Sticktoitiveness and Upward Mobility: Can We Teach Grit?

 

If you want to climb the opportunity ladder, better get educated. But this new Chicago Fed report looks at how “non-cognitive” skills may influence mobility:

I find that inequality in an index of “non-cognitive skills” explains as much or more of the variation in intergenerational mobility than inequality in traditional measures of cognitive skills such as numeracy, literacy, and problem solving. An emerging line of research has argued that personality traits such as perseverance and grit play an important role in socioeconomic success. These results are consistent with the idea that the large gaps in skills in the U.S. population are part of what is driving both higher inequality and lower intergenerational mobility. At a minimum, these new descriptive findings should help inform the ongoing policy debate about what, if anything, should be done to improve equality of opportunity.

One theme of economist Tyler Cowen’s work is that conscientiousness is a capability or skill that will only grow in value, whether it’s consistently sitting down in front of a computer to take an online class or being a reliable member of an office team. Now economist report author Bhashkar Mazumder does not have some 10-point policy agenda but does offer this:

One straightforward explanation for these findings is that societies in which opportunities for human capital development are unequal will exhibit a high degree of skill inequality and experience less intergenerational economic mobility. This could arise for a number of reasons, including differences in access to health care early in life (including the prenatal period), unequal access to preschool, disparities in the quality of elementary or secondary school education, or lack of affordability of higher education.

OK, how do you teach and develop conscientiousness or grit? On an EconTalk podcast, Russ Roberts asked Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed,” that very question:

Tough: I think there’s some pretty strong evidence that we can change these things; but I think you are absolutely right that we don’t yet know how. And so in my book, part of what I’m doing is trying to point people toward experimental evidence or some particularly innovative educators who I think are developing these skills. But absolutely–we don’t yet have a curriculum or a real methodology that’s going to say: Here’s how you boost conscientiousness scores. I do feel like for kids who are struggling in school and especially for kids in high-poverty neighborhoods, I do think that giving them, talking with them about the importance of these character strengths, giving them a clear sense of how hard work and conscientiousness now is going to lead to clear paths later, language in a context that makes sense to them, can have an enormous effect. I mean, in some ways it’s exactly why all of these high performing charter schools from Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) to all of the ones in the same mold–it’s exactly why they are so successful. They just get these kids to become incredibly conscientious and to work really hard. And they do it by being really good at motivating them and partly that has to do with a sense of group identity and all the kind of fun it is to be a student.

Roberts: The rah, rah.

Tough:  Exactly. But I think it’s also very–like, on the walls of KIPP there are posters explaining the economic data about how much your salary will increase if you get a BA. And I think that’s a pretty abstract concept to most kids. But I think it’s pretty compelling when you look at the numbers.

Roberts: Do they believe it?

Tough: : I think they do.

Roberts: There are a lot of things that we tell kids–you were a kid once. They just don’t believe it.

Tough: I think that alone–if you go into a classroom and say: Okay, here’s the data; you get a BA and here’s what you are going to make. That’s probably not going to do it. But I think in the context of these more powerful motivation techniques that KIPP uses, this group identity and wall-to-wall messaging, I think that that message is really powerful. And that without it then all of that other stuff becomes kind of empty. If you can say to kids: This will lead to real success and you can do it and other people like you can do it, that is not something you hear a lot and not something you see evidence of a lot when you are growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood. And seeing that evidence and hearing that message is, I think, really powerful.

Published in General
Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 18 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Asquared Inactive
    Asquared
    @ASquared

    As the parent of a smart but lazy 13-year, PLEASE let me know if you figure this out.

    • #1
  2. user_966256 Member
    user_966256
    @BobThompson

    I have a notion (cannot support specifically with facts) that the weak point in teaching or instilling the value and motivation referred to as ‘sticktoitiveness’ is that same point that plagues conservatives in our modern sociopolitical environment, namely, that our living standards and available resources have reached a level where expectations within rising generations are at such a level, from either family or government entitlements, that individuals don’t develop a pressing need for continuous perseverance in the face of repeated adversity. My notion emerges simply from my own life experience and observation of how different my developing period was from that of my children and grandchildren.

    • #2
  3. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    The reduced attention spans and time horizons of our age certainly do not help.

    • #3
  4. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    I need to write a post on the marshmallow study revisited. Whether you can teach kids sticktoitiveness or not, you can certainly un-teach it to them by behaving unreliably toward them. Turns out kids are rational, too, and will stop trying to exert self-control if their exertions don’t bring them the promised reward.

    • #4
  5. Kay of MT Member
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    My grandmother’s favorite expression was, “If it’s worth doing at all then it’s worth doing it right in the first place.” I re-did many a chore before I learned that.

