23 January 2014

"Grit" Part 2 - Is "Slack" What Kids Need?

Paul Thomas, a Furman University professor who - in that best tradition of academic discourse - I alternately fight with and agree with, tells me that I was way too nice to Paul Tough when I wrote about "grit" back in December.

Turns out he was probably right.

The more feedback I received on the "Tough/Tough Kids" concept, the uglier, the more destructive, the more vicious the whole "movement" by America's elite seems to me...

Just this morning educators told me on Twitter that teaching "grit" was essential because of "mistakes made by the US governments "No Child Left Behind" law" and because of the pace of contemporary life. Even someone I think of "as smart" as @coolcatteacher - Vicki Davis - jumps in the water with pro-eugenics professor Angela Duckworth and brings "teaching grit" into her classroom.

Right up front on her website, queen of "grit" Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania
joins herself to the theories of notorious Eugenecist Francis Galton.
"Be careful," I like to say, "who you're jumping into bed with."
Horatio Alger's 1869 Pluck and Luck.
Alger sold the "grit" myth for half a
century via books like
Ragged Dick,
Brave and Bold, Sink or Swim.
In the end I realize that there is no difference at all between Paul Tough and Horatio Alger - including their respective research methods, and I realize that there is no difference between the researchers Tough quotes in his book, or those educators jumping on the "grit bandwagon," and those mid-19th century American preachers screaming about the lazy Catholics arriving from Ireland.
 "Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are as ignorant and vicious as they are poor. They are lazy, improvident and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons, and are as brutish in their superstition as Hindoos." - Toronto Globe 1851.
"Catholics, and most specifically, the Irish, were frequently vilified in the curriculum of New York’s public schools. Public schools used textbooks that portrayed the Irish immigrants as “extremely needy, and in many cases drunken and depraved…subject for all our grave and fearful reflection,”' PBS notes, "nearly seventy-five percent of our criminals and paupers are Irish," said Harper's Weekly in 1860. There is simply no doubt that the Irish who arrived in America between 1840 and 1910 - the Catholic Irish as opposed to the Protestant Irish (Scots-Irish) who arrived earlier - lacked "grit" in the minds of political leaders, religious leaders, journalists, and teachers. They were lazy - amazingly they need not even get to a specific Sunday church service at a specific time. They were easily distracted - did you know that in their churches they move a lot and have all these things to look at? They weren't motivated - wow! they like being home or with their community more than working - they're satisfied with low paying municipal jobs like being police officers! They were illiterate - in their churches there aren't prayer books! They don't all read the same thing at the same time like in our churches/schools!

Lacking "grit," the 19th Century
Irish immigrants could simply
not be assimilated.
Today, conceptual identical slanders are used against groups "we" don't like who are trying to enter They won't do homework! They won't try for hours to complete the same stupid worksheet! They won't retake that test! They wear their pants so you can see their underwear! They won't take off their hats! They won't sit up straight! In other words, they won't be like "us," and we better bang on them until they learn that they must.

"Grit is simple – it is developed by situations that require it.," Vicki Davis writes, "We all have tough in our life – but what do we do with it? Do we grit our teeth and push forward or do we fall back and lay on our floppy cushion with excuses in our mouths?" "I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one," is a negative phrase in Angela Duckworth's almost comical "grit analysis" (on which I received a 1.75, or "grittier than 1% of the US population") because we know, thank God, that Samuel Clemens stuck with that riverboat career and Albert Einstein fully committed himself to his Patent Office clerkship.

Let's be clear. What Duckworth, Tough, even Davis are referring to is essential to traditional school success. But the word they are seeking is not "grit" - as I said before, the kids they want to give "grit" to are the "grittiest" kids on earth - that's how they've survived - the word these "grit proponents" are seeking is "compliance." They want kids working hard at what they themselves value, which is, apparently, "white middle class conformity."

"Grit," school leader Dave Meister says, "is simply a term by which the privileged try distinguish their behavior from those they define as unworthy."

