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.

Education Homilies and Other Empty Buckets

by Robert Pondiscio
July 5th, 2012

Teaching, more than any other profession, loves its homilies.  “Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.”  “Teach the child, not the lesson.”  We unthinkingly repeat these phrases not because they are correct, but because they are inspiring and ennobling.  Of all the homilies in education, none rankles more than this one: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”  The quote is typically (and apparently mistakenly) attributed to the poet William Butler Yeats.

Writing at the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog, Carol Corbett Burris, a high school principal and former “New York State Outstanding Educator,” cites this homily to drive a takedown of the Relay Graduate School of Education (RGSE), an independent graduate school of education, which trains teachers for KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First and other so-called “no excuses” charter schools.   At Relay, “teacher education that balances research, theory and practice has been replaced by ‘filling the pail’ training,” Burris writes.  (Full disclosure: Relay started as “Teacher U” and was incubated by former Core Knowledge board member David Steiner at New York’s Hunter College, where Steiner heads the School of Education).

Burris watches a RGSE video on “Rigorous Classroom Discussion” and is not impressed.  “The teacher barks commands and questions, often with the affect and speed of a drill sergeant,” she writes.  “She is performing as taught by a system that, in my opinion, better prepares students for the dutiful obedience of the military than for the intellectual challenges they will encounter in college,” she observes. In Burris’s view RGSE and its methods portend something dark.

“I worry that the pail fillers are determining the fate of our schools. The ‘filling of the pail’ is the philosophy of those who see students as vessels into which facts and knowledge are poured. The better the teacher, the more stuff in the pail. How do we measure what is in the pail? With a standardized test, of course. Not enough in the pail? No excuses. We must identify the teachers who best fill the pail, and dismiss the rest.”

Having spent a fair amount of time in “no excuses” charter schools that use the techniques that Burris finds objectionable, I understand her criticism.  Such high-energy, tightly structured teaching techniques can seem militaristic, and in the hands of less skillful practitioners a bewildering blur.   But Burris misses badly when she dismisses what she sees as mere “pail filling.”  This badly and broadly misstates the critical role of knowledge (the stuff in the pail) to every meaningful cognitive process prized by fire-lighters: reading comprehension, critical thinking, problem solving, etc.   Dichotomies don’t get more false than between knowledge and thinking.

Few recent authors have been more pointed in decrying instructional practices that kill students’ love of reading than Kelly Gallagher, the author of Readicide.  He has been outspoken in criticizing “the development of test-takers over the development of lifelong readers.”  Yet I strongly suspect he too would dimiss pitting “bucket-filling” versus “fire-lighting” as wrong-headed.  In his 2011 book, Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts, Gallagher writes:

“I don’t want my students to read in only one particular genre.  I want my students, of course, to develop a wide spectrum of reading tastes.  To become eclectic readers, they need to broaden and deepen their background knowledge.  Likewise, one of my goals is to broaden my students’ writing spectrum, and if I have any chance of accomplishing this, again, I have to work on building their background knowledge.  whether we are talking about reading or writing, background knowledge is critical.  You have to know stuff to write about stuff.”

The damage done by those who denigrate the importance of a knowledge-rich classroom—especially for our most disadvantaged learners—can scarcely be overstated.   Education is neither the filling of a bucket or the lighting of a fire.  It’s both.

You can’t light a fire in an empty bucket.

Idiot’s Delight

by Robert Pondiscio
September 26th, 2010

Think anti-intellectualism in American education not a problem?  Submitted for your disapproval:  “There is nothing like knowing it all to kill the imagination,” write Eric Liu and Scott Noppe-Brandon:

“When we become expert, or think we have, we get the benefits of intellectual shortcuts and far greater processing efficiency-but we suffer the cost of closed-mindedness.  Having seen it all, we stop looking. Having been there, we stop going. Having done that, we stop doing.”

Seriously?  What possible basis in fact could there be for this broad, blanket condemnation of knowledge, which appears, incredibly enough, on the front page of NBC’s Education Nation website?  The authors ostensibly want us to rekindle our childlike sense of wonder and imagination.  They wax rhapsodic about something called the GeoDome.

Maybe fifteen feet across, eight feet high at the peak. As portable as a tent, as immersive as a womb. Step into the darkness, feel your way to a little canvas camping chair, be seated and gaze upward. Here begins an experience of pure wonder. Using Google Earth, real-time NASA data, state-of-the-art animation designed by a Pixar veteran, a single laptop, a projector, and an Xbox joystick, McConville takes the guests on a journey to…anywhere they want in the known universe.

