As I have commented in earlier blog postings, there is currently a revival of the Horatio Alger myth going on in the form of the "grit" movement. According to this "new" school of thought, what is really needed for students to succeed is for them to develop a mindset that embraces struggle, perseverance, self-reliance and endurance. If students would only learn not to give up on the often boring and repetitive tasks that we assign them, then they would become successful and engaged learners. This sense of perseverance or "grit" is not really based on any new substantive research, but is rather a more intuitive - kind of sports-based - philosophy that has overtaken the "character education" or social emotional learning approaches of many schools.
Although he is not credited in any of the recent literature about this theory, its roots can be traced back to historian Arnold J. Toynbee's Study of History which he began in 1922. Toynbee's thesis (reflected by the grit movement) is that: too little challenge results in atrophy and societal collapse; too much challenge and a society is so concerned with survival that it has no time to develop; but, that just the right amount of challenge results in the strengthening of society and gives rise to an explosion of creative problem-solving and growth. (Okay, I guess that maybe Goldilocks expounded the theory first!)
Toynbee's ideas are used by proponents of the importance of "grit" to explain why some children who face challenges do not succeed and why others who face no challenges end up quite successful. Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed channels his inner Toynbee when he states:
"I do think there are plenty of kids in poverty who have lots of grit – arguably more than the average well-off kid. But the problem with focusing too much on the resilience and grit of disadvantaged kids is that we run the risk of minimizing the often quite harmful consequences of growing up in poverty. Some children do become more resilient as a result of growing up in difficult environments – but many others are simply worn down and worn out by the experience."
For students in wealthier families, he contends, the problem is not as acute because they can succeed in spite of themselves:
"The profound advantage that rich kids have is the family and neighbourhood resources that allow them to do well in material ways – to graduate from college, for instance – despite those struggles. They have a social safety net that catches them when they go off course."
At its best, character education which focuses on self-reliance, optimism, and perseverance can play an integral role in the development of any young person. Needless to say, in the past, such character development was seen as part of the role of the family or other social institutions such as the Church, the "Y", the Scouting and Guiding movements, etc. School played a different role. In the 21st Century, it would seem that all of this has been put on the educator's plate.
The downside of the grit analysis of student performance is that, although it expects the school system to foster this development, it also in many ways puts the onus back on the student. If it is all about self-reliance and perseverance, then is there any real need to engage students in the learning process or can we just set expectations? If they do not succeed, then obviously they simply did not have enough "grit" to see themselves through.
My friend Mark Brown, a Canadian educator currently teaching in Bermuda, sent me the following short article about attempts to test the honey bee for "grit".
CATCH THE BUZZ: Honey bees demonstrate decision making process to avoid difficult choices
A recent study on the metacognitive ability of honey bees suggests that they, like humans, avoid difficult decisions when they lack sufficient information to solve a problem. Researchers from Macquarie University in Australia tested honey bees with a series of trials involving visual discrimination between targets inside a two-chamber apparatus. The bees had to learn a rule to match a combination of shapes with nectar. A correct identification was rewarded with sweet nectar, but an incorrect decision resulted in a bitter tasting solution. Bees could also choose not to take the test at all and ‘opt out’.
Researcher Dr Andrew Barron says the results showed that the more difficult the challenge, the more likely the bees were to ‘opt out’. “It’s a highly debated topic, whether non-humans have the same abilities to gauge their level of certainty about a choice before taking action.”
Co-author Dr Clint Perry says, “Similar metacognitive testing has been conducted with dolphins, dogs, and rats. However this study is the first to demonstrates that even insects are capable of making complex and adaptive decisions. “The honey bees’ assessment of the certainty of a predicted outcome was comparable to that of primates in a similar paradigm.”
The size, shape, color and positions of the targets were constantly changed during training so the bees had to learn a geometric rule to solve the task correctly. The bees demonstrated a high level of learning ability to solve the tasks, but when the discrimination of the targets was made harder the bees’ behavior changed. “As we made it harder for the bees to assess the correct shape combination, the bees’ uncertainty about the correct choice grew, and we observed an increase in the decision to exit the chamber and not take the test to avoid the chance of getting it wrong,” said Dr Barron.
“This suggests that the bees were only taking the test when they were confident of getting it right.”
The full study Honey bees selectively avoid difficult choices they lack the information to solve has been published in full by the National Academy of Sciences. Clint J Perry, Andrew B Barron Honey bees selectively avoid difficult choices. National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
So, which is the more advanced theory? Blind perseverance in the face of an impossible task, or strategic withdrawal and choosing to pursue success in another way? Not every student needs to solve every problem. Sometimes knowing when to quit can be a greater indicator of self-awareness than continuing to beat your head against the wall!