Tag Archives: Duckworth

Castles Built On Grit.

“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


Banging on about Grit and Resilience.


For use by professionals only

The Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has announced that ex-soldiers will be on hand to teach children about ‘grit’ along with programs designed to increase their levels of resilience. Her opposite number, Tristram Hunt, has been banging on about this for a while now, both appearing to announce interventions for things of which they understand little.

I can only assume that both Morgan and Hunt have adopted the term ‘grit’ from psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, whose research appears to have identified certain traits that result in individuals striving to complete tasks and having a passion for long-term goals. If Morgan and Hunt aren’t referring to this research, then I’m not sure that they are in agreement on what they are banging on about. I have heard Hunt use the terms resilience and grit interchangeably and even referring to grit as an American term for resilience – which it isn’t, by the way.

So do children need ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’ training and are former service personnel the best suited to provide it? That all depends on what we mean by the terms we are using.

Morgan has stated:

For pupils who may have faced challenges or difficulties in their personal life, these initiatives run by former armed services personnel can offer a sense of greater aspiration and can help build the skills and confidence they need to go on to good jobs and successful futures

Here, Morgan is suggesting that resilience training would help those children who have experienced adversity in their lives – the ‘traditional’ view of resilience. The problem is that many children who have faced such challenges, and have come through them, have already displayed considerable resilience. Ann Masten, in her now classic article ‘Ordinary Magic’ rejects the view that resilient children are in some way special, claiming that resilience arises from ‘normative functions of the adaptational system’ (Masten, 2001 p.227). Is resilience something that can be taught directly or is it something that emerges through life’s inevitable ups and downs? Furthermore, is this the kind of resilience that students need to develop? If resilience arises through life experience then this would suggest that the ability to cope with adversity emerges naturally – it is not something that can be taught. A more realistic approach would be to concentrate on those day-to-day problems encountered at school that can zap self-confidence and lead to self-handicapping strategies. These problems might be minor but personally significant.

Indeed, some schools have already introduced ‘resilience’ building programs into their curriculum. However, a recent systematic consultative review found that many resilience programs within schools used the term ‘resilience’ is such a vague and conceptually weak manner that the authors found it difficult to identify those which could be realistically described as resilience-based (Hart & Heaver, 2013)

So what about ‘grit’? Research into the grit construct is at the very early stages, so much so that defining it becomes a difficult challenge. Critics claim that the way in which it overlaps with other constructs (including resilience) means that we are still a long way off when it comes to training a person to become more ‘gritty’, never mind identifying those who have increased their ‘grittyness’ post intervention.

If we assume that we are all agreed on what represents these two related constructs, are ex-soldiers the best people to train young people in how to become more resilient and grittier? I suppose that depends, but my gut says ‘no’. Resilience and grit involve a number of other skills, like self-efficacy and emotional self-regulation). Positive emotions are more often present in resilient individuals and those students who are better at regulating their emotions respond more constructively to feedback and view themselves as having more control over their environment are better able to bounce back from challenging situations. Many former soldiers might also display such characteristics, but so do many others, including teachers and students.

My instinct tells me that Morgan and Hunt are more interested in the terms and the images such terms conjure up, rather than being aware of (or even interested in) the concepts themselves or, indeed, the outcome measures involved.

They certainly haven’t read the literature.


Hart, A. & Heaver, B. (2013). Evaluating resilience-based programs for schools using a systematic consultative review . Journal of child and youth development. 1 (1). p.pp. 27–53.

Masten, A. (2001). Ordinary Magic.pdf. American psychologist. 56 (3). p.pp. 227–238.

Resilience, Buoyancy and Grit: Are they the same?

I’ve attempted to explain the way I view these terms before, while at the same time trying to conceal my frustration at the way they are often used interchangeably. Definitions are important to researchers because you need to know what you are researching and how it relates to similar issues – ‘jargon’ is sometimes necessary.

Last year I heard Tristram Hunt describe ‘grit’ as an American term for ‘resilience’. While they may be related, they are not necessarily the same, in fact ‘grit’ is a term coined by Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania (you can watch her TED talk here).

Of ‘resilience’, Duckworth states:

The word resilience is used differently by different people. And to add to the confusion, the ways people use it often have a lot of overlap. To give you an example, Martin Seligman, my advisor and now my colleague here at Penn, has a program called the “Penn Resiliency Program.” It’s all about one specific definition of resilience, which is optimism—appraising situations without distorting them, thinking about changes that are possible to make in your life. But I’ve heard other people use resilience to mean bouncing back from adversity, cognitive or otherwise. And some people use resilient specifically to refer to kids who come from at-risk environments who thrive nevertheless.

Duckworth is aware of the confusion, and this confusion was my starting point when I began my research at PERC. I overcame the first hurdle by adopting the term ‘academic buoyancy’ (the ability to bounce back from daily setbacks) from psychologists Andrew Martin and Herbert Marsh. On the other hand, I view resilience as a way of overcoming major adversity or “…kids who come from at-risk environments who thrive nevertheless”.

Of ‘grit’, Duckworth states:

Grit is related [to resilience] because part of what it means to be gritty is to be resilient in the face of failure or adversity. But that’s not the only trait you need to be gritty.

So Duckworth states that resilience is a ‘trait’ contained within a wider ‘grit’ construct (although arguments continue as to whether resilience is actually a trait).

Duckworth continues:

In the scale that we developed in research studies to measure grit, only half of the questions are about responding resiliently to situations of failure and adversity or being a hard worker. The other half of the questionnaire is about having consistent interests—focused passions—over a long time. That doesn’t have anything to do with failure and adversity. It means that you choose to do a particular thing in life and choose to give up a lot of other things in order to do it. And you stick with those interests and goals over the long term.

She concludes:

So grit is not just having resilience in the face of failure, but also having deep commitments that you remain loyal to over many years.