“Grit” had become a highly prized educational attribute since its conceptualisation by Angela Duckworth, Professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Grit According to Duckworth, Grit represents perseverance and passion for long term goals as well as the ability to maintain effort over years, despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress. We’ve heard educationalists and politicians go on about grit and other ‘character attributes’ for awhile now; Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, announced last year that £500,000 will be allotted to projects that would bring rugby coaches into school to teach ‘grit and respect’ as part of the drive to develop character education in schools. Other similar schemes have been proposed.
But it seems grit might have a problem. It might even be that ‘grit’ isn’t even a unique construct and, even if it is, it probably has a minimum impact on educational outcomes.
The story so far…
Grit, it is claimed, correlates positively with conscientiousness (one of the big 5 personality traits) but not with IQ, so intelligent people won’t necessarily be gritty people. In fact, Duckworth believes that achievement arises from a combination of talent and sustained focus and application of talent over time. The gritty individual doesn’t think of short-term gains – they’re in it for the long haul; achievement to the gritty ones is a marathon not a sprint. Additionally, talented people have a tendency to set themselves goals and once they reach that goal they stop. If a person is talented and displays high level of grit, they propel themselves beyond an arbitrary threshold.
One of Duckworth’s earliest investigations into grit involved the study of a group of cadets at the elite West Point Military Academy in the United States (Duckworth et al., 2007). Around twenty-five percent of all officers in the US army are graduates of West Point. So arduous is the training, that around one in twenty cadets will drop out during the summer of training that takes place before the first academic year. Admission to West Point is based on a ‘Whole Candidate Score’ comprising SAT scores, class rank, demonstrated leadership ability and physical aptitude. The researchers were interested in how levels of grit were predictive of who would drop out of training before the end of the summer. To this end, they administered a short grit questionnaire in addition to the usual West Point psychological tests. They found that grit was a greater predictor of who dropped out than the Whole Candidate Score, supporting the view that grit was able to predict success due to consistent and sustained perseverance. In a later study involving participants in a ‘spelling bee’ competition, Duckworth found that grit enabled spellers to persist with practice activities that were less intrinsically rewarding but more effective than other types of preparation (Duckworth et al., 2011).
So far, so good.
However, the problem with much of the research conducted by Duckworth is that it involves highly specialised samples. West Point cadets are all high achievers in many different disciplines and spelling bee contestants are highly skilled at what they do for a reason – they work very hard at it. These participants don’t equate to a representative sample; what researchers really need to do is test grit on ordinary people in ordinary situations.
This is exactly what Kaili Rimfeld and colleagues from Kings College London did (Rimfeld et al., 2016). They recruited a sample of 4,500 16-year-old twins who were already part of the Twins Early Development Study, a longitudinal study run from Kings College that began in 1994. They asked the twins to complete a “Grit-S” questionnaire to measure consistency of interest. Researchers then administered the Big 5 Personality Questionnaire to assess personality traits. These scores were then compared to GCSE results.
Results found that grit alone only predicted 0.5% of the differences between GCSE results while other personality traits predicted around 6%. In terms of heritability (the extent to which genes contribute to differences between people) the level of contribution was similar to other personality traits (about one-third). It is also inconclusive as to whether ‘grit’ represents a distinct personality trait or is simply ‘conscientiousness’ with a trendy new label and the promise of lucrative research grants.
Grit, therefore, appears to have little impact on academic achievement – in this study at least – and that’s an important point as I expect others will want to conduct studies with similar samples.
It would seem, once again, that those in charge of educational policy have jumped the gun and have implemented changes founded upon insufficient evidence. With the rollout of character education programs with little evidence to support favourable outcomes, we are again seeing vital funds being wasted on unproven schemes. Given time, we should have a greater understanding of concepts and outcome measures, but for now there is very little about this field that we can really know for sure.
Duckworth, A. L., Kirby, T. A., Tsukayama, E., Berstein, H. & Ericsson, K. A. (2011). Deliberate Practice Spells Success: Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2 (2). p.pp. 174–181.
Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D. & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of personality and social psychology. [Online]. 92 (6). p.pp. 1087–101. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17547490. [Accessed: 20 February 2014].
Rimfeld, K., Kovas, Y., Dale, P. S. & Plomin, R. (2016) True Grit and Genetics: Predicting Academic Achievement From Personality Journal of Personality and Social Psychology