What I’ve been reading: The kickback again passion and grit and why they both still matter

Published by Lori Pickert on March 21, 2014 at 12:04 PM

If you want to internalize a piece of knowledge, you’ve got to linger over it.” … “Evidence suggests that when it comes to knowledge we’re interested in — anything that truly excites us and has meaning — we don’t turn off our memory. Certainly we outsource when the details are dull … [b]ut when information engages us — when we really care about a subject — the evidence suggests we don’t turn off our memory at all.” — Smarter Than You Think

 

I shared this teacher’s open letter to Google on my facebook page:

Dear Google,

I wish you’d talked to teachers like me before you made that $40 million investment in Renaissance Learning.

I’ve seen the damage Accelerated Reader can do.

I witnessed it for the first time when I tutored a struggling 5th grader…eighteen years ago.

He hated to read.

He hated being locked into a level.

He hated the points associated with the books.

But more importantly, he was humiliated when he didn’t earn enough points to join in the monthly party or get to ‘buy’ things with those points at a school store full of junky prizes.

I’ve seen kids run their fingers along the binding of a book, a book they REALLY wanted read, but then hear them say, ‘But it’s not an AR book,’ or ‘It’s not my level.’

I’ve watched them scramble to read the backs of books or beg a friend for answers so they can get enough points for the grading period.

And I watched it slowly start to unravel S’s love of reading.Dear Google, You Should Have Talked to Me First

I have strong feelings about kids being allowed to choose their own books and given time to read for pleasure, and I have seen both teachers and librarians tell school kids at the public library to put their books back because they weren’t allowed (graphic novels) or weren’t the right level.

Short version: Kids benefit from reading both above and below their level.

Above (for example, if you let them check adult research books out of the library that you think are way too difficult for them), they have to employ decoding strategies, they have to search for what they can read and understand, they have to wrestle with unfamiliar vocabulary, and so on — they’re challenging their skills. Below, they can read a favorite book over and over again and become fluent at reading it.

In both cases, they are making choices from a place of true engagement and desire. That is a path toward using reading for pleasure *and* purpose.

In both cases, they feel great about themselves. They feel great about tackling and making sense of a book that’s “too hard for them.” They feel great about completely mastering a book and finding it really easy (and they remember when it was hard).

When we narrow kids’ choices to something that we have chosen for them, we are doing more than just killing their opportunity to enjoy reading for pleasure. We’re putting them in a place where they can’t win. If they read a book well, it’s because we chose it and it’s exactly calibrated to their “level.” If they don’t read it well, they’re failing at something we thought they could do. Instead of multiple opportunities to engage with books and feel like a winner, they get to feel either “adequate” or “inadequate.” That’s it.

(More posts about kids and reading: Reading and In defense of reading … which should need no defense.)

We can’t *teach* kids to love reading, but we can certainly do our best to allow them to develop a love of reading. We can let them choose their own books. We can give them a book allowance. We can make sure they have free time to read every day, and we can make sure we don’t pit books against the other things they love.

All of this boils down to: We don’t think it matters whether the kids are interested or not. We just don’t care.

There’s a kickback against passion these days (personally, I think it’s just a “let’s go against trend” scheme), but thinking passion doesn’t matter isn’t new — parents and educators have been saying it for decades. Adults think they can teach kids how to work hard by forcing them to work on something they don’t care about. Do they think kids will love to read if they do well on the language arts section of a standardized test? Love can’t be forced. You have to create the circumstances in which it can bloom and grow. You have to actively try to not crush the life out of it.

There’s also a kickback lately against grit (see here and here, for example) — people are saying that it’s all well and good to say kids need to be gritty, but privileged kids start out way ahead of the pack and it’s unfair to tell the other kids that their failure is because they weren’t gritty enough. Insult to injury, etc. But pay attention to this part of Alfie Kohn’s criticism:

Challenge — which carries with it a risk of failure — is a part of learning.  That’s not something we’d want to eliminate.  But when students who are tripped up by challenges respond by tuning out, acting out, or dropping out, they sometimes do so not because of a deficiency in their makeup (lack of stick-to-itiveness) but because those challenges — what they were asked to do — aren’t particularly engaging or relevant. — Alfie Kohn

and

A second explanation for students’ not rebounding from failure at what they were asked to do is that they weren’t really “asked” to do it — they were told to do it:  deprived of any say about the content or context of the curriculum.  People of all ages are more likely to persevere when they have a chance to make decisions about things that affect them.  Thus, the absence of choice might be a better explanation than a character defect for giving up. — ibid.

In other words, authentic interest and engagement matter. Authentic choice and autonomy make a difference.