And this is the key. There is a reason Angela Duckworth quotes and relies on one of the "fathers" of the Eugenics Movement. Like IQ scores, like the Prussian Model of age-based school grades and grade level standards, like the institutionalized racism of certain dress codes or the KIPP SLANT formula, "grit" is a way of limiting the opportunity of those who might - measured by their own standards - compete educationally and economically with the children of rich people.

Let's go back to Dr. Thomas:
"Children in poverty line up at the starting line with a bear trap on one leg; middle-class children start at the 20-, 30-, and 40-meter marks; and the affluent stand at the 70-, 80-, and 90-meter marks.

"And while gazing at education as a stratified sprint, “no excuses” reformers shout to the children in poverty: “Run twice as fast! Ignore the bear trap! And if you have real grit, gnaw off your foot, and run twice as fast with one leg!”

"These “no excuses” advocates turn to the public and shrug, “There’s nothing we can do about the trap, sorry.”

"What is also revealed in this staggered 100-meter race is that all the children living and learning in relative affluence are afforded slack by the accidents of their birth: “Slack” is the term identified by Mullainathan and Shafir as the space created by abundance that allows any person access to more of her/his cognitive and emotional resources."
Because this is what kids need. Slack. This is what I was discussing, without the word, at the end of my last post. Because I thought about this over the last couple of days: What "grit" did Bill Gates demonstrate when he quit Harvard because his dad hooked him up with an amazing contact at IBM and his buddy found an operating system Gates could buy for almost nothing and sell for a fortune? What "grit" did George W. Bush show when he walked away from a National Guard commitment because, suddenly, he was more interested in a political campaign? What "grit" Barack Obama show evidence of as the child of a PhD student, with very supportive grandparents, at a multi-ethnic private school in Hawaii?

What "grit" does the Yale University student show when she calls home for more money from dad? What "grit" do upper middle class parents teach their kids when they drive them to school? When they go talk to their teachers about problems? When they provide money for sports lessons or music lessons? See Paul, Angela, Vicki, I'm confused, because all those I'm asking about have succeeded or will succeed famously...

What the people I mention above have is "slack" - the moments when necessity is not the sole driver. "The cost [of "scarcity" - the primary element in "grit theory"] is an undue focus on the necessity at hand, which leads to a lack of curiosity about wider issues, and an inability to imagine longer-term consequences. The effect of this scarcity-generated "loss of bandwidth" has catastrophic results..." The Guardian writes in a book review on the topic. The "struggle" that Tough, Duckworth, Davis, et al want for kids is the creation of "scarcity" among children already scarred by "scarcity." The "grit" they discuss imposes "scarcity" by focusing kids on the problems, the deficits, "the mountain" as Davis puts it, instead of the solutions, or, what we might call, the highway we try to build to our students' futures.

And now let me go back to Peter Høeg's Borderliners, but via a quote from my older sister a long long time ago when I called her desperate for a couple of hundred bucks to fix my car. She said, "no problem, I'll mail the check now," and then she said, "see, that's the difference now. I can help, and so you're ok. For a lot of people, the car breaks, they can't fix it, they lose their job, they end up homeless." Living in Brooklyn in the late 1970s, I saw evidence of what she meant on every corner. She had given me "slack," and no matter how much "grit" I might have had - no matter how much "grit" Angela Duckworth might think I have - only "slack" could save me in that moment. (I suppose I only got 1.75 on Duckworth's scale because I listed myself as "white" and well educated, without that I would probably have been closer to 0)

And so this is why the scene I alluded to in Peter Høeg's Borderliners has always been crucial to me: 
"We were going to shower. We were last. Valsang was standing on his side of the window. Humlum went in ahead of me. He walked straight through the warm shower as though it did not exist and in under the first of the cold ones. And there he stayed. He did not move, he just stood there, while his skin first went red and then white. He looked at his feet, I knew he stayed there so that I could stay in the warm shower and not be made to get a move on. I had shut my eyes, the warm water closed up, like a wall. I had never stood for as long before. - Peter eg, Borderliners
"Slack," "space that doesn’t force anyone to consider trade-offs," is the magical alternative to the "grit" and misery proposed for children by The New York Times, by Paul Tough, by the University of Pennsylvania's Angela Duckworth, by the University of Chicago School of Economics, by the American Economic Elites.

