Tag Archives: Grit

Why Grit and Perseverance May Be Just As Important As #STEM Skills

Earlier this month, we mentioned 10-year-old Damian, who’s spent chunks of his summer at the Hilltop YMCA honing his animation skills and learning about Hummingbird. By the time the new school year rolls around, Damian will have a solid grasp of basic programming and coding skills, whereas other kids around the city have been experimenting with roller coasters and tinkering with electronics.

But spending time in afterschool and summer programs has value in addition to those specific STEM skills kids are picking up. This unstructured time can instill perseverance, curiosity, collaboration, and many other positive habits of mind. Heading into a school year filled with Scantrons and math homework, it’s important to remember how critical character traits like these are for shaping kids’ futures as well—and how robust learning networks can help kids strengthen these skills.

As David Brooks recently wrote in the New York Times, research has consistently shown that these habits of mind formed in childhood have a big effect on success into adulthood. “Character development,” he wrote, is “an idiosyncratic, mysterious process.” However, Brooks claimed ignoring character development altogether in programs and policies doesn’t consider people as complex humans affected by more than only economic structures.

Brooks pointed to Walter Mischel’s well-known marshmallow experiment that demonstrated “delayed gratification skills learned by age 4 produce important benefits into adulthood.” He also mentioned Carol Dweck’s seminal research that examined how people who think intelligence is a fixed, innate trait are more prone to giving up because of setbacks. Meanwhile, people with a “growth mindset,” or those who believe ability is something they can gain through effort and education, are more likely to persevere.

And we’ve talkedtechshop-pittsburgh-maker-mindset about Angela Duckworth’s research before, which explored how grit and self-control can predict success much more than talent or ability can. Duckworth defined grit as the “tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals,” and her work has found self-discipline predicts academic performance more accurately than IQ does.

Journalist Paul Tough dove into the subject of character in his 2012 book, “How Children Succeed.” He argued that our society tends to believe that cognitive abilities—the kinds measured in IQ tests—largely determine success. But an evolving body of education research continues to find that’s not really the whole story.

“What matters, instead, is whether we are able to help [students] develop a very different set of qualities, a list that includes persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence,” he wrote. “Economists refer to these as noncognitive skills, psychologists call them personality traits, and the rest of us sometimes think of them as character.”

Tough explained that although affluent kids are often overprotected from adversity, kids from low-income families face the opposite: more pressing problems, innumerable obstacles, and no safety net. For these kids, the stakes for developing these traits early are particularly high. In his book, Tough spoke to Jeff Nelson, cofounder of OneGoal, a three-year college persistence program in Chicago and Houston that focuses on noncognitive skills in the context of a rigorous college prep curriculum.

“Noncognitive skills like resilience and resourcefulness and grit are highly predictive of success in college,” Nelson told Tough. “And they can help our students compensate for some of the inequality they have faced in the education system.”

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the “grit narrative” or the discussion of character development in general. Too often, the discussion suggests that disadvantaged kids need only more determination to overcome the enormously unequal obstacles in our education system. However, focusing on character shouldn’t be a distraction from efforts to fix an unequal system that requires low-income kids to have more grit to unlock the same opportunities their affluent peers have. But it seems persistence is a key ingredient to any success story, and teaching kids from all backgrounds that their abilities can change with hard work is still a valuable goal for both schools and learning networks.

Pittsburgh’s Cities of Learning network includes character as an important aspect of its badge system rolled out this year. This summer, each participating organization offered a disposition badge along with a skill and knowledge badge. For example, TechShop Pittsburgh offered a “Maker Mindset” badge that youth earn, in part, by describing an instance when they learned from a mistake. Meanwhile, youth earned “Passionate Perseverance” badges from The Ellis School by demonstrating a willingness iterate and solve setbacks in design challenges.

Remake Learning will keep working to promote badges that recognize dispositions. Of course, specific skills like robotics or digital filmmaking open up opportunities for kids down the line. But matched with strong, determined character traits, kids are more likely to be fully equipped to use the “hard” skills to their full potential.