Personally, I don’t see Duckworth’s or Dweck’s work being about character defects or criticizing kids — their work says that these are attitudes any person can develop. Message: Your fate isn’t set in stone — you can improve if you work hard. It’s about helping kids see themselves in a way that helps them develop a growth mindset. I do think cultivating a growth mindset is beneficial for all kids (and adults) — but I agree with Alfie Kohn that kids have to actually care about the work first. It does no good to try to force kids to be gritty and focus on growth if they don’t care about what they’re doing.

And Angela Duckworth knows that:

“This quality of being able to sustain your passions, and also work really hard at them, over really disappointingly long periods of time, that's grit.”Does Teaching Kids to Get “Gritty” Help Them Get Ahead? (NPR)

and

I don’t think people can become truly gritty and great at things they don’t love,” Duckworth says. “So when we try to develop grit in kids, we also need to find and help them cultivate their passions. That’s as much a part of the equation here as the hard work and the persistence.” — ibid.

You can’t throw out passion. You can’t throw out authentic interests. They matter. Put learning in the context of what kids actually care about and helping them become master learners is a million times easier.

The importance of a child's authentic interest cannot be overemphasized. Without it, learning is like pushing a boulder uphill. With it, we're pushing the boulder downhill. Note: Learning occurs in both directions. So why do we usually go with the uphill option? — Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners

Things I get tired of in education:

- Calling new ideas “fads” as a way of dismissing them. We can’t afford to dismiss useful new ideas.

- Grinding good ideas into jargon and liberally applying said jargon to the old way of doing things (cough PBL cough).

- Pitting ideas against one another, as if education is one long cage match and we’re only allowed one winner.

Today’s take-away is this: No matter what else is happening in any learning environment, it’s always going to work better if the learner is authentically interested and engaged. You can keep pinging content at them, but as that quote way up top makes clear, if they aren’t really interested, it’s not going to stick. If you really want to help kids figure out what they’re capable of learning and doing, start in the area of their deep, authentic interest.

14 comments

Comment by Janet Stücklin on March 22, 2014 at 01:38 AM

True. I want to point out that you can teach grit when the kid isn't interested. It happens to musicians all the time. They’ve been pushed from a young age and they first realize they don't really like music until after they've graduated from top conservatories. So even if you can teach grit without interest, it is a colossal waste of time and talent.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 22, 2014 at 03:34 PM

hi janet, did you mean you *can’t* teach grit if you kid isn’t interested? :)

Comment by Chris Pilkington on March 22, 2014 at 02:49 PM

I just wanted to tell you I love the pile of books you're reading! I just added Body of Work, The Power of a Half Hour and Smarter Than You Think to my Amazon wish list. Thoughts on any of these books so far?

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 22, 2014 at 03:43 PM

 

hi chris :)

i’m a little iffy on body of work — i agree with the message; i’m not in love with how the book is written — doesn’t seem to be a lot of there there. (i like concrete strategies to go with my inspirational sound bites.) still, i ordered her earlier book from amazon (escape from cubicle nation) so i guess i should reserve my opinion until i’m completely finished. :)

i’m only partway through “smarter than you think” and i haven’t started “power of a half hour” yet — just skimmed it at the library. i’ve been reading a lot of books lately in a similar vein — like “the first 20 hours: how to learning anything fast.” have you read “168 hours: you have more time than you think”?

Comment by Michellereflects on March 22, 2014 at 07:13 PM

This is a wonderful post. I remember our daughter's small stint in public school with AR and I was aggravated by it because I had already been "indoctrinated" with some of Charlotte Mason's way of educating in which she was an opponent of marginalizing education by using superficial rewards.

I also found a lot of those books to be insulting to their intelligence as well as un-interesting IMHO! My daughter did too.

I do have a question though when it comes to the negotiated part of your children's curriculum. (I am really interested in learning more about how you implement that component as a whole!)

Obviously, not everything you are going to have them work on is going to be interesting to them, even if they agree it's necessary. So how do you go about making those kind of lessons engaging?

Also, wouldn't you expect them to have grit and finish those lessons, whether they were inherently interested in them or not?