And "slack" is the idea I was reaching for, and found most wonderfully recalled in the work of eg.

And "slack" and "abundance" are what our "at risk" children need: "They show that abundance allows people slack, space that doesn’t force anyone to consider trade-offs. Conversely, scarcity removes slack. In moments of abundance, then, people behave differently than in moments of scarcity. The consequences for people in poverty are much greater, then, than the consequences for people in affluence."

In my understanding of "slack," "Negative Space," not the SLANT concepts of KIPP nor the "misery index" of Duckworth, is the path to opportunity. "this is really about allowing students to breathe. "It was a kind of no-man’s-land, a place of possibility," Beller says of Manhattan's [Central Park], and I thought of all the "places of possibility" of my youth, from an abandoned military base to an abandoned railway station, from the catwalk above the stage in my Junior High's auditorium to the odd turret spaces which ended the corners of my high school, from the long corridor linking the high school library to the rest of the building - broken into caves by panels displaying artwork - to the tops of the stair towers overlooking the river in the Kresge Art Center at Michigan State. These were places I could breathe, dream, fantasize, imagine, hope, cry. I thought of how a curve of rock along a winter beach might be the safest place I knew at age 13, or how the space in front of the air-conditioner on the roof of Macy's might have been the most intimate at 15," I wrote 18 months ago.

So we need to call out the "grit lobby" and their Eugenics belief system: When people put out things like,  Angela Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania). Christopher Peterson (University of Michigan), Michael Mathews (United States Military Academy), and Dennis Kelly (United States Military Academy) [pdf] and write: "Why do some individuals accomplish more than others of equal intelligence? In addition to cognitive ability, a list of attributes of high-achieving individuals would likely include creativity, vigor, emotional intelligence, charisma, self-confidence, emotional stability, physical attractiveness, and other positive qualities..." we need to point out that what they are pursuing is social reproduction and the preservation of wealth and power for elites. We have to point out that a religious paradigm of behaviors is not to be confused with a science of educational opportunity.

But most of all, we need to fight to do for all of our children what Oscar Humlum did for the narrator in the Borderliners passage. He interrupted the brutal industrial flow and gave a child a moment of abundance.

My God, isn't that our job?

- Ira Socol


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher said...

Ira -
You have so many great points here but here is where you go soooooo off what at least I'm talking about...

"Let's be clear. What Duckworth, Tough, even Davis are referring to is essential to traditional school success. But the word they are seeking is not "grit" - as I said before, the kids they want to give "grit" to are the "grittiest" kids on earth - that's how they've survived - the word these "grit proponents" are seeking is "compliance.""

I am not nor have I ever sought compliance. One of the first things I do is to state something that I and they know to be wrong and praise the person who points it out. Compliance? What?

I want my children to succeed in this world and grew up on a farm where I had to work long hard days. I took this work ethic to Georgia Tech where I barely got in with my SAT and my motto "I may not be smarter but I can work harder" was what propelled me to graduate first in my class.

In fact, having grit in today's world is a greater form of noncompliance because most of these kids friends are playing video games and not wanting to work.

I want them to be independent, contrarians, to reject group think (which do you do swell), passion based but also to go after their passions with a determination that is UNSTOPPABLE. That is grit -- and if you're going to take the leap to noncompliance or make something political out of it and heap my name into it, I'm going to take you on because you are wrong.

That said -- are some politicans and others making Grit Political - YES. Are others misconstruing grit as an excuse to be a sorry school or sorry teachers because they are "hard" - yes and shame on them. Grit is becoming political and it shouldn't be something to force the minions into some sort of Big Brother group think compliance. Grit shouldn't be political - it is a character trait needed by everyone.

