Education Gets Gritty: Why Character Matters for Academic Success

January 13th, 2014

12-5576-SEDHEADS-017When it comes to success in the classroom, character matters just as much as, and perhaps more so than, a student’s individual intelligence. But, what traits are important for educators to focus on and why? Lately, it seems to be grit and perseverance.

To get some perspective on why these factors can help students succeed academically, Professor Voices spoke with Scott Seider, an assistant professor at the School of Education whose research focuses on the civic and character development of adolescents and emerging adults. He is also the author of  Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students Toward Success, which won the American Educational Research Association’s outstanding book award in moral development and education.

Professor Voices: We’ve been hearing a lot about “grit” in education. What does this mean exactly?

Scott Seider: Grit is definitely a term that is popping up a lot in the education world recently, but interestingly it really only entered the educational scholarship as a term around 2007. Angela Duckworth, at the University of Pennsylvania, is generally credited with defining and popularizing the term, and Prof. Duckworth defines grit as an individual’s perseverance and tenacity in pursuit of long-term goals.

PV: Does perseverance differ from grit? If so, how?

SS: Those last four words of the definition above—“in pursuit of long-term goals”— is typically how psychologists have been differentiating perseverance and grit. A student can demonstrate perseverance on a particular homework assignment, for example, but we might say it takes grit to decide upon a longer-term goal such as becoming a doctor and working doggedly over a period of many years to achieve that goal.

PV: Are grit and perseverance stronger predictors of success in adulthood over intelligence?

SS: There is certainly some evidence that that is the case. A lot of the work on expertise by Anders Ericsson and others has found that time spent engaged in ‘sustained and deliberate practice’ is a key predictor of success in fields ranging from music to mathematics to chess to neurology. Other researchers such as Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman have found that qualities such as perseverance and self-discipline are stronger predictors of achievement than IQ tests in populations ranging from urban middle school students to West Point cadets to national spelling bee champions.

PV: Do some students have grit or perseverance naturally?

SS: I think that all students possess grit or perseverance, and some might seem to their teachers to possess more than others. But I also think that a danger in the current conversations about qualities such as grit or perseverance is treating these qualities as entirely generalizable when, in fact, I suspect that these qualities are much more context-specific. For example, I possess an enormous amount of perseverance when it comes to writing an academic paper but very little perseverance when it comes to figuring out why my kitchen sink is draining poorly. Someone else might possess the opposite “perseverance profile.”

PV: How can students develop grit and what role do educators play in helping?

SS: I think that there are two key roles that educators can play in strengthening their students’ grit. First, research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has highlighted the importance of framing intelligence for students as something one achieves through hard work rather than a quality that a person simply is or is not. In Dweck’s words, it’s incredibly important to students’ ability to be successful that they conceptualize intelligence from a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset.” Toward that end, it’s very important for educators to explicitly frame the work students are doing and their likelihood of being successful on that work through a lens of “effort determines success.” The second step that teachers can take to foster students’ grit is to provide the appropriate amount of scaffolding on a particular assignment so that a student feels he or she is capable of being successful. That doesn’t mean doing the work for the students or watering down the rigor of the assignments, but it does mean structuring assignments for students in ways that allow them to feel the appropriate balance of challenge and support. If an academic task is way too challenging, all but the grittiest student will give up fairly quickly. If an academic task is way too easy, students quickly become bored. The challenge is to provide just the right amount of rigor, which I tell my aspiring teachers here at BU is a pedagogical skill that takes some time to master.

PV: You have done research on character development in education. Can you explain that in more detail?

SS: A project I recently finished looked at three high-performing urban secondary schools that all cited character development as a key ingredient in their success, but which defined character in three different ways. One of the schools focused on moral character development—qualities such as empathy and integrity. Another school focused on what we call performance character development—qualities such as grit and perseverance. The third school focused on civic character development—fostering students’ sense of responsibility to the local, national and global communities in which they are citizens. In this study, I investigated the effects of these different character emphases upon students attending these different schools, and I wrote about these different effects in several academic articles as well as a book, Character Compass: How Powerful School Culture Can Point Students toward Success.

In the fall I started a new research project that is looking at the ways in which different types of urban secondary schools seek to foster in their students a quality called critical consciousness. Critical consciousness refers to an ability to look analytically at the causes and outcomes of inequity and inequality in one’s community as well as a commitment to changing this inequity. Previous studies of urban adolescents have found that high levels of critical consciousness correlate with school achievement, civic engagement and career success. Researchers have previously looked at the ways in which parents foster the critical consciousness of their children, but we know much less about the role that students can play in this work, which is the goal of this new project.

PV: Where do grit and perseverance fit when it comes to overall character development? What other areas should teachers be paying attention to in their students?

SS: I think that, on one hand, the enthusiasm in the education world around grit is justified in that it seems to be a character strength that pretty directly predicts achievement across a wide range of endeavors. For this reason, I think that a school leader who feels he or she has the resources to focus intensively on just a single character strength might reasonably choose a quality such as grit to focus on. That said, one of my mentors, Howard Gardner, has pointed out that the business people who ran Enron, Lehman Brothers, Worldcom and a host of other companies over the past 15 years all possessed enormous amounts of grit, but what they lacked were qualities related to moral character and civic character. That’s one reason I’m so interested in qualities such as critical consciousness, which seem to combine elements of moral, performance and civic character, and foster a sense of greater purpose. In other words, I think that schools able to effectively foster qualities such as critical consciousness in their students can simultaneously be strengthening qualities such as grit and perseverance, but in pursuit of more civic-oriented goals.

Contact Seider at 617-353-3223 or seider@bu.edu.

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