I recently heard Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth speak about her research at the filming of a TED/PBS TV special all about education, which airs May 7. Duckworth is the University of Pennsylvania psychologist credited with the discovery of ”grit”–a cluster of so-called non-cognitive skills, including tenacity and perseverance, that may be even more essential to academic achievement than what we used to think of as the innate components of intelligence, such as IQ.
Duckworth first came across this notion while teaching 7th-grade math, when she noticed that some of her strongest performers weren’t necessarily the smartest kids, and some of the smartest kids weren’t necessarily doing that well.
“I was firmly convinced that every one of my students could learn, if they worked hard and long enough,” she said. “ I came to the conclusion that what we need in education is a much better understanding of students and learning from a motivational and psychological perspective.”
Duckworth’s career has moved quickly–she’s developed a “character report card” for the KIPP charter school chain and been centrally featured in Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed. But she freely admitted two points to me: first, that the definition of “grit” is more or less circular at this point–people who have the quality of sticking to things are the ones who stick to things–and secondly, that we don’t necessarily know anything yet about the best ways to promote these qualities in individuals.
But we already know that character, persistence, and motivation are extremely important to students’ learning and success in life. And that’s enough to try to include these qualities in any technological interventions we do in classrooms. All the more so because technologically enabled, student-centered and student-driven learning seems to require an extra degree of self-motivation in order for students to do well.
The US Department of Education recently issued a report on this very topic. While acknowledging that grit and perseverance are difficult to define and difficult to measure, they discussed several types of real-world interventions being done inside, outside, before and after school to promote these qualities.
Among these, technological approaches included digital learning environments, online resources, simulations, and games.
“New and emerging technologies can provide opportunities for optimal challenge through adaptivity, promote academic mindsets, teach learning strategies, promote the development of effortful control, and provide motivating environments,” the authors summarized.
Optimal challenge, in particular, is a central quality driving motivation: a task that is neither too boring nor too frustrating helps you stay on task.
Some of these tech tools and applications attempt to teach strategies like mindfulness (including meditation), metacognition (knowing about knowing), and growth mindset (the belief that one can change one’s own abilities by working harder.) Other learning environments attempt to measure these qualities by seeing how long students spent on task, how many times they attempted to answer a question before giving up , and other such metrics. Some researchers are even using facial recognition and biofeedback sensors to measure students’ reactions during a learning session and try to determine if they are getting frustrated or are absorbed in what they are doing.
If you are interested in measuring your own non-cognitive skills with an online tool, here is Dr. Duckworth’s 8-question grit quiz.