Is Grit Enough?

by Robert Pondiscio
September 5th, 2012

I highly recommend Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed.  Tough’s premise – that IQ and cognitive ability matter, but character traits like tenacity, curiosity and optimism matter more—is a strong challenge to my long-held notion that when students struggle, in high school or college, much of that is attributable to a lack of academic preparedness.  How Children Succeed largely argues otherwise, but there is a brief but fascinating passage late in the book that suggests we shouldn’t be too quick to worship at the altar of grit alone.

The first half of Tough’s book unpacks clinical research that demonstrates the importance of parents protecting children from adversity in the first years of life.  But it is the ability to persist in difficult tasks that ultimately seems to lead to success.  Tough’s book, broadly speaking, makes the case that to the degree to which there is a formula for success in life, it starts with a child’s need for protective, nurturing parenting, followed by independence and challenge to develop resiliency and “grit.”

A chapter entitled “How to Think” discusses at great length and thrillingly, the remarkable success of the chess team at IS 318 in Brooklyn, New York and the uncompromising approach of teacher Elizabeth Spiegel, whose unconventional methods involve “spending most of her time telling her students how they were messing up” in chess tournaments. “Spiegel often defied my stereotype of how a good teacher, especially a good inner city teacher, should interact with her students,” Tough writes.  “She does not hug.  She clearly is devoted to her students and cares about them deeply, but when a student gets upset after a loss, Spiegel is rarely one to go over and offer comfort.”

At the end of the chapter, Spiegel takes on the challenge of preparing James Black, one of her star chess players, for New York City’s specialized high school test, the entrance exam for Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and other elite public schools.  Under Spiegel’s tutelage, James, an African-American boy from Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, became a national chess champion and achieved “master” status in chess, one of only three African American masters under age 13.

“John Galvin, the vice principal, told her that she had given herself an impossible mission, that there was no way a student who consistently scored below average on statewide standardized tests could ace the specialized-school exam.  But Spiegel had seen James absorb chess knowledge astonishingly quickly and she had faith in her own teaching ability.  As she put it to me in an e-mail message in April, ‘I figure with six months, if he’s into it and will do the work, I can teach a smart kid anything, right?’”

Wrong.  By mid-July, Tough writes, Spiegel was getting frustrated.

“She was working hard with James on the test, and he was applying himself, even on hot summer days, but she was daunted by how much he didn’t know.  He couldn’t locate Africa or Asia on a map.  He couldn’t name a single European country.  When they did reading-comprehension drills, he didn’t recognize words like infant and communal and beneficial. By September, they were working together after school and on weekends for hours at a time, and she was starting to despair, trying to keep James’s spirits up while her own were sinking.  When James would get downhearted, and say that he just wasn’t any good at analogies or trigonometry, Spiegel would reply cheerfully that it was just like chess: a few years earlier, he had been no good at chess, and then he got specialized training and worked hard and mastered it.”

Is school just like chess?  Perhaps not.  UVA cognitive scientist Dan Willingham points out there are several differences between becoming a chess master and a earning a high score on a school’s entrance exam.  For starters, the relationship between chess and intelligence is not unambiguous.  “Though it’s considered an intellectual game, you don’t see straightforward connections between chess ability and intelligence,” he says.  

At an elite level, chess becomes in part an exercise in memory, Willingham points out.  You and I look at a chess board and have to painstakingly evaluate endless permutations of attacks and counter attacks.  James and other masters see patterns.  “Even if they see a chess board in the middle of a game it feels familiar to them because they’ve played so many games,” he notes.  Elite players have as many as 50,000 board positions stored in their long-term memory.   Plus anytime kids try something new, some of them really seem to take to it rapidly. That’s especially notable with skills like music, math. . . and chess.  “For some kids their learning curve is rapid.  They get good quickly in ways that most people do not,” says Willingham.

But broad general knowledge is different.  Willingham notes. “Academic knowledge and skills are wide ranging and accumulate over a very long time.”  It is nearly impossible to “get good quickly.”  Spiegel’s principal might have been exactly right.

Tough writes that James “represented for me (and for Spiegel, I suspect), a challenging puzzle.  Here was a young man clearly possessed of a keen intelligence. (Whatever intelligence means, you can’t beat Ukrainian grand masters without plenty of it.) And he seemed to be a case study in grit.”  Yet despite his own and his teacher’s clear and obvious effort, James failed to win entry into Stuyvesant, New York’s best high school, whose best chess players, Tough ruefully notes, James “will no doubt crush.”  Why?

“When Spiegel talked with me that fall about studying for the test with James, she sometimes sounded shocked at how little non-chess information he had been taught thus far in life. “I feel angry on his behalf, she told me. “He knows basic fractions, but he doesn’t know geometry, he doesn’t get the idea of writing an equation.  He’s at the level I would have been at in second or third grade.  It feels like he should have learned more.”