I really flounder with this, and it would be very helpful to have some insight into how you make this part work!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 22, 2014 at 08:19 PM

 

Obviously, not everything you are going to have them work on is going to be interesting to them, even if they agree it's necessary. So how do you go about making those kind of lessons engaging?

simple — *they* make it engaging. :)

giving them the power to have a lot of input into how they study that topic, choosing their own materials, deciding what they want to do and how they want to do it, choosing their focus, etc. — they really took a project-oriented approach to all of their work. and it truly was negotiated. it was never “do this because we say so.” it was “we think it’s important that you know something about X” and then they would pitch in their ideas, choose their focus, and so on.

i think a person who likes to learn has a much easier time finding the enjoyment in learning about almost anything. there’s really nothing we have suggested to them as important that they couldn’t find a handle on that engaged them. and as i wrote in my post about our learning conferences, most of the time *they* would choose the areas they needed to do some work in.

also early on we started ramping them toward independence by giving them some say about when and how they would do their work, steadily giving them more freedom until they eventually controlled their whole schedule. autonomy and authentic choice. we very sincerely wanted them to have a lot of input into their own education, and they knew we were sincere. if we had forced them to study something random just to exert our authority, i’m sure the whole enterprise would have fallen apart. but they trusted us, and we trusted them — we were all on the same team, sharing the same goal.

wouldn't you expect them to have grit and finish those lessons, whether they were inherently interested in them or not?

no — i wouldn’t call that grit. grit comes from within and correlates with engagement and desire — an attitude of “i’m not going to let this beat me because i care tremendously about doing this work.” it’s not an ability to grit your teeth and just get through something you *have* to do. (sorry for the pun ;o)

when i think of how i did lessons or work that didn’t interest me, i sometimes tricked myself, sometimes made bargains with myself, and sometimes forced myself to just get through it. and sometimes i just dialed it in if i thought i could get away with that. but i wouldn’t classify any of that as grit. grit doesn’t come into play until you are self-motivated and working toward your own goal.

here are some angela duckworth quotes about grit:

“Grit is sticking with your future — day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years — and working really hard to make that future a reality.”

“There are many talented individuals who simply do not follow through on their commitments. In fact, in our data, grit is usually unrelated or even inversely related to measures of talent.”

 

“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day-in, day-out. Not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years. And working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

“What gritty people do is they stick with it over a long period of time and they continue to spend effort toward their goals. And there are three reasons why I think they do that. One is self-efficacy, or your judgment that the outcome will be positive if you put in effort. That’s why I think things like optimism and a growth mindset are correlated with grit. People who think things are fixed or unchangeable have trouble when bad things happen — and a lot of grit is about overcoming setbacks.

The second driver is valuing your goal. I recently heard from a guy who became a quadriplegic, and now he’s a social worker, and works with people who have had severe personal tragedies happen to them. This is something my graduate student Lauren Eskreis-Winkler has been studying. It’s called survivor mission. The idea that if your daughter is killed in a drunk driving accident, the value of that goal — to reduce drunk driving — is very strong.

The passion part is about valuing something a lot. Not a little bit, not, “Oh yeah, on balance I’d rather have that,” but really valuing it. The intervention implication of that would be, how do we help people find their passion? For most people, I hope, it doesn’t come through adversity.

But finding something that you truly value, that’s meaningful to you and then cultivating that is important. The important distinction between cultivation and discovery is that cultivation assumes that there’s work to do, that loving piano, for example, isn’t just going to happen to you, you have to find ways of deepening your appreciation.

And then the third thing is cost. I think really gritty people, who work unbelievably hard — and I’m privileged to work with some of those folks in psychology, and also in education and economics — I think they don’t feel the costs, or put a high value on the cost, of working really hard. There’s also the issue of opportunity costs. That really fascinates me. Really gritty people are not constantly worried about what they could be doing instead. They’re not thinking, “Oh, if I wasn’t a journalist, I could be a management consultant. If I wasn’t a management consultant, I could be in medical school.” It’s a willingness to focus on where you are, and not constantly second guess the choices you’ve made.

So those are the three things that I think we need to cultivate.”

In all of those explanations, what you hear over and over again is that grit is something that is applied to a passionate desire — self-chosen meaningful work.

Duckworth, when she’s asked if grit can be taught, says “I hope so” — not, definitely yes, we can teach kids how to be gritty in school. And she emphasizes that you would have to put kids in a position where they were working in the area of their authentic interest, their passion.

if my children had zero interest in some of their work, i would be looking hard at whether it was really necessary and if it was, whether we could work together to make it more personal, more relevant, more interesting, and so on.

Comment by Michellereflects on March 22, 2014 at 08:48 PM

I love these thoughts:
" I think they don’t feel the costs, or put a high value on the cost, of working really hard. There’s also the issue of opportunity costs. That really fascinates me. Really gritty people are not constantly worried about what they could be doing instead."

I never thought about the last one before, but she's right!

In terms of your children determining how they are going to learn something in particular and make it engaging for themselves, that is very intriguing, (albeit still foreign!

This is how I imagine it (because it is a little esoteric to me at the moment):

"Jordan, you said you were interested in engineering and I think it would be good for you to devote more time in learning math. (Whether it's algebra or even multiplication.) What do you think about this?"

