipulation was at work.  At one point I even found myself wondering if Garvey was really setting out a well reasoned case that persuasive techniques are on the increase, or whether he was just cleverly weaving together a range of most egregious examples to worry me.  It is the former, but this is the sort of book that makes one a bit wary …