“The specialized high-school exam is, by design, difficult to cram for,” Tough writes.  “Like the SAT, it reflects the knowledge and skills that a student has accrued over the years, most of which is absorbed invisibly throughout childhood from one’s family and culture” [emphasis added]

Tough is undoubtedly correct that much essential knowledge is indeed family driven.  There are clear benefits to growing up in a home filled with books, college-educated parents who engage their children in rich dinner table conversation, museum visits, travel, and other enriching cultural experiences. But even without knowing a thing about James’s schooling, it’s not hard to surmise that Spiegel is precisely right.  James should have learned more and it’s his failure to accrue a lifetime’s worth of academic content, background knowledge and vocabulary—not his grit or raw intellectual talents—that likely doomed his effort to get into Stuyvesant.

Family background matters.  But it doesn’t follow that schools cannot or should not make a concerted effort from the very first days of school to provide as much rich content knowledge across the curriculum that kids need to be successful—especially for “school dependent” learners who are less likely to be exposed to it, like second-hand smoke, through their daily lives, contact with educated adults, or via what Annette Laureau termed “concerted cultivation.” Tough hints at this when he observes, “It might not have been possible to turn him into an elite student in six months, as Spiegel had hoped.  But how about in four years?  For a student with his prodigious gifts, anything seems possible—as long as there’s a teacher out there who can make succeeding in school as attractive a prospect as succeeding on the chessboard.”


Long-time readers of this blog know it is a misconception to think of knowledge as mere grist for the mill—content to exercise critical thinking skills or other cognitive processes upon.   “A reading of the research literature from cognitive science shows that knowledge does much more than just help students hone their thinking skills,” Willingham wrote in an important 2006 article in The American Educator titled, “How Knowledge Helps.”

“It actually makes learning easier. Knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more — the rich get richer. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively these cognitive processes — the very ones that teachers target — operate. So, the more knowledge students accumulate the smarter they become.”

Paul Tough has written an outstanding book, and one that will no doubt be deeply influential on parents and educators, and deservedly so.   But I fear the takeaway—through no fault of Tough’s—will be “it’s all about character” or “grit trumps cognitive ability.”  Not quite right.  As James’ experience shows, grit matters a lot, but it’s not sufficient to compensate for a lack of knowledge if we expect kids to clear the high academic bars we place in front of them.

The suggested takeaway for educators:  Kids need grit.  But schools need to be very smart and strategic from the very first days of school about the knowledge and skills we ask kids to be gritty about.


  1. Without disputing the importance of curriculum, it defies credibility that curriculum had anything to do with this kid’s deficiencies. I teach a lot of low income kids in Title I schools, and prepare a lot of kids with test prep as well. There are tons of extremely bright kids who may have a slight deficit caused by years of being the smartest kid in a class full of low ability kids, but nothing severe. And these are often kids who have no interest in school, don’t think it’s cool, but are very bright and pick up a lot just by sitting around. Because they’re smart.

    So the master-level chess player who can barely read has cognitive deficits, not curriculum ones. There’s no reason to think that a better middle school would have turned him into a a Stuyvesant candidate.

    Comment by Cal — September 5, 2012 @ 7:41 pm

  2. As one who is going through the SHSAT dance with a pretty well-prepared 8th grader, I can empathize with Spiegel’s struggles on James’ behalf.

    CK followers don’t need a lesson on why reading broadly makes it easier to pass a reading test. Amen to Robert’s points above.

    The math questions are in fact all pretty simple math – Tough’s reference to trig is wrong as there’s nothing more advanced than simple geometry. It’s in the application of the math, the ability to recognize that “this is just a question about averages,” or “that’s just a ratio, which is a fraction.” that children distinguish themselves.

    And (ironically) success in the math section is an exercise in reading comprehension.

    The long term accumulation of both facts and experience, whether in math or reading, distinguishes academic success. As Frank Sinatra sang about love and marriage, “you can’t have one without the other.”

    Comment by Matthew — September 5, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

  3. [...] Is Grit Enough?  In his look at Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, Robert Pondiscio highlights the chapter on the winning chess team at a Brooklyn middle school. Coach Elizabeth Spiegel spends “most of her time telling her students how they were messing up” in chess tournaments, Tough writes. “She does not hug.” [...]