    • #5
  6. CandE Inactive
    CandE
    @CandE

    Asquared:As the parent of a smart but lazy 13-year, PLEASE let me know if you figure this out.

    As a recovering smart but lazy 13-year old, I can only advise patience.  It wasn’t until I started paying for college that I started applying myself.

    -E

    • #6
  7. Asquared Inactive
    Asquared
    @ASquared

    CandE:

    Asquared:As the parent of a smart but lazy 13-year, PLEASE let me know if you figure this out.

    As a recovering smart but lazy 13-year old, I can only advise patience. It wasn’t until I started paying for college that I started applying myself.

    I’m recovered/ing lazy kid myself, so I understand.  I think he would benefit greatly from a couple of years in the military.

    There’s nothing quite like digging a man-sized hole only to fill it back the next day to make you think that attending classes and doing your homework isn’t that much to ask.

    It certainly worked for me.

    • #7
  8. ParisParamus Inactive
    ParisParamus
    @ParisParamus

    This is one of Adam Carolla’s complaints and crusades.  Seems to me the most obvious key is a childhood of limited or no comfort.  LDS culture seems to promote grit.  Not promoting high self-esteem seems to promote grit, too.  That’s all I got.

    • #8
  9. user_352043 Moderator
    user_352043
    @AmySchley

    Asquared:As the parent of a smart but lazy 13-year, PLEASE let me know if you figure this out.

    Not a parent but as one with a life long “not achieving her full potential” sticker, I’d first look into whether it’s a problem with insufficient grit or insufficient motivation.

    Does said teenager have anything that requires hard work that he is willing to do? (e.g. a sport, a video game, a musical instrument, a hobby)  If not, then I’d look at the military or some other experience sufficiently traumatizing that he’ll find a way to work hard if it means getting away from it.

    But if he has the ability to work hard at anything, then it’s a problem of motivation, and the trick is to find what “real world” project he can be motivated to do.  Not everyone is cut out for STEM, or even academics, and helping to guide a young person to a more hands-on career path might do wonders for both of your sanities.

    Personally, my biggest problem was that while I’m capable of high-level academics, I never really had a passion for them that wasn’t an attempt to satisfy my parents’ desires to live vicariously through me and get the STEM bachelors they never earned.  And in retrospect, the fact that at 19, I wanted to be a housewife but stayed in school because I didn’t want to disappoint them explains a lot about my middling grades and fruitless job searches.  In this world, you aren’t going to get prizes if you don’t want to work hard for them.

    • #9
  10. Lucy Pevensie Inactive
    Lucy Pevensie
    @LucyPevensie

    I just read Paul Tough’s book and was thinking of writing a review, so I was interested to see this piece here.

    Tough is clearly liberal in his sympathies, but his book, at least to some extent, demonstrates the adage that “the facts of life are conservative.” Hard work and self discipline are values that correlate with success in both school and life. Tough notes that some of the earliest scholars to see this were Marxists, who saw this fact as “evidence that the school system was rigged to create a docile proletariat.” Now he sees inculcating these values in kids as a way to help them thrive, and particularly to escape backgrounds of deprivation.

    There is, however, one point that I think Tough misses when he talks about the correlation between a BA and higher income. He argues against the Charles Murray idea that only a small number of people are smart enough to benefit from college by demonstrating that, with the proper noncognitive skills, people with deficient academic backgrounds can get through college.  But he can’t seem to take the next step, to ask whether college is the result, rather than the cause, of people going on to succeed. If college is only a measure of persistence, grit, and so forth, which then allows employers to pick out the people with those qualities, perhaps we could find a different measuring tool that would be less costly to society than near-universal college education.

    • #10
  11. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:I need to write a post on the marshmallow study revisited. Whether you can teach kids sticktoitiveness or not, you can certainly un-teach it to them by behaving unreliably toward them. Turns out kids are rational, too, and will stop trying to exert self-control if their exertions don’t bring them the promised reward.

    OK, I’ve written a post on it. Will put it up tomorrow morning.

    • #11
  12. MJBubba Inactive
    MJBubba
    @MJBubba

    The best motivator is an entry-level job.   When older son was in 10th grade, he wanted a job of his own.   Since we were homeschooling, he was quickly able to get a lunch-shift job at a sandwich shop.   After a couple of months he was doing everything from running the cash register to keeping inventory to sandwich assembly.   He learned a lot.

    The chief thing he learned was how hard he worked for not much in pay, and he saw how many applicants came through each time there was an opening in the restaurant.  He figured out that he was getting lots of extra duties because he was more efficient than new hires, but the extra pay he got was peanuts.