I hate to muddy up the pie-eyed wonder-fest with troublesome facts, but we did not dream our way to Google Earth, NASA, Pixar or the Xbox.  A deep knowledge base, years of training and expertise enable us to create the things that inspire awe in others.   And I can’t help but wonder if physicists, engineers, and scientists of every stripe would be surprised to learn that their hard-earned expertise has resulted in “closed-mindedness.”

We Who Are About to Fly, Salute You

by Robert Pondiscio
September 18th, 2010

“That you’ve driven over bridges and flown in planes and lived to tell about it is a testament to teachers like me who’ve identified what’s important, boring or not, and taught it to those who will ultimately use that knowledge, even for the benefit of people like Kohn and his disciples,” writes “physicsteacher,” an unnamed educator commenting at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.   This in response to the latest garden variety Alfie Kohn strawmanfest fulminating against teachers who make students “cram facts, practice a series of decontextualized skills on yet another worksheet, [or] listen passively to a lecture.”

SAT Down and Cried Today

by Robert Pondiscio
August 26th, 2009

The Class of 2009, who were in 5th grade when No Child Left Behind became the law of the land, and were not yet born when A Nation at Risk ushered in the era of education reform, have posted SAT scores that summon to mind a flatlined EKG.  Math unchanged at 515.  Writing down a point to 493.  Critical reading, down a point to 494.  The results are of a piece with last week’s ACT scores, which showed only one of four high school graduates are prepared to do C level college work in English, math, reading and science.

“Completing a core curriculum remains strongly related to SAT scores,” the College Board notes in a news release.  ”Students in the class of 2009 who took core curricula scored an average of 46 points higher on the critical reading section, 44 points higher on the mathematics section, and 45 points higher on the writing section than those who did not.”

“The College Board, as always, hung a smiley face on it, but the latest SAT results are a real bummer,” writes Checker Finn at Fordham’s Flypaper blog.  Looking at years of stagnant NAEP results, last week’s dispiriting ACT scores and flat high school graduation rates, Finn says “please sing out if you’ve spotted any good news regarding the readiness of American adolescents to face successfully the challenges of higher education, the workforce, adulthood and citizenship. I can’t find it.”

Let me add a few verses to Checker’s refrain:  Please sing out if you see elementary schools creating a path to college readiness by favoring a rich, robust curriculum over of the deadening pabulum of test prep and ineffective reading strategies.  Please sing out too, if you can explain how changing the operative definition of well educated to “reads on or near grade level” has done anything other than cement in place this march of mediocrity.  

There’s no guarantee that a patient buildup of knowledge and language proficiency that pays dividends over time will show up in a single year’s standardized testing snapshot, so please explain too how any school or teacher can afford  to take the necessary long view, when we have essentially declared that a little bit of success every year is more important–and measurable–than great success over time. 

Please sing out if you see something–anything–that is going to change this dispiriting trend in the foreseeable future.  I can’t find it.

Reclaiming the Value of Knowledge in Public Life

by Robert Pondiscio
January 6th, 2009

It’s time to reclaim the value of knowledge in our political and civic life, argues UCLA professor Mike Rose.  Not merely academic knowledge, but broad, practical know-how that enables people to solve problems.  Rose’s 2004 book, The Mind at Work, argued that cognitive ability, including perception, judgment, memory and knowledge, is employed daily in blue-collar trades.  He posts a rumination on America’s “complicated relationship with knowledge gained through formal education” at Education Week, noting long-standing suspicions about advanced education among the working class, and vice-versa. 

Related to this cultural conflict is the age-old tension between practical life, experience, and common sense, on the one side, and schooling, book learning, and intellectual pursuits, on the other. The historian Richard Hofstadter’s classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life chronicles this antagonism, and the gradual ascendance of school-based expertise in the nation’s culture. But the contrary position still holds strong. My cousin is fond of repeating an old saying, “It took a guy with a college degree to screw this up and a guy with a high school degree to fix it.”  

But according to Rose, “school knowledge” is respected and desired by working people. “The problem is more in the bearing of the person who embodies that knowledge. Did formal education bring with it condescension, arrogance, aloofness?“  He holds out hope that we can move past a politics that exploited such condescension and ends ”the substitution of political loyalty for expertise, feeling for rationality, and the cherry-picking of facts for analysis of evidence.”

It’s time to reclaim for politics the value of knowledge, to step into our cultural tangles and find common cognitive ground. Think of what it would mean for our civic life to affirm the bedrock value of knowledge—many kinds of knowledge, machinist’s to pediatrician’s—to affirm the wide range of ways people gain and apply knowledge, solve problems, think their way through their daily lives.