Teaching Character: Grit, Privilege, and American Education’s Obsession with Novelty

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 17th, 2015.

Twice a week for 30 minutes, fifth graders at KIPP Washington Heights, a charter school in New York City, attend “character class.” Each lesson is divided into three parts, according to Ian Willey, the assistant principal who teaches it. First, students find out what specific skill they’ll be focusing on that day. “This morning we’re going to learn how to set a long-term goal,” Willey might tell them. Next, students are asked to practice the skill. In this case, students may imagine they have a long-term project to complete, and then work to construct a timeline with incremental deadlines. In the final part of the lesson, students would take time to collectively reflect. “What was hard about this exercise?” Willey might ask. “What went well? Did anyone feel nervous? What did you do when you felt nervous?” And because part of KIPP’s mission is to help build character, the students would then classify their new skill as one or more of KIPP’s seven targeted character goals. In this example, the students were learning “grit.”

Few ideas inspire more debate in education circles than grit, which means having dedication to and passion for long-term goals. Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, first popularized the concept in 2007; she believes that if we can teach children to be “grittier” in schools, we can help them achieve greater success. Paul Tough, a journalist who published a 2012 bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, also brought grit into the national spotlight. Many policymakers and school leaders have since jumped at the idea. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised Tough’s “fantastic book”—arguing that teaching skills like grit “can help children flourish and overcome significant challenges throughout their lifetimes.” Districts all over the country are exploring how they can incorporate grit into their curriculum. In 2013, Duckworth was awarded $625,000 by the MacArthur Foundation to continue researching ways to cultivate grit in schools.

Despite grit’s enthusiastic boosters, a growing movement has sprung up in opposition. Some psychologists and policy analysts question the methodology behind Duckworth’s research—which has chiefly relied on students answering questionnaires on how gritty they think they’ve been. (For example, a survey question might read: “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones,” and students would report how much that statement resonates with them.) Some critics argue that grit places too much weight on individual student behavior, and as a result, crucial attention is directed away from the structural forces that inhibit academic success. Some researchers think that emphasizing grit can even produce negative outcomes, like killing creativity.

The excitement towards and resistance to this new field illuminates a great deal more about American education and its obsession with novelty than the grit research itself—which is still in its infancy.

The Background on Grit

Grit researchers begin with the conviction that grit is malleable: They believe that if we could design the right interventions, we could probably increase students’ grit levels, too. Duckworth admires the work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist whose research on “academic tenacity”—a mindset that helps students focus on and persevere towards long-term goals—suggests that cultivating grit may be possible. Grit research also builds on the work of Martin Seligman, who pioneered the field of positive psychology, focused on positive human flourishing. Duckworth is Seligman’s former student.

Schools, politicians, and news organizations have embraced grit, excited by its possible implications. The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about grit’s potential. KIPP charter schools, like the one Ian Willey works for, have incorporated inculcating grit and other “character strengths” such as optimism, self-control and gratitude into their mission statement. In 2013, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), a global education organization, published a book entitled “Fostering Grit.”

Dan McGarry, an Assistant Superintendent for Upper Darby School District—located in a township adjacent to West Philadelphia—read about Duckworth’s work in 2011 and grew fascinated by character education. “I truly believe that this is going to change the world,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. His district has since formally partnered with Duckworth’s lab, allowing Penn researchers to both provide professional development to their staff and conduct experiments on their students. McGarry hopes that teaching character will reduce discipline problems and raise student achievement.


Advocates insist that the benefits of teaching grit are just as important for affluent kids growing up in hypercompetitive communities as they are for low-income students growing up in poverty. Yet as grit hype grows, critics have started speaking out against what they see as an attempt to gloss over the uniquely debilitating effects of poverty. Paul L. Thomas, an education professor at Furman University, argues that reformers have embraced grit precisely because it presents them an opportunity to ignore material solutions. Indeed, in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough wrote, “There is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than the character strengths … [such as] conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism.” 

David Meketon, a research liaison from the Duckworth Lab, acknowledges that social class impacts everyone throughout their lives. But “we think our work and understanding can help mitigate those possible preconditions,” he says.

Eldar Shafir, a professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton is skeptical that teaching grit can diminish the effects of poverty. He recently co-authored an influential book with Sendhil Mullainathan, a Harvard economist, on “scarcity”—which is the psychological effect of struggling to manage with less than you need. “I have no problem with the idea that whoever you are, having grit will be better than not having grit,” Shafir says. “But my intuition is that the kinds of problems that are so pressing that it’s very hard to put them out of your mind, like whether or not you will have food to eat, or whether your parent is going to prison or will lose their job, those stresses are much harder to ignore than the stresses facing the affluent, like which prestigious college will you go to.”

