At Risk Students: Can Willpower Be Taught? Part A

Summary: Numerous studies suggest that “performance character traits”, such as perseverance and a willingness to work hard count for more in academic success than sheer intellectual capacity. Can such willpower be taught? The first of two posts on this topic.

Let’s revisit my friend Harry from my last post, he of the exploded backpack and the unengaged approach to school, and speculate what a school and its teachers might do to orient him toward academic success, which in his case would include upgraded organizational skills, an understanding of the link between current effort and future payoff, and the belief in and the capacity for hard work and delayed gratification. In other words, teach him the handles of personal progress. (See 1/1/13 post “At Risk Students: The Decline of Marriage and the Low Income Student”)

As it happens, among the several remedies in current literature and practice is a renewed interest in teaching these same time honored skills — the “performance character traits” of hard work, perseverance, resilience, and a host of other intertwined skills, colloquially “grit” — that we see lacking in Harry and too many of his brothers and sisters of the lower end of the academic and income spectrum.

Numerous studies have established that it is these skills that spell the difference – not intellectual capacity – between students who succeed and their academically stymied classmates.

Though different demographically, and perhaps as a group stronger skill-wise, there is also a wide spectrum of middle and upper middle income kids, much commented upon by various observers, who seem to have come to expect certain entitlements in their lives, and so mimic the same lack of performance character traits we observe in lower income kids. These middle and upper middle income kids also do not know how to establish and seek goals, to defer gratification, or to understand what it means to be accountable for their actions.

Both cross sections of students, Ruby Payne’s low income, and the underdeveloped “entitlement” kids, overlap in some ways, and are different in others, but share some of the same flaws in their personal infrastructure, and so represent some similar challenges for teachers.

Schools all the time, whether charter or public, city or suburban or rural, impact some of these kids, just not enough in the aggregate, and certainly not always in a systematic fashion. What might be some conscious strategies that will promote “grit” in the low income and entitled kids whose academic and character skills are below standard?

Laura Pappano in the January/February edition of the Harvard Education Letter, explores whether or not grit can be taught in her article ” ‘Grit’ and the New Character Education.”

Incredibly, while the research amply identifies grit as a key ingredient to academic success, the experts in the field who Pappano cites, including and Angela Lee Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, and her counterpart at Boston University, Scott Seider, acknowledge that we really don’t know very much about how to systematically teach such qualities as perseverance. According to Seider, “there is very, very little research that demonstrates that we can take the level of grit or perseverance that a kid has and increase it.”

Honestly, I am stunned at this apparent lacuna in the huge mass of educational and psychological research. I am reminded that resourceful teachers who make connections with their students manage the transformation all the time, but in the current environment apparently we do not look to teachers for our answers. This is an editorial.

Still, Pappano writes bravely on, and cites several promising frontiers, bookended by a caveat from Geoffrey Cohen, professor of education and psychology at Stanford, among others: “When we are often at our best, it doesn’t depend just on what’s inside of us but on being in the right circumstances with people we trust.” Or, Jason Baehr of the Intellectual Virtues and Education Project at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles: “Human change occurs more readily in the context of caring and trusting relationships.” The gentlemen reflect one of the few solid understandings about at risk kids, namely that relationship with valued adults is key to their growth. Certainly the same can be said of any youthful growth, at risk or otherwise.

One frontier Pappano investigates involves what psychologists might term cognitive interventions. For example, confusion in learning given material or the struggle to write are easily interpreted as evidence in the student’s mind of their lack of capacity, a fear readily accentuated by peer commentary. In fact, the confusion and the struggle arguably are normal experience in the process of any growth, including academic growth. Reframing these experiences in a more positive fashion could induce the student to persevere with the teacher’s guidance.

In a related cognitive study, Cohen of Stanford had African-American students reflect in writing on the effect of their core values in their lives at certain stress points during the school year. By comparison with a control group their grade point average remained higher over some time. Presumably the reflection on those personal core values reinforced the students in some way that sustained them, and provided them “grit” during challenging periods.

That said, Cohen cautions that it is not only the mental restructure that is important, but also the on going implementation of the new perspectives on a difficult set of tasks in the real world, presumably with adult guidance. In other words, practice.

Cognitive strategies underlie efforts at Cristo Rey Boston, part of the Catholic school network, to teach performance character traits upfront, then link the concepts explicitly to student experience in their neighborhood life and in work-study experience provided by the school. Teachers mediate reflections by students designed to integrate classroom and practical learning in order to “fortify” them through current and future claims on their mettle. Echoing Cohen and the need for practice of the fledgling growth, Elizabeth Degnan of Cristo Rey seems to emphasize that the supervised work experience is a cornerstone to the project.

In each of these examples, the intercession of trusted adults provides soil in which these tentative reflections can take root. While we can celebrate at least knowing this much, we should not get too overly excited, for we have only rediscovered what we already know from normal child development, that optimal growth takes place in a secure and supportive environment. The efforts of teachers and other trusted adults in schools are really just replications of the same familial human imperative. As in the family life, in the proper school environment a student may wish to please an elder by making changes, and can feel safe enough to explore novelty in flexible ways.

Still this observation is useful, and begs the question how we do so optimally in a school setting.

(Next week’s weeks post will continue the exploration of grit via some observations in Charles Duhigg’s, The Power of Habit.)

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