    The whole experience was a valuable education in the value of an education.

    • #12
  13. user_252791 Inactive
    user_252791
    @ChuckEnfield

    Amy Schley:
    But if he has the ability to work hard at anything, then it’s a problem of motivation, and the trick is to find what “real world” project he can be motivated to do.

    Speaking as yet another slacker, (Who knew that such prestigious haunts as Ricochet had so many of us?  That’s rhetorical, no need to tell everybody you knew I was a slacker.) I concur that motivation is key, but I’m not sure that means we agree.

    I grew up in a family, a whole neighborhood really, where it was acceptable to quit things, acceptable to fail for lack of effort, acceptable to achieve well below your abilities in school as long as you passed, etc.  I don’t mean to imply there was no work ethic.  Plenty of people around me worked hard when they were being paid for it, but as soon as the shift was over, well, that was enough of that.

    So those are the values I inherited.  I have no problem exerting tremendous effort if I’m enjoying myself or if I’m being compensated for the effort.  However, if gratification is delayed, compensation is for the outcome rather than the effort, or the reward is uncertain, I struggle to motivate myself.

    I feel confident it’s a question of motivation because of the instances when I’ve overcome my laziness.  I did well in the army because I was motivated by an unwillingness to let the team down.  The motivation is harder to find when surrounded by underachievers.  I’m also motivated by a ridiculously large ego, so I’m willing to work as hard as necessary to be a top performer, but if I’m surrounded by low performers, as is often the case, I need not work very hard.

    The fact is that much of what needs to be accomplished for success is tedious, repetitive, boring, and doesn’t yield any tangible reward for quite some time.  From what I’ve seen, successful people appear able to motivate themselves to continue grinding under these circumstance, while some very bright and capable people give up and accept whatever comes easily.  As it turns out, what comes easily to some people may look a lot like success, but people like me who stop well short of their full potential because they lack the work ethic required to rise further know who they are.

    So, while I’m not certain of the best way to teach people sticktoitiveness, I’d recommend giving children manageable challenges and not accepting failure for lack of effort.  There’s something that would improve our educational system that doesn’t require a lot of money.  What are the odds we’ll adopt that pedagogy?

    • #13
  14. ParisParamus Inactive
    ParisParamus
    @ParisParamus

    Isn’t the real news here that soughone named Tough wrote a book about grit?  ;-)

    • #14
  15. user_252791 Inactive
    user_252791
    @ChuckEnfield

    PS – This site is freakin’ awesome.  It’s like seeing a shrink for the price of a latte.

    • #15
  16. Lucy Pevensie Inactive
    Lucy Pevensie
    @LucyPevensie

    Midge, re the marshmallow: According to the book, KIPP schools have actually made a slogan out of “Don’t eat the marshmallow. “

    • #16
  17. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Lucy Pevensie:Midge,re the marshmallow: According to the book,KIPP schools have actually made a slogan out of“Don’t eat the marshmallow. ”

    That’s funny! But why do they believe the slogan? My guess is they trust the adults at KIPP to reliably reward them if they pass a Marshmallow Test. If they didn’t, how could that be their slogan?

    • #17
  18. user_989419 Inactive
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    I don’t know that teachers can teach grit.  (Really?  We’re going to allow teachers to say something… harsh?)

    But parents can.  Our recipe is to expose our kids to as much reality as they can handle, early and often.  (Economic reality, that is.  Not sexual reality.  The opposite of our culture.)

    Particulars:

    – No allowance.  You want money?  Go convince someone to pay you for a service.

    – Chores are required, early and often.  If you’re five years old in my house, you’re picking up the dog turds.

    – Video games are strictly limited.  Saturday morning — that’s it.  Noon comes, and they go off until next Saturday.

    – Likewise, you don’t get a smart, mobile device (with all the cool entertainment options) until you can handle it.  Which means you may have nothing for a long time, then eventually be stuck with a cheap flip phone until you move out.

    – We are not doing your homework.  Sure, we act as training wheels early on.  But fourth and fifth grade (and earlier if possible), are excellent years for them to take responsibility.  Because if they fail, it won’t go on any record that matters.

    When they’re ready, we have “the talk.”  The talk is this: at the end of the semester, the school will send home a report card.  There will be a letter on it.  Your job is to make sure it’s the right letter.  If it’s not the right letter, there will be consequences.  Let us know if you need anything.

    What are the consequences?

    You don’t want to find out.

    – Bottom line: this all may seem harsh, but notice the only thing we’re making them do is chores.  The rest is simply creating the conditions that force them to take responsibility to creatively grapple with their world.

    • #18
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.