But to tell kids that this world is going to be easy and they should just relax and let it come at them.

Creativity, vigor and so many of these other things are VITAL to living as well as emotional intelligence, charisma, self-confiedence, emotional stability and other things ARE important. Of course...

I want children to have moments of abundance, of course. I think you draw some sweeping conclusions here on how GRIT may being misused or used -- but be very careful about misattributing things here. No where did I in any of my articles - mine or the one I wrote for Edutopia talk about compliance and mind numbing brain-sucking passion-sucking life-sucking teaching as being any part of compliance.

Just that when you have a passion - stick to it and be willing to speak out about it even when it is hard - and you can't get any more non compliant than that

Anonymous said...

I think part of our problem here is that we say "grit" but each see something else. I do not see a lot of dissonance in what the two of you talk about. Ira's use of slack is what I see Vicky trying to provide? What does it take to build a "can do it" attitude with perseverance? Talking, studying, experiencing stories about traits that allow one to adapt to circumstances could be important within the context of an engaging curriculum? As I sit here in my warm office on a "snow day", I know I have have experienced plenty of slack in my life and it has allowed me to become who I am. Days like today remind me of my first year as an elementary administrator and going to school and finding a student in the window well of the school on a sub zero morning. She had a horrific life at home that the authorities (and I) failed to save her from. Her progress through school followed my mine ascension to a high school position. She became a very angry high school student that eventually dropped out. As far as I knew she never had any slack. She was smart in her own way...avoiding the worst of her world, but she became pregnant and dropped out. I have lost track of her, but know that we as a community failed her, but I know this, she had grit. It was ground into her by life experiences and she could not get past the scars.

Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher said...

Yes Dave - what your student needed was not "grit" - she needed much much more and if someone ignored her needs or didn't help her and used grit as an excuse. If the world was as easy as saying every student needs __ the most, the would wouldn't be so hard. There are kids who need a "break" or they need an encouraging hand or help. A day in high school without mascara running down a teenagers face is a snow day -- and kids need so much more than just "grit."

If the issue is "eugenics" or some weird theory that hurts kids that is one thing but I'll never forget reading Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly effective people and understanding the first habit "Be Proactive" -- perhaps I'm highly influenced by my reading in literature on successful people as Ira is highly influenced by deeply reading on the background of researchers like Angela Duckworth and others. And if Angela believes in eugenics and being harmful to poor children as Ira says she does then I'll rethink what I've written as well as links.

I'm glad Ira speaks out because we don't need group think in education and if grit is being missapplied in a way that is harmful to children then that needs to be brought to the attention of many. But in my school and in many I work with the problem is the opposite - there is a definite surge towards not wanting to work at all and all great undertakings I think require some sort of hard work. There is a joy that comes from it -- we're going to be at work or school for much of our lives so we might be well set to learn to bring joy from that.

Anyway - I'm going to study and think and see what I need to rephrase and I hope Ira will do the same. He continues to be someone I read and learn from but I do think about halfway through this article goes way off course and far reaching and to lump me in with such thinking is off base and wrong and a gross mischaracterization. I am not Angela Duckworth.

irasocol said...

Dave, and Vicki,

Yes, words matter. Paul Tough's "Grit," Angela Duckworth's "Grit" are clearly forms of compliance with white authority - "take that test," "try again" "try harder" (my least favorite phrase) - http://books.google.com/books?id=2A5ye6zIiZgC&lpg=PA8&ots=p5GV11vP3B&dq=ira%20socol%20the%20tower&pg=PA11#v=onepage&q=ira%20socol%20the%20tower&f=false

Vicki is probably talking about "persistence" - I'm going to guess here. Persistence outside the bounds of survival, though, is always, as Dave says, the result of "slack" and "abundance," not "Grit" which is survival, or, for Tough and Duckworth, survival in a system controlled by others.