    Pingback by Grit is good, but it’s not enough — Joanne Jacobs — September 6, 2012 @ 11:45 am

  4. I have worked with lower socio-economic students since I have been in education. I have found that they have an extreme level of grit, of survival. I can’t imagine how I would have survived some of the experiences most of my students had to endure. So the grit and resiliency is there, but most of these students have not transferred that survival instinct they learned from a tough life into the classroom and academic learning in general. We as teachers have to make the curriculum real and connect it to their experiences as much as possible to help them see the connections. Many of them feel defeated after internalizing ‘I’m dumb’ statements but the more you show them that they have been doing the critical thinking all along then they see that they can achieve. I agree with the article, it’s a long journey and knowledge needed for high stakes tests can’t be crammed into a few months, but with a dedicated teacher who is creative, anything can be possible.

    Comment by Suzy Cho — September 6, 2012 @ 12:29 pm

  5. In Britain, a family literacy program exceeded expectations:
    The program highlighted parents’ roles and offered ideas for how they can help their child.

    1. Opportunities included resources for engaging with literacy such as books, writing materials, and use opportunities to see and discuss printed work.

    2. Recognition showed parents the small steps in literacy progress their children were making to encourage their efforts.

    3. Interaction outlined situations where parents could positively involve themselves in literacy activities – writing birthday cards, saying nursery rhymes, reading stories or spotting print images in the neighbourhood.

    4. Modelling was where the parents lead by example and their children could see that they were using reading, writing and print in everyday life.

    The researchers reported that the skills emphasized in the experiment were widely imitated in the community at large beyond the small circle of those involved in the actual experiment.

    Reading for pleasure associated with career success as adult:
    Benefits appear to last well into life. The chances for middle-class boys of a professional or managerial career in their early thirties were 58% if they read in their teens but 48% if they did not. The figures for girls were 39% and 25% respectively.

    Mark Taylor, of Nuffield College, Oxford, who analysed data from 17,200 families from the British Cohort Study, found no other link between career success and any other activities undertaken at 16, such as sports, a musical instrument, concerts, museums or galleries, cooking, sewing or meeting friends.

    Comment by Harold — September 6, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

  6. Of course Cal speaks with great authority as she always does.

    Comment by J. D. Salinger — September 6, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

  7. One thing that is wrong with our education process is that highly selective or high-stakes tests can give the majority of children (and their parents) the impression that they are failures.

    I hope a spark will be lit in this young man and that he will continue to improve himself throughout his life. He deserves credit for making a manful effort and the investment should pay dividends for him, no matter what the immediate outcome. For learning should be a life-long, and hopefully, very rewarding, process, rather than a winner (or few winners)-take-all race to nowhere.

    Comment by Harold — September 6, 2012 @ 6:09 pm

  8. Which is more important – grit or accumulated learning? That is a little like asking, which is more important for completing a marathon – being motivated to run or having built up the physical conditioning to complete the race? Without motivation even a well-trained runner is unlikely to finish, but a motivated but unfit runner also faces long odds. And we also know that although conditioning requires motivation, a beginning runner who becomes motivated overnight still needs time to become conditioned.

    Because education is beset by a powerful and relentless yearning for shortcuts, many will prefer to hear only the message, “It’s all about motivation,” while paying less attention to the long learning process that must follow.

    Comment by Chrys Dougherty — September 7, 2012 @ 12:03 am

  9. [...] aanleiding voor de post Annie Murphy Paul is de reactie van Robert Pondiscio op een nieuw boek How Children Succeed over het belang van [...]

    Pingback by Het Mattheüseffect bij leren, de slimmen worden slimmer « X, Y of Einstein? – De Jeugd Is Tegenwoordig — September 7, 2012 @ 12:54 am

  10. Well said, Chris, and an excellent analogy. One which I plan to steal.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — September 7, 2012 @ 8:22 am

  11. Joe Nocera in this morning’s NYTimes:

    Comment by Paul Hoss — September 8, 2012 @ 6:23 am

  12. Have we thought about the grit of adults? Many just don’t have a sense that they can actually help poor children and leave. I know most middle class liberal and conservative parents make explicit choices to keep their kids out of schools with high numbers of poor kids as they believe these kids compromise their kids education. They may not be wrong.

    How much is that rowdy kid interfering with your child’s learning?
    09/05/201210 Comments

    Anyone who has spent much time in classrooms has the sense that just a couple of disorderly kids can really disrupt learning for everyone. These kids distract the other students, and the teacher must allocate a disproportionate amount of attention to them to keep them on task.

    Comment by DC Parent — September 10, 2012 @ 10:44 am

  13. [...] concerning the role of so-called “character education.”  The reaction ranges from the highly recommended to just another instance of how poverty affects educational opportunity.  The debate alone has [...]

    Pingback by True Grit? | A Christian in the Classroom — September 15, 2012 @ 10:06 pm

  14. Grit and determination are necessary traits for all of us to overcome obstacles. I am just not sure how you can teach it with character education. Is it intrinsic or can it be taught?

