To Grit or Not to Grit: That’s the Question

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Like deliberate practice (see our previous blog), grit is one of those buzzwords used a lot by MANY but understood by FEW. Grit – in relation to learning – was introduced by Angela Lee Duckworth and her colleagues in 2007 and 2009. They defined grit as the ‘passion and perseverance’ needed to achieve long term goals. And although grit might be important, as goes for deliberate practice it’s not always well understood or applied.

What is grit?

Duckworth defines grit as perseverance and passion. She and her colleagues also emphasise that it’s more than just being resilient when, for example, something that you are trying to accomplish seems to fail.

Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course (Duckworth et al. 2007, p. 1087).

In short, grit is a combination of perseverance, dedication, efficacy, and resilience. Credé, Tynan, and Harms (2016) refer to grit as an example of a higher-order construct that exists of at least two lower-order (sub)constructs, namely “perseverance of effort” and “determined interest”. Perseverance ensures that you work hard even if you quaff the bitter cup. At the same time, determination ensures that you don’t change your goals and interests overnight or when the going gets tough. To make things even more complicated, in a recent Freakonomics podcast interview, Duckworth herself took it a step further by saying that grit is actually a combination of interest, practice, determination, and hope.

Uhm, right. Anybody have anything else to add? If you still get it, raise your hand. We, in any event, are getting fairly lost!

Does grit exist?

Marcus Credé and his colleagues (2016) analysed 584 effect sizes from 88 independent samples representing 66,807 individuals. They first determined if grit is anything new at all; that is a combination of passion and perseverance. Or, is grit perhaps something along the lines of old ideas parading as new ones? Old wine in new bottles? Also, they focussed on the relationship between grit and, for example academic achievement, remembering what was learned, conscientiousness, cognitive ability, and so forth. First, their meta-analysis showed that the higher-order structure of grit is not confirmed, that grit is only moderately correlated with performance and retention, and that grit is very strongly correlated with conscientiousness. They also found that the perseverance of effort facet has significantly stronger criterion validities than the consistency of interest facet and that perseverance of effort explains variance in academic performance even after controlling for conscientiousness. The aggregated results suggest that interventions designed to enhance grit may only have weak effects on performance and success, that the construct validity of grit is in question, and that the primary utility of the grit construct may lie in the perseverance facet.

In other words, grit basically appears to be little more than conscientiousness. They also found that grit is only weakly correlated to academic achievement and remembering. Cognitive ability and learning ability were much more strongly correlated with achievement. The same goes for perseverance itself – even if conscientiousness was taken into account. In other words, what grit actually adds to the learning occasion is doubtful.

BTW: Duckworth has reacted to some of Credé’s comments/criticisms on her work and even agrees with some of them. Credé commented in his article, for example, that:

  • Some of the effect sizes in one of Duckworth’s major papers on grit were described incorrectly to sound misleadingly large. Duckworth, in an email, agreed with the critique. “Credé is right…but the intent was not to mislead!”
  • The impact of grit is exaggerated, especially when looking at broader populations of people — not just the high achievers in Duckworth’s initial studies.
    Here too she doesn’t disagree with Credé stating that “her findings of the independent impact of grit are what personality psychologists would put in the “small-to-medium” range”.
  • Grit is nearly identical to conscientiousness and not very open to change (more about this in the next section) whereas Duckworth suggests that grit is readily changeable. Duckworth responded that she would prefer to think of grit as “a member of the conscientiousness family,” but one with independent predictive powers and that “some grit-targeted instructional interventions have, in fact, proved successful in experiments, particularly those that target growth mindset” (again see further).

Further, in a recent interview she said:

“I think the misunderstanding — or, at least, one of them — is that it’s only the perseverance part that matters.” But I think that the passion piece is at least as important. I mean, if you are really, really tenacious and dogged about a goal that’s not meaningful to you, and not interesting to you — then that’s just drudgery. It’s not just determination.”

What to do with grit?

Even if grit is ‘just’ perseverance, the key question remains; namely if grit useful for learning and if so, how? Can you teach grit to children? While the world is cheering GRIT en masse, Duckworth herself is not completely convinced. In the Freakonomics interview she states that she hopes it’s something people can learn, but also admits not having enough proof to confirm that they can!

To be able to determine if grit is something we can develop has human beings, we first need to know if grit or perseverance or for that matter most of the elements discussed in relation to grit are things that can be seen as ‘fixed’ traits which are argued to be quite hard to influence or if they are things that we can influence in the way that we can influence someone’s ‘state’. Our guess (and those of Credé and others) is that it is the former rather than the latter.

And what about the passion part of grit? Are there ways to encourage children to become more passionate about certain things? Or is passion something that is  so personal that it cannot be imparted to someone, especially through tuition at the class level? For example, there are a lot of math teachers who would love to learn the trick as to how to make all of the kids in the class passionate about mathematics.

Rimfeld and her colleagues (2016) conducted a very ingenious study with 2321 twin pairs. This study showed that grit is very similar to other personality traits in that it shows not only substantial genetic influence but as NO influence of shared environmental factors. The authors conclude:

Grit perseverance of effort and Big Five conscientiousness are to a large extent the same trait both phenotypically (r=0.53) and genetically (genetic correlation=0.86)…[T]he etiology of grit is highly similar to other personality traits, not only in showing substantial genetic influence but also in showing no influence of shared environmental factors. (p.1).

What is also critical to mention in this context is that personality traits very much influence academic achievement while grit, as Rimfeld and her colleagues conclude doesn’t add much to the prediction of academic achievement beyond traditional personality factors, especially conscientiousness. In other words, if there is such a thing as grit, then it is a personality trait and as such is very resistant to change. It’s nature and not nurture!

What is a bit grim, is that this type of evidence does not prevent third parties from seriously attempting to make money with, for example curriculum materials or computer programs that, according to these sellers change children’s mentality and increase grit. One such a program is Brainology, part of Mindset Works. (Mindset is another example of a buzzword introduced by Carol Dweck and co). BTW2: Dweck is cofounder of Mindset Works. Ahum.

Why oh why are people who work in or are in any way affiliated with education and/or learning so quick to jump on this type of novelties? Shouldn’t they know better? Why don’t they consider possible downsides to grit? Maybe, if they themselves had more grit, they wouldn’t shift so quickly from one oddball idea to the next. They would passionately persevere in evidence-informed approaches. Right? Or, is it as Winston Churchill said? “Success consists of going from failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm”. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

References

Credé, M., Tynan, M. C., & Harms, P. D. (2016). Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/25397556/Much_Ado_about_Grit_A_Meta-Analytic_Synthesis_of_the_Grit_Literature.

Duckworth, A. L. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner.

Duckworth, A. L., & Quinn, P. D. (2009). Development and validation of the short grit scale (Grit-S). Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(2), 166-174. doi:10.1080/00223890802634290.

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087-1101. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.6.1087. Retrieved from https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/Grit%20JPSP.pdf.

Rimfeld, K., Kovas, Y., Dale, P.S., & Plomin R., (2016). True Grit and Genetics: Predicting Academic Achievement From Personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2016; DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000089. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/psycarticles/2016-06824-001.pdf&uid=2016-06824-001&db=PA.

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