Vicki told me on Twitter that I "have grit." But that's not true. I am fairly lazy. I give up easily. I get depressed and inactive. I'm totally distractable. But what I have had - despite everything - is a history of occasional gifts of slack and abundance. A third grade teacher here, a brilliant high school teacher there. A coach or two. A university art professor. A fabulous boss and professors at Grand Valley State. A tolerant child. An amazing opportunity in work right now.

I am deeply grateful for all. And my goal is paying that forward.


irasocol said...

A few added notes:

The topic of "eugenics science" vs "forced sterilization" may need another full blog post, but - for Vicki Davis and others - the path from believing that people are "born right" or "born wrong" - an essential bit of Calvinist - and American mythic - Cosmology, puts one on that path.

Via Twitter this morning I received this aricle http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2014/01/programmer_privilege_as_an_asian_male_computer_science_major_everyone_gave.html which makes a perfect example. The author, "born right" (an Asian male) to be a computer programmer received all manner of "slack" and "abundance" on his path through school. A friend, "born wrong" (female) was expected to "tough things out."

This is often referred to as "white privilege" whether the identity in question is Caucasian or not. "White" being a reference to the power elite.

But a few things people might want to read:
Max Weber's classic: The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is essential to understanding the religious belief behind many of America's educational research assumptions (free via many sources including Google Books). So is Raymond Callahan's Education and the Cult of Efficiency (which you can find cheap via Amazon).

There is also evidence that that so-called "Work Ethic" - which Vicki told me via Twitter she really prizes - actually raises the cost of failure http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_world_/2013/08/29/is_the_protestant_work_ethic_real_a_new_study_claims_it_can_be_measured.html when people like me tend to think the key to student persistence lies in lowering the cost of failure so kids will try again (see James Gee on video game learning).

As I said in the post, it is important to separate cultural religious belief from claims of science. The work of Tough and especially Duckworth are based in assumptions which come from religious belief in certain behaviors. These assumptions work strongly against our diverse student population. I'm not sure about Tough, but because in her primary research statement the only research Duckworth cites besides her own is that of a reprehensible eugenecist, I'm going to figure she knows where she is going.


Anonymous said...

As with most things of this nature, this talk of 'grit' is about who will sign the paycheck.

You start saying something that will make rich people feel good about themselves, and they will pay you to keep saying it.

It just so happens that there's a whole educational system attached to this dynamic, but this is America. That's how it works.

But here's a stunt someone should try:

In a public venue, such as a Q&A, someone should ask these folks if they, personally, have grit. It's a yes or no question. If they offer an anecdote, reject it and say you need quantifiable evidence, not a story.


David Hochheiser said...

Ira - I've never read anything you've written without being interested and learning a bit, but so much of your conversation here is personally nasty and makes some grand assumptions that aren't at all accounting for the possibility of nuance. You didn't call me out here, but I was on the receiving end of a tweet of yours that essentially labeled me as a Puritan elitist. Ouch.

Maybe the issue here is that we're using different definitions to talk about "grit," but I've seen many examples of behavior that has me supporting the importance of perseverance. I want to start - and I don't intend to labor on too far about this - by saying that I think "grit" works best in the smaller moments. I never saw it as an answer to the urban poverty where I've worked any more than I saw that poverty as a reflection of someone's character. This, for me, isn't about overcoming hurdles of that sort. It's also not about ever changing one's mind or bending a goal towards a path that hadn't existed at the onset. For example, I put off grad school to play drums in a band for 6 years.

I have seen teenagers and adults of all sorts, though, give up on questions or projects because they required a bit of time and some cognitive muscle, things that weren't available with the push of a microwave start button or the click of a track pad. Students who tried to give a quick and easy answer, only to find their paper back on their desks with follow-up questions to consider. Students who say they'd rather have me lecture to them or ask to "just watch a video" with spoon-fed information instead of working through documents and perspectives on their own.