“To be perfectly honest, I’m very reluctant to ask the American poor to spend more time doing yoga,” Shafir answered.

I asked Dr. Shafir what he thought about teaching students yoga and mindfulness—popular ideas that the Duckworth Lab and other proponents of grit are exploring. “To be perfectly honest, I’m very reluctant to ask the American poor to spend more time doing yoga,” Shafir answered. “I think the impact of giving kids after school programs, transportation, and childcare for their parents would be much greater than trying to figure out how to include meditation in schools.” 

In late January, some progressive educators discussed the racial implications of grit at “EduCon 2.7,” a Philadelphia-based conference designed to explore digital learning. (The panel was called “Grit, Galton, Eugenics, Racism, Calvinism.”) “We keep [hearing] this narrative that the only way children in poverty are going to succeed is by working harder than their peers who are middle-class,” said Pamela Moran, a superintendent of a large public school district in Virginia. “We have to think about our own cultural biases, why grit appeals to us, and why we want to focus on it in our schools.”

Jeff Snyder, an education historian at Carleton College, thinks that while it’s “patently absurd” to argue—as some of his colleagues do—that teaching grit is inherently racist, there are some problems with how it is being applied in the real world. “[KIPP co-founder Dave] Levin, Duckworth, they all say that character education should be for everyone. But the way that it turns out is that KIPP-based character education is overwhelmingly for poor kids of color,” says Snyder. Referring to the “culture of poverty thesis”—the controversial idea that the urban poor are disadvantaged not due to racism and discrimination but because they harbor certain cultural pathologies—Snyder says it’s understandable that people would resist a new theory that seems to suggest academic failure is rooted in individual behavior. 

Perhaps the most outspoken critic of grit culture is Alfie Kohn, an education writer who published The Myth Of The Spoiled Child in 2014. “There is no pretense of objectivity in [Duckworth’s] work; [she] is selling grit rather than dispassionately investigating its effects,” Kohn writes. “Proponents of grit tend to focus narrowly on behavior, ignoring motive,” he adds. “Do kids love what they’re doing? Or are they driven by a desperate (and anxiety-provoking) need to prove their competence? As long as they’re pushing themselves, we’re encouraged to nod our approval.”

Ironically, Kohn and Duckworth both insist they are looking out for “the whole child”—the idea that schools should not just be for children’s academic development, but for their moral, social, and physical development as well. “If we’re interested in the whole child—if, for example, we’d like our students to be psychologically healthy—then it’s not at all clear that self-discipline should enjoy a privileged status compared to other attributes. In some contexts, it may not be desirable at all,” Kohn argues. In an interview with ASCD, Duckworth says, “standardized tests … are limited in their ability to pick up things like grit and self-control … gratitude, honesty, generosity, empathy for the suffering of others, social intelligence, tact, charisma. … We’re now seeing a pendulum swing away from the single-minded focus on standardized testing and toward a broader view of the whole child.”

Is Grit Science Reliable?

In 2012, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago Schools Research published a comprehensive literature review detailing all the existing evidence on how these “non-cognitive factors” like grit, motivation, and perseverance shape school performance. They found that most of the existing research is correlational, not causal—making it unclear the extent to which these factors can be developed in classrooms, and raising questions about whether changing them would actually even improve school performance. They also found little evidence to suggest that improving students’ academic behavior would narrow racial and ethnic achievement gaps.

One criticism of grit research is that it has relied mostly on the students’ self-reported questionnaires and surveys. Two sets of problems accompany these measures—one is “social desirability bias” and the other is “reference bias.” The former is a well-documented phenomenon where people tend to inaccurately report their experiences or memories on surveys in order to present themselves in the best possible light. They seek to present themselves in a socially desirable way, thus skewing the results. “Reference bias” is a less obvious issue, but perhaps more detrimental. To answer a survey question that asks “Are you a hard worker?” you’d typically conjure up an image of what you envision hard workers look like, and then compare yourself to them. “Am I hard worker compared to the other kids in my class?” you might ask. In effect, the results of these surveys can tell us very little about how you’ll do compared to people outside of your own peer group.