    Comment by Gene — September 16, 2012 @ 4:49 pm

  15. OK, I have finished Tough’s book and find it quite compelling. I also think it fits well in understanding why CK knowledge type systems have not proliferated. CK systems require a lot from their students both in terms of content and complex work product, i.e. effort. I would seem to me that much of the education system has to sought to make things easier, more palatable, less failure prone over the last 50 years. If you take Tough’s starting point, a challenging curriculum is part of saying to kids you are capable of learning this content and it is about the joint effort that teachers and students bring to the outcome. There is obviously a lot more to Tough’s point about character and grit, but in terms of the example above I think you could argue that both are necessary and one without the other may not be sufficient for children coming from poor backgrounds.

    @Gene according to Tough, character and grit can be cultivated and in fact it is many individual acts by parents and other adults which help children develop those skills.

    Comment by DC Parent — September 16, 2012 @ 8:46 pm

  16. During my early high school years in the 1970’s, I was the top chess player in an informal league of several high schools. I won almost every game I played and devoted endless hours to study of chess books, to the point of being almost fanatical about the game. I was nowhere near as talented at chess as James Black is, but I was good enough to know this: school is emphatically NOT just like chess.

    There’s a widespread belief that chess is an “intellectual” activity. On the surface, this seems obvious, as the only physical part of playing is picking up pieces and moving them around the board. There’s a lot of mental processing occurring in a player’s brain, and the better he is, the faster and more comprehensive this processing is.

    But is chess an “intellectual” activity? Consider the contrast drawn between intelligence and intellect in Richard Hofstadter’s famous book “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”:

    [I]ntelligence is an excellence of mind that is employed within a fairly narrow, immediate, an
    predictable range… Intelligence works within the framework of limited but clearly stated goals, and
    may be quick to shear away questions of thought that do not seem to help in reaching them.

    … Intellect, on the other hand, is the critical, creative, and contemplative side of mind. Whereas
    intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders,
    theorizes, criticizes, imagines.

    By these definitions, chess requires intelligence, but is not an intellectual exercise. It is more what I would term a “mechanical” activity, that works within the framework of 64 squares of two colors, with a limited but clearly stated goal: capturing – “checkmating” – the opposing King. The mental activity of chess doesn’t examine, ponder, etc. outside of the chess board.

    In this sense, chess ability is like other skills that require a high level of mechanical brainpower. Think about a profession that our vernacular regards as a synonym for mental prowess: brain surgeon. After a neurosurgeon has sawed open and operated on,say, 600 heads, how much is she creating/imagining that she hasn’t done many times before? She is clearly highly intelligent, and she may be intellectual in her approach to new things. But brain surgery itself – it’s a noble, highly skilled mechanical activity.

    So what’s the takeaway regarding James Black? With his level of chess ability, he beyond all doubt has substantial raw mental processing ability. But knowledge of chess, like all other knowledge, is domain-specific. He may learn economics, history, math, physics, etc. faster than other people – but he has to study those specific subjects. Hence the need for in-depth liberal arts education through reading, lectures, life experience, etc. His struggle with a high school entrance exam should not surprise us Core Knowledge types.

    By the way, I abandoned chess when I was 15. I found it too mentally narrowing, as opposed to learning about the wider world. I can still appreciate a brilliantly played game I see in a chess magazine, but I much prefer to read serious history or classic novels – I can “feel” my mind expanding.

    Comment by John Webster — September 17, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

  17. There are some chess grand masters who are also world-class economists, such as Ken Rogoff of Harvard, or Guðmundur Arnlaugsson in mathematicians. My SO also gave it up at 17 after winning the PA jr. championship, because he found it too narrow. Though he still entered tournaments occasionally.

    Comment by Harold — September 17, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

  18. mathematics, arrgh.

    Comment by Harold — September 17, 2012 @ 1:12 pm

  19. I find the idea of “grit” highly unoriginal and ultimately dangerous. “Grit” can be interpreted in different ways. To take a strong cue from the writer’s own name, it can simply mean “tough” or hard. There is plenty of that in this world as people from “lower socio-economic” backgrounds know only too well. In fact with too much “grit” or hardness in our expectations of others, we could be contributing to intransigent social attitudes and solutions. Could it be that Spiegel’s student is an “idiot savant”? Some people do extraordinarily well in certain areas. Or perhaps he had not been spoken to by his babysitter. Or perhaps he watched too much TV. If you know the student well enough, there should be no mystery, but “grit” as a panacea is absurd. Obviously, you can have a lot of “grit” and be ignorant and illiterate.

    Comment by Friend — September 28, 2012 @ 3:46 am

  20. So many solutions in education are “either/or,” how about “both/and?”

    Comment by David Loertscher — February 20, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

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