For what it's worth, and you can call me out on it if you'd like, I don't think a bit of conformity and compliance is always a bad thing. I love a rebel when (s)he has something to say or a cause to support, and I have no problems with people expressing their personalities, but there are times when I put a tie on and humor that I don't share with everyone. I even try to proofread everything I write and chew lunch with my mouth closed. I know I don't have to, but I've also learned that not doing so may limit my options, so I'm grateful for those lessons and the people who were willing to help me internalize them. That being said, I don't think any of that has to do with why I love the idea of "grit" and why my 6-year-old son knows what "perseverance" is.

As far as slack goes, I've always put it into my work in schools as I can, as students seem to earn it from me. Again, this practice transcends all manner of students. I give plenty of "space" to those who have shown that they can be trusted. My deadlines are almost always flexible. I let kids sit in my office if they need a few minutes to decompress. If a student's struggling, and I know an adult with whom he/she has a relationship, I'll help make time for them to connect. I can't give them the Gates, Bush, Obama experiences that you've described, but I don't think I have to. Both "grit" and "slack" seem, to me, to be what Vicki has described as things that show up as needed in the moment.

I guess we'll have to disagree in the end on this, but I don't take much stock in the accusations you've thrown around at me and others on this.

Unknown said...

I'm a 2nd year Middle School teacher, but I was hired as a Lateral Entry for my Engineering degree to help other teachers with STEM. I should also say that I am a veteran with a firm respect for discipline, alongside a healthy childish couriosity. What I have learned as a teacher is that American children are mostly either over protected or intellectually neglected. This applies across the board, rich and poor. By the way, I was raised lower middle class in an abusive home.

I hadn't heard about Grit until this month when NPR broadcasted their two stories and the Ted Hour interview with Ms. Duckworth. I immediately sent the links to my principal because she has been defending my style of teaching since she hired me and this Grit thing is almost exactly what I've learned to do intuitively to help my students overcome their fear of failure. As the year has gone by more and more disgruntled parents have come to my side on this. The reason? The more their child complained the more they realized how lazy their child had become about doing a little bit of homework that is nothing compared to what we had ourselves as children.

So they laid off of me and gave it time and didn't interfere. Now I had two separate classes of students and one group was my homeroom, which meant I had more contact with their parents than the other group. The parents of the others were not as quick to accept my style. Well their kids fought me and I had days where nearly the whole class wouldn't turn in assignments. Then the benchmark tests came mid-year. My homeroom beat the others by over 15 points and came in a very close third in the county. The principal contacted helped get the word out and now I have nearly every parent onboad.

The most important fact to know is that our public school is struggling to even have paper and my classes don't have books for the students to take home. We have online texts but in my rural impoverished community half of my students don't even have smartphones. Still we came in 3rd behind two well funded schools with strong PTOs. I don't know that everything you are saying is correct with Duckworth but it sounds to me that she is on the right track based on my background and experience. I often find that Americans who haven't done public service or earned degrees in fields that require a lot of mental discipline or had rough childhoods, don't take seriously enough the importance of a dedicated work ethic. For instance, I hear many people say that they don't give 100% if a job doesn't pay enough but any job that I agree to take always gets 100% of my effort. And I treat rental property the same as if it were my own. And I live up to my own high standards without concern for what others think or say about me.

And yet, I never make my studenta feel dumb. I tell them that even if they never become experts in STEM trying and failing will still teach them more than not trying at all. But you are entitled to your own opinion. I just ask that anyone who has never taught Middle School should spend some time shadowing a teacher before they decide definitively that Grit is just a way to make poor kids feel worse.

irasocol said...


Your background and mine are actually remarkably similar - yes, I was NYPD and not military - and my experience with education also involves our highest risk children, including a stint I did working with homeless children. So, I do not really need to shadow a middle school teacher before writing, though, yes, in my current job I do that often, including among rural and urban poor.

Across my experience, since my days as a cop in The Bronx of the 1980s, I have found the Grit Narrative false and that its practitioners do not tend to create lifespan success stories - and I have enough life experience now to know the long term trajectories of these students. From the Police Athletic League to the classrooms I support today I have seen that abundance and slack are what create those long term successes.