Why Makerspaces Give Kids Space to Fail, and Why That’s a Good Thing

My second-grader cries when he needs help with his math homework. He’s good at math. And with ease, he has been able to handle most of the homework that’s come home under the new Common Core math curriculum. But when the answers don’t come easily, he gets upset and doesn’t want to try. The idea that you have to get things wrong a few times, sometimes many times, in order to get to the right answer is not a lesson he’s yet learned.

He’s only eight, but as a parent, I hope he’ll have more opportunities to get the answer wrong, and to have to find his own way, as he grows older.

Experts like Angela Duckworth, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the importance of “grit,” says these are experiences my son will need in order to develop the kind of higher-order thinking skills necessary in our rapidly changing world. Duckworth defines “grit” as the “tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.”

Duckworth says she’s seen lots of very smart kids who don’t know how to fail. “They don’t know how to struggle, and they don’t have a lot of practice with it,” she said.

Tom Hoerr, an administrator at the New City School in St. Louis, recently told NPR his goal is to make sure “that no matter how talented [students are], they hit the wall, so they can learn to pick themselves up, hit the wall again and pick themselves up again, and ultimately persevere and succeed.”

Teaching our kids to work hard and to stick with something even when they keep hitting that wall is no easy task, as a parent or as an educator. It’s tough to watch and to resist the urge to make things easier for them.

It’s not making mistakes, but how kids react to the “wall” that matters.

Makerspaces, popping up in schools, libraries, and museums, may be one cool place to teach kids this perseverance. With the unstructured time and materials they offer for kids to work on their own projects, solve problems together, and try things out over and over again, makerspaces can be an exciting laboratory.

The tinkering that’s going on in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s MAKESHOP, for example, allows kids (and adults) to experiment with wood, circuitry, a needle and thread, or old technology that they can take apart and  put back together. Kids get ideas, but things usually don’t go right the first time.

This trial and error (emphasis on the error) is another extension of exploration and experimentation. Kids try things, without the pressure of a grade or a big red mark on their paper. Instead, in this environment, where everyone is working and failing, they’re freer to say, “Oh this didn’t work out, how can I make it work?” It’s not making mistakes, but how kids react to the “wall” that matters. It’s all about turning that initial ding in one’s confidence into a chance to learn. That’s ultimately empowering and it’s special.

Kylie Peppler is an assistant professor of learning sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington, and the head of the Make to Learn Initiative. She’s studying makerspaces, including the one at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, to see what they have to teach us about learning.

“The act of construction externalizes what kids know,” she said in an interview last year, “and allows them to reflect on the designing and action. The externalizing of your ideas is really productive for learning and connecting with other people.”

The Institute of Museum and Library Services recently announced a new partnership with the children’s museum to help build the capacity of other libraries and museums around the country to develop these spaces. Under the new grant, the children’s museum will be working with the North Carolina State University Libraries, Exploratorium, Chicago Public Library, and Maker Education Initiative to provide museum and library professionals with tools and resources, in addition to professional development.

At the New York Hall of Science, one of at least 10 learning labs across the country that allow teens to experiment with technology in a hands-on way, teens use tools ranging from band saws to 3D printers to create solutions for community problems. Recently they saw a problem in their neighborhood in Queens and designed a solution. It’s a common scene in cities: older women pulling their groceries or packages home in a two-wheeled cart. But in Queens, getting home often means taking the el and lugging that cart up to the platform, one step at a time. The teens thought they could design a better cart.

They set to work designing a better wheel—one that pivots for easier ascent. With the guidance of mentors, the teens created a prototype with dowels and tape and cardboard and a wheel of an existing cart, learning valuable skills about trial and error, critical thinking, and collaboration along the way. And who knows—maybe a patent in the future.

Are these types of spaces the key to get kids thinking for themselves? Facing another night of tears and math homework, I sure hope so.