Martin R. West, of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, has been researching the limitations of self-reported assessments, and finds evidence that the school climate in which a student answers these questions can significantly affect what answer they will give. “In a rush to embrace non-cognitive skills as the missing piece in American education, policymakers may overlook the limitations of extant measures,” West writes, urging researchers to develop alternatives that are valid across a broader range of settings. The Duckworth Lab’s Meketon says his team is now focusing on creating more activity-based tests, such as computer games, in the hope that this will ameliorate some of the concerns people have about the lab’s surveys and questionnaires.  

Avi Kaplan, a psychology professor at Temple University who studies student motivation and self-regulation, finds the public rhetoric around grit research to be extremely political. “Grit is a paradigm that gives people certainty, and that’s what people are looking for—absolute truth.” He argues that there have always been those in his field who aspire, mistakenly, to treat psychology like a natural science. “But human beings are all so different, and people develop and change at such different points in their lives.”

Education Policy’s Ebb and Flow

This is not the first time we’ve recognized that success is not exclusively about IQ or raw talent. In 1961, psychological theorist David McClelland published The Achieving Society, which argued that cultivating the need for achievement, often through early childhood experiences, plays an integral role in one’s chance for life success. In 1990, journalist Dan Goldman published Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ, which argued that self-awareness, altruism, personal motivation, empathy, and the ability to love and be loved are the greatest indicators of success.

This is not even the first time our country has tried to teach character or seen it as integral to education—far from it. Writing in The New Republic, Snyder of Carleton College traces the history:

From the inception of our public school system in the 1840s and 1850s, character education has revolved around religious and civic virtues. Steeped in Protestantism and republicanism, the key virtues taught during the nineteenth-century were piety, industry, kindness, honesty, thrift, and patriotism. During the Progressive era, character education concentrated on the twin ideas of citizenship and the “common good.” As an influential 1918 report on “moral values” put it, character education “makes for a better America by helping its pupils to make themselves better persons.” In the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, character education focused on justice and working through thorny moral dilemmas.

With this in mind, the discussion around grit actually fits quite snugly within a long tradition of American education. First comes an idea, and initial excitement. Then there is a backlash, followed by an uneasy period where ideas are implemented and critiqued. “And then ultimately there’s the sad truth with education research and millions of dollars that you will always end up with mixed results,” says Snyder. “You will never do an educational experiment with real live human beings that give you dramatic results.”

Duckworth’s Meketon thinks the grit backlash might be partly steeped in resentment towards the research’s popularity. “The cynical part of me says that if you find someone who is getting a lot of attention, you go against them and attack them,” he says. But Meketon acknowledges that perhaps a simpler explanation is that educators have short attention spans. “I was an educator for 40 years and I’ve watched the evolution of various ideas and best practices in education come and go.”

Snyder disagrees; he thinks it is administrators, policymakers, and philanthropists—like Bill Gates—who have short attention spans, not the educators themselves. “It’s the people who fund the type of research being done by Duckworth that tend to get bored more quickly, because they are excited by innovation in and of itself.” Snyder expects that in ten years we’ll see people excited about new ideas, or old ideas that are billed as new.

Ultimately, we just don’t know that much about grit yet. Even Angela Duckworth has admitted she doesn’t know if we can actually teach it in schools. Her lab is only just now beginning to develop tools that don’t rely predominately on self-reported assessments. Prior research suggests that we’re not all that good at teaching character in school. In 2010, the largest federal study on school-wide character education programs found that these programs largely fail to produce improvements in student behavior or academic performance.

This is not to say this is all pointless. The University of Chicago researchers did find plenty of evidence that supporting positive academic mindsets can help students develop better learning strategies, and in turn, improve their grades—learning strategies like breaking up long-term projects with incremental deadlines, which is what Willey tries to teach in his classroom.

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, sees grit’s academic value, and defends teaching it in schools. (“Learning how to be persistent at an unpleasant task, it’s hard to argue that doesn’t matter,” she says.) But ultimately DeLuca worries about where the public conversation is going. “On the one hand, there’s a hopefulness that grit offers us. It’s an American narrative that’s really appealing, and it tells us that poor kids are not lost causes,” says DeLuca, who notes that too many policymakers just give up on kids in poverty. “But what happens with really popular ideas that have simple and compelling solutions is that you can run with them, and if things don’t change, then you start to think things can’t ever change.” By not confronting social structure directly within the grit narrative, we may be setting up these kids for failure. “At the end of the day,” says DeLuca, “poor kids—gritty or not—are still navigating within a profoundly unequal geography of opportunity.”


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