Saturday, September 28, 2013

True Grit: A Virtuous Habit


     One of my favorite film scenes is Rooster Cogburn’s charge. I don’t care if it’s John Wayne or Jeff Bridges acting the part, the scene is a lot of fun to watch unfold. Of course, I also highly recommend the 1968 novel, True Grit by Charles Portis. The scene is described by the narrator and heroin, Mattie Ross:
     “It was some daring move on the part of the deputy marshal whose manliness and grit I had doubted. No grit? Rooster Cogburn? Not much!

     Now, if you followed the link above, you saw a movie scene where Rooster, the “one-eyed fat man,” makes the charge against Ned Peppers and his band of outlaws. If you’ve read the book, you also know that a legend circulated that Rooster had done a similar deed with Quantrill's Raiders during the Civil War. Is his courage built on that experience? If so, where did it come from when he first jousted with his enemies? Is this deed even possible in real life? It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that it’s been researched: Shootout on Horseback.

     Grit is quickly turning into an educational buzzword, and why not? As Cogburn discovers, the quality can be overdone like anything else, yet there is reason to suggest that grit is a quality that deserves greater attention when it comes to understanding how we learn. Angela Duckworth is currently the leading researcher in the field of studying grit and self-control as predictors of success. I encourage you to visit her website at The Duckworth Lab and, if you dare, you may take the 12-item grit scale to find out how "gritty" you are. It includes items like, “Setbacks don’t discourage me.” You read the statement and then indicate how closely it associates with your mindset.
     To boil down some of Duckworth’s research, she has observed something very powerful in two parts:

     1. Grit, or the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals is related to  
     success with consequential life outcomes. It is a greater  predictor than talent!
     2. Grittier teachers are better teachers.

     So, let’s say you have taken the “Grit Scale,” and you are disappointed with your score. First of all, don’t be. Life requires balance, and too much grit can lead to the kind of “foolish consistency” that Thoreau disdains. Having said that, how does one become grittier?

     There is a wonderful synopsis of Duckworth’s work, along with that of Gabriele Oettingen in Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed (2012). In the section entitled Good Habits, psychologist William James is credited with the concept that what we call virtues – grit for example – are nothing more than habits of mind. They are scripts we say to ourselves over and over again. Habits of mind form one of our often-cited higher order thinking skills: metacognition. They play out in terms of optimism, pessimism, and realism.
    An optimist sees a goal, becomes overwhelmed with the joy of setting the  goal, and then fails because the virtuous script of sustained interest is lost. A pessimist identifies a goal and runs the script of challenges and obstacles –dwelling – until the goal seems impossible. The third alternative is “mental contrasting.” In this case, the realist simultaneously concentrates on the positive outcome and the obstacles that will get in the way.

     The lesson in all this for me is that when I think about my own thought process, especially when I am facing a challenge, I am building grit. Just the act of metacognition, the act of thinking about the way I am dwelling, indulging, or contrasting my way through a goal or problem, builds mental toughness because I am taking an honest look in the mirror and evaluating what  I see. I believe that when we engage students with questions about how they start, finish, or process a task, and wait for and insist on thoughtful answers, we are fostering metacognition and, consequently, the habit of grit. In other words, it is not enough for a child to succeed with a task, it is paramount that as teachers and parents, we often ask the child “how” she planned to succeed and carried out the plan to fruition. It is important to help the child make connections between what she did and the outcome.
     Grit is a fun and serious word. Whenever I hear it, I can’t help but think of Portis’s novel and Rooster Cogburn. He makes me smile. He’s so cocky that he articulates his exploits – whether positive or negative – as a matter of fact: “No brag, just fact.” It’s beautiful, and there are people like that. They know what they can do, and they state their dreams with confidence while understanding that nothing worth doing is easy. It is a virtuous habit that can be learned.