Paul Tough’s Grit Hypothesis Doesn’t Help Poor Kids

A few weeks ago Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, wrote a belated review of Paul Tough’s 2012 best-seller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Though short, Willingham’s review deserves mention because the subject that Tough’s book addresses is not dead – if anything, the linking of grit and character to future success has become more pervasive than ever (a Google search for “character education” turns up 1.2 million hits in 0.25 seconds!). But because Willingham calls attention to an especially contentious part of Tough’s thesis — that “the cognitive hypothesis” (i.e. academic proficiency) doesn’t matter to future success – the subject is well-worth revisiting.

As readers may recall, Tough, author of Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, introduced his notion of “grit” as a missing component in education in a 2011 New York Times magazine cover story called, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” In the story, Tough recounts the great awakening of two very different educators – Dominic Randolph, headmaster of the prestigious private Riverdale Country School in New York; and David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP charter school network that serves mainly poor kids – had about the importance of character to a child’s future success.

Separately, according to Tough’s account, each man had come to the conclusion that academic excellence was not enough to guarantee future success. The two men end up meeting with Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, at the University of Pennsylvania; with Seligman and Christopher Peterson, a University of Michigan psychology professor who teamed up with Seligman to write Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification; and with one of Seligman’s former students, Angela Duckworth, who had developed a Grit Scale, for measuring character traits in  students like zest, gratitude, self-control, optimism, and curiosity.

Most of this is repeated in the book. What is not in the magazine story, however, is the attempted “cognitive hypothesis” take-down. Instead of exploring the relationship between grit and knowledge, Tough’s argument has become Manichean: you don’t need knowledge to succeed because “what really counts is self-control.”

“But of course, you do need cognitive skills for academic success,” says Willingham. “In fact, Tough describes in detail the story of a boy who is very gritty indeed when it comes to chess, and who scales great heights in that world. But he’s not doing all that well in school, and a teacher who tries to tutor him is appalled by what he does not know.”  Willingham essentially, and convincingly, turns Tough’s grit thesis on its head. “Self-control predicts academic success because it makes you more likely to do the work to develop cognitive skills.”

The wrong-headedness of Tough’s thesis was explored in greater detail by E.D. Hirsch in a review of the book last year. Hirsch, of course, has been making the case for the importance of knowledge since publication of his own best-seller, the 1987 Cultural Literacy: What Every American Should Know. (That book documents the fact that American schools are not at all burdened by any cognitive hypothesis.) Though often mistaken as one man’s prescription for what should be taught in school, Cultural Literacy was a pioneering study of the history of education theory as applied in our schools – and it came to the rather damning conclusion that those schools had wrongly forsaken the importance of transmitting knowledge in the classroom; the academic failures were not the result of moral or character imperfections but of knowledge deficits.

As Willingham does, Hirsch praises Tough’s reporting and writing abilities and even sympathizes with his “judgment that `the cognitive hypothesis’ (in his view of it) has failed.” But he disputes Tough’s view of it, suggesting that what Tough describes is really the “how-to hypothesis” because it is about skills not knowledge.

Hirsch also notes that the book focuses its grit and character lens “on improving the school achievement and life chances of disadvantaged children” rather than the life chances of all children, clearly signaling the caste and class dimensions of the question. (As applied to Riverdale Country Day, the character question ends with something of whimper as Tough has to admit that all of Riverdale’s graduates go on to college and relatively good lives, apparently without the grit training that principal Randolph thinks they need.) Thus the building block of “failure” promoted by his magazine piece has become an environmental hazard in the book.  Its principle expression is the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACE), which Tough describes as “correlations between adverse childhood experiences and negative adult outcomes [that] were so powerful that they `stunned’” the study’s authors Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda. He is right to note them as correlations, since, as both Willingham and Hirsch point out, in promoting grit over knowledge Tough has the cart before the horse.

Hirsch is sympathetic to the challenges of poverty, but comes to the same section of the book that Willingham calls attention to and comes to the same conclusion. It is in the chapter “How to Think,” in which Tough describes the grit and tenacity of a mostly poor, mostly black, and wildly successful chess team from Intermediate School 318 in Brooklyn. Chess team teacher Elizabeth Spiegel decides to get one of her star players, seventh-grader James, ready for the city’s Specialized High School Admissions Test. James is, of course, terrifically determined and hard-working, the model of the Tough anti-cognitive success story. But Spiegel soon runs into a brick wall with James. As Tough writes, she “was daunted by how much [James] did not 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.”  They kept at it, showing all the grit that Tough said was the secret to success. To no avail. He didn’t pass.

As Hirsch points out, “No one would or should dispute the importance of diligence and perseverance.”  But the story of James should have been the signal to Tough that grit is not nearly enough.

Instead of recognizing the obvious, however, Tough simply wonders “what if James had started studying for the specialized-school exam in the third grade instead of the seventh grade?” It’s as if his school had no role in James’ knowledge deficit – or in his learning how to overcome it. “Studying for it” would seem to knock a hole in the center of Tough’s belief that the cognitive hypothesis is wrong. Unfortunately trapped by a thesis that is contradicted by his own reporting, Tough is left saying, “For a student with [James’] 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.”

Hirsch calls Tough’s optimism “misplaced.” And predicts that, “given the `Matthew Effect’ (where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer) and the slowness of vocabulary acquisition, James has been disadvantaged permanently, just as if he had been the victim of ACE.”

We can only hope that policymakers, teachers, and administrators understand the limitations of the grit hypothesis so we don’t disadvantage yet another generation of hard-working, gritty, and determined poor kids by not teaching them what they need to know to succeed.

-Peter Meyer

Please also read “Grit vs. Knowledge Round 2

This first appeared on IdeaLab on the website of the CUNY Institute for Education Policy.

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