And so if Jordan agrees with this assessment, he is now able to not only decide how he is going to learn it, but perhaps even teach himself?

If that is true, than that is phenomenal! But of course, you have laid such an excellent foundation as well as been building upon it for a very long time, so I can see how this is possible.

As you might have guessed, we especially have a hard time figuring out the math thing! I end up having to do a lot of tutoring, yet it sounds like your kids could mostly tutor themselves in most everything!?

I feel like I have a loong way to go and only a very short time to get there since my kids are older and we are just beginning!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 23, 2014 at 07:39 AM

 

i think gritty people aren’t second-guessing themselves because they’re fully invested in what they’re doing. if you’re still hemming and hawing and chewing your knuckle and trying to decide which way to go, you aren’t fully committed yet. once committed, presumably, grit is what helps you stay the course.

"Jordan, you said you were interested in engineering and I think it would be good for you to devote more time in learning math. (Whether it's algebra or even multiplication.) What do you think about this?"

rather than positing it as “you want A but i want B” i would approach it as “we want you to have the opportunity to choose college later on” (or whatever your goals are), “so there are certain things we think you need. but we also want you to spend a good amount of time doing the things that you want to do. so let’s talk about how we can do both of those things.”

obviously an interest in engineering is going to make math an easy sell. :)

And so if Jordan agrees with this assessment, he is now able to not only decide how he is going to learn it, but perhaps even teach himself?

not quite, but he can help you look over math materials. he can look at sample pages and have input into which math program or book he likes better. you can give him some freedom to his schedule or talk to him about what type of schedule he would prefer — two pages a day M through F or three pages a day MWF? or MTW? X amount per week during the “school” year or Y amount per week year-round with a few week breaks? and so on.

we especially have a hard time figuring out the math thing! I end up having to do a lot of tutoring, yet it sounds like your kids could mostly tutor themselves in most everything!?

we’re always there to go over concepts, help them figure things out, OR help them find a resource that will help them figure things out (videos online and etc.).
 
their father is an engineer and was their math go-to when they got beyond algebra. :)
 
being more responsible for their own education doesn’t mean always teaching themselves; it just means having more input into how they learn and sometimes (depending on the subject) what they learn.

I feel like I have a loong way to go and only a very short time to get there since my kids are older and we are just beginning!

a lot of people wait until their kids are in college and expect them to sprout self-directed wings overnight — so whatever progress you make now, you’re ahead of that! :)
Comment by Michellereflects on March 23, 2014 at 01:56 PM

That definitely helps me see what that looks like and what you mean by a negotiated curriculum!!:)

Thank you so much for the work you do, Lori. I had often looked for something like this approach when my kids were young, but the closest thing I came to were unit studies which I found to be very teacher intensive and often came up short of my expectations in terms of what they would actually learn. They often felt forced as well.

I know it's not too late to implement this approach and encourage them to be self-directed, but I hope that moms of younger children will begin this from the get-go and have a permanent space in their daily schedules for project-based learning. I am certain they will be glad they did!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 23, 2014 at 02:36 PM

 

you are so very welcome, and thank YOU for the kind words! :)

it is never too late; i had a great email today from an adult who started pbh for herself and feels like she is making huge progress as a learner for the first time in her life! :)

Comment by nomo74 on March 24, 2014 at 10:12 AM

I would love to hear more about that! PBH for the adult! I have really been enjoying these recent posts and as the mom of older kids (13,19) can relate to the comments and encouragement. I like the bit about probably not being fully committed if you're still hemming and hawing. What message is that sending, I wonder? Thank you, Lori!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 24, 2014 at 04:12 PM

you’re very welcome! :)

Comment by AndreaeL on March 24, 2014 at 02:35 PM

Argh...AR tests! My two third-graders are obsessed with them (one has the highest score in the school b/c he tested on ALL of the Harry Potters that I read to him over the last two years...the other one tested on some of them last year, so his score is not nearly as high). They're always trying to come up with something they can take an AR test on. They both love to read (recent development) and read all the time--self-selected and both way above (Lord of the Rings) and way below (Ninjago) their reading levels. But I think AR test time would be better spent...I don't know...actually reading? Now there are two math programs they do on the computer (mobius and one whose name I forgot). It's all, as far as I can tell, thinly disguised standardized-test-taking training...oh, and a big money maker for some corporation out there somewhere. I think computers can be amazing tools (graphic design, music mixing, writing, research), but the way they're being used to turn kids into test-taking machines makes me mad.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 24, 2014 at 04:12 PM

blerg :/

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