Is “Grit” Just Puritan Work Ethic in Disguise?
October 7, 2012 § 4 Comments
Before we reach the conclusion of Paul Tough’s bestseller How Children Succeed tomorrow night, I wanted to inject an opposition view into the conversation: a recent article by parenting and education author and expert Alfie Kohn. Kohn’s piece “Do kids really learn from failure? Why conventional wisdom may be wrong,” featured on The Answer Sheet blog at the Washington Post, questions why exactly we think grit and perseverance are good qualities to engender and develop.
“When you hear about the limits of IQ these days,” he writes, “it’s usually in the context of a conservative narrative that emphasizes not altruism or empathy but something that sounds suspiciously like the Protestant work ethic. More than smarts, we’re told, what kids need to succeed is old-fashioned grit and perseverance, self-discipline and will power. The goal is to make sure they’ll be able to resist temptation, override their unconstructive impulses, and put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do.”
Kohn asks, “Is failure useful?” He says that no research actually shows that failure makes kids better learners, or more successful. “In fact, studies find that when kids fail, they tend to construct an image of themselves as incompetent and even helpless, which leads to more failure. (They also come to prefer easier tasks and lose interest in whatever they’re doing.) In one study, students were asked to solve problems that were rigged to ensure failure. Then they were asked to solve problems that were clearly within their capabilities. What happened? Even the latter problems paralyzed them because a spiral of failure had been set into motion. By the same token, if an adult declines to step in and help when kids are frustrated, that doesn’t make them more self-sufficient or self-confident: It mostly leaves them feeling less supported, less secure about their own worthiness, and more doubtful about the extent to which the parent or teacher really cares about them.”
He notes that often, the reason kids fail at tasks is twofold: because they don’t see a good reason for doing them, or because they were ordered to do so, without any context or decision-making power of their own.
But this is my favorite, and perhaps most substantive, of Kohn’s reasons he believes kids fail at school: ”Maybe the problem is that the educational environment emphasizes how well students are doing rather than what they’re doing: It’s all about achievement! performance! results! rigor! and not about the learning itself. Educational psychologists have found that when students are induced to think about grades and test scores — particularly, though not exclusively, when the point is to do better than everyone else — they will naturally attempt to avoid unnecessary risks. If the goal is to get an A, then it’s rational to pick the easiest possible task. Giving up altogether just takes this response to its logical conclusion. “I’m no good at this, so why bother?” is not an unreasonable response when school is primarily about establishing how good you are.”
Putting this in perspective of our Parent Book Club book, what do you think of this? Do you think developing grit is just a way to teach our kids to be compliant with orders? Or, do you think that grit and perseverance offer something more?