Smart is not a dirty word [Commentary]

As the school year hits its stride, many parents and teachers of K-12 students feel overburdened with all-too-familiar concerns about failing schools, common core standards and teaching to the test. Now experts are adding one more thing to worry about: grit.

Angela Duckworth, grit's most prominent scholar, defines grit as "passion and perseverance for very long-term goals ... living life like it's a marathon, not a sprint." In both private and public schools, teachers are being directed to educate students to struggle, take risks and persist against adversity. In some schools, children get a separate report card grading their ability to work hard, cope with frustration and learn from failure.

It's impossible to deny that persistence and hard work are important life lessons. We all know someone who had such potential but never learned to apply herself. But in the rush to add grit to the lesson plan, we risk leaping from anecdote to antidote, and making assumptions about the correlation, or not, between effort and intelligence.

In a widely disseminated TED Talk, Ms. Duckworth claims data from her "grit" scale show grit "is usually unrelated or even inversely related to measures of talent." This leads to the belief that success comes not from innate skill but hard work. One proponent of this so-called "growth mindset" told NPR that "'smart' is like a curse."

As director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, a non-profit, academic center that identifies, studies and teaches academically talented K-12 students, I'm troubled. Is this true? Or does it just reflect pervasive myths about intelligence and potential — myths that keep us from understanding and meeting the needs of all students?

There's not yet any research with longitudinal follow-up on the interaction between grit and talent. So I consulted the best experts I know — members of our faculty and staff with decades of experience — asking whether they agreed academically advanced learners lack grit.

At first my consultants were nonplussed by my question. Each of our students is different, they said. They share some cognitive skills, but on the social-emotional side there are too many factors to support blanket pronouncements.

But when I tweaked my query and asked about strategies our educators used to sustain or enhance grit, the conversation took off. Their ideas clustered around three imperatives: combating boredom, making hard work contagious and focusing on questions rather than answers.

Boredom is the biggest problem facing many advanced learners. Their interests and abilities may be out of sync with the school curriculum. But given the chance to pursue a subject in depth and be challenged, most students displayed a keen drive to learn.

One teacher had a clear plan for preventing boredom. Since most academically advanced students are eager to master difficult material, she set high academic goals, expecting everyone could do the work. Then she minimized lecturing and maximized interactive, self-directed learning. She showed passion for the material, watched for signs of ennui and adjusted when she spotted it.

Another educator stemmed boredom among students in an introductory philosophy course by adding a reading from French philosopher Michel Foucault to the syllabus. He needed something too difficult for most of the kids in his class, just to give them the experience of struggle and partial mastery of a formidable text.

All of our educators also agreed that motivated peers are as important as a challenging but flexible curriculum. When there's a strong sense of collaboration and community in a classroom, students are motivated to work hard to overcome their shared struggle. Teachers urged students to be proactive in seeking and giving help and sharing information, underscoring that everybody needs somebody sometime. In this kind of community, grit can be contagious.

And while our teachers expected students to push themselves and each other, they discouraged formal competition. There were no grades. They focused on problems for which there was no single right answer. Instead, strategies for asking the right questions were prized.

Asking students why they were engaged in an activity and what they achieved are questions that almost always deepen learning.

Asking teachers of some of the brightest kids in the country what they know about grit and talent clearly tells us these characteristics are mutually reinforcing, not innately opposed. It's important to add that combating boredom, building community, and asking the right questions can benefit all students.

And as we embrace grit — or any new education trend — we can be more effective teachers and parents by taking a closer look at outliers who excel and listening to the professionals who work with them.

Elaine Tuttle Hansen is the executive director of The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, the former president of Bates College, and past provost of Haverford College. Her email is cty-execdirector@jhu.edu.

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