The Research Behind the TED Talk: Angela Duckworth on Grit

The Research Behind the TED Talk: Angela Duckworth on Grit

March 6, 2019 | By and

This blog post was updated on March 6, 2019 to include more current research, information, and opinions on grit in the classroom.

Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was teaching seventh grade math in New York City public schools when she noticed that her best students were not necessarily her smartest students. The realization prompted her to leave her middle school classroom and become a research psychologist so she could better understand the role that foundational skills like self-control and perseverance play in achievement.

Duckworth gave a TED Talk in 2013 explaining how grit—i.e., perseverance and passion for long-term goals—is a significant predictor of success. We’ll take a deeper dive into her research and consider the role of grit in the classroom in 2019, nearly six years after Duckworth delivered her TED Talk.

An Overview of Angela Duckworth’s Research on Grit

Since her 2013 TED Talk, Duckworth’s theory of grit has received a lot of attention and discussion, both good and bad. While many recognize grit as crucial to the learning process, some hold that focusing solely on grit means losing track of other important factors that impact student learning. And even those who believe in the power of grit aren’t always sure how to encourage it in their students.

We’ll discuss how Angela Duckworth came to her conclusions about grit, what her thoughts are now nearly six years after her wildly popular TED Talk went live, and how you can foster grit in your students.

Why are students successful?

Duckworth studied children and adults in challenging environments, including West Point military cadets, national spelling bee contestants, and rookie teachers in difficult schools. In each study, she and her research team asked the same question: “Who is successful here and why?”

Across numerous contexts, one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success: grit. Grit is the quality that allows an individual to work hard and maintain focus—not just for weeks or months, but for years.

Measuring grit

To measure grit, Duckworth and her team developed the Grit Scale, a self-reported questionnaire used to evaluate focused effort and interest over time with questions such as, “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge.” Respondents answer on a scale of one to five, with one being “Not at all like me,” and five being “Very much like me.”

Once an individual completes the survey, his or her grit score can be calculated and used to determine how grit relates to other measures of success.

Duckworth and her team studied students at Chicago Public Schools to determine whether a student’s grit, measured during junior year, predicted graduation the following year.

Students completed a survey that included four items from the Grit Scale, as well as questions used to measure various factors known to predict high school graduation, such as school safety, teacher support, peer support, parental support, conscientiousness, and school motivation.

Duckworth and her team found that juniors with the most grit were more likely to graduate from high school than their less gritty peers, even after accounting for these predictive factors, in addition to standardized test scores and demographics.

Is Grit the Only Characteristic You Should Focus On?

While it is clear that grit matters for success in school and in life, little is known about how best to foster grit in students. But research published since Duckworth’s TED Talk—and Digital Promise’s own research in the learning sciences—show that a number of factors influence student learning.

10 key principles of the learning sciences

There are many factors that influence student learning

While fostering grit is beneficial when it comes to facets of student learning, such as encouraging students to correct mistakes, establish high expectations, and take ownership over their learning experience, details as seemingly small as the temperature or layout of a room can also impact student motivation and perseverance.

Since her 2013 TED Talk, Duckworth herself has revisited the role of grit in student success and acknowledged in an interview with EdSurge in 2018 that “when we are talking about what kids need to grow up and live lives that are happy and healthy and good for other people, it’s a long list of things. Grit is on that list, but it is not the only thing on the list.”

Duckworth co-founded a nonprofit, Character Lab, which seeks to demonstrate the plethora of factors that impact student learning. The site gives teachers actionable insights into multiple classroom issues with “playbooks.” One playbook is dedicated to grit, but others focus on personal qualities such as purpose, gratitude, and curiosity.

Fostering grit (and other admirable qualities) in the classroom

We still have a lot to learn about how best to foster grit in students, and answering the question will require strong collaboration between researchers and educators. It will also require determination and perseverance.

“We need to take our best ideas, our strongest intuitions, and we need to test them,” Duckworth said during her TED Talk. “We need to measure whether we’ve been successful, and we have to be willing to fail, to be wrong, to start over again with lessons learned. In other words, we need to be gritty about getting our kids grittier.”

However, after reflecting on some of the backlash she received after her TED Talk, Duckworth has clarified that a “no excuses” or shame-based approach to grit isn’t the way to go. “It is a natural human instinct to shy away from mistake-making, from confusion, from challenge,” Duckworth told EdSurge. “And it is therefore the responsibility of the classroom teacher or school or community to make sure that kids understand that when they don’t want to do something that’s hard, when they don’t want to do something that will maybe not work out, and when they don’t want to quit things, that the first and most important thing is start from understanding and accepting that that is part of the struggle.”

Duckworth encourages teachers who want to start fostering grit in the classroom to “provide a ritual and an opportunity” for students to learn from and correct their mistakes. In her EdSurge interview, she mentions as an example a teacher who kept all students’ tests in a binder they could easily access to rework the problems they got wrong. Creating the time, space, and opportunities for students to be gritty could be a great first step in encouraging gritty mindsets in the classroom.

Are you taking steps to foster grit in your students? Tell us how you’re doing it in the comments below!

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