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Increasing and Improving Student Confidence and Learning through GRIT and Growth Mindset

Steuart Besly

The Star Mentee Program: Externship in Psychology, PSY 3940:159, Fall 2013, Dr. Tiamiyu


As a member of the Star Mentee program I worked with a class of fourth graders at St. Pius X, which is a parochial school near the University of Toledo. I began as a helping hand, available to assist with making copies for teachers and handing back quizzes. I took the students to gym daily and made sure they followed along with their teacher, Mrs. Lohman’s reading class. However, something unexpected happened. I grew fond of the eighteen fourth graders that I encountered. When I walked in, the students would interrupt their teacher’s lesson with turned heads, hands waving, and whispered greetings. Luckily, Mrs. Lohman was skillful at corralling the class and being welcomed by her students had a profound effect on me. I had a newly found energy, which was needed to match theirs. I developed a child-like sense of humor, and tried my best to take on the world from their point of view. I strained to empathize with them. The great twentieth century psychologist Carl Rogers once talked about empathy. He said, "To be with another in this way (empathetic) means that for the time being you lay aside the views and values you hold for yourself in order to enter another's world without prejudice. In some sense it means that you lay aside yourself and this can only be done by a person who is secure enough in himself that he knows he will not get lost in what may turn out to be the strange or bizarre world of the other, and can comfortably return to his own world when he wishes”- (Rodgers, 1975, p.4). He also said, “Over the years, however, the research evidence keeps piling up, and it points strongly to the conclusion that a high degree of empathy in a relationship is possibly the most potent and certainly one of the most potent factors in bringing about change and learning”- (Rodgers, 1975, p.2). I took this humanist’s view point and tried to get lost in the world of being a fourth grader. I had been there before, after all. When I helped teach them their spelling words or a new math problem I tried to understand their struggles and feel what they felt so that I could compel them to succeed. It took the words of one young girl for me to understand one of the


biggest problems for my fourth graders. She said,” I’m just not good at math.” I encouraged her to keep trying and tried to help her work out the problem, but those words resonated with me. Later that night, I was having a discussion with my mother about educating children. She is a middle-school science teacher, so I guessed that she would probably have some wisdom for me. She gave me some information on education from several prominent psychologists. One was an article by Stanford motivational psychologist Carol Dweck on having a growth mindset and the other was a Ted Talk video on an idea University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth called Grit. With this new information I felt that I might have tools to combat the words “I’m just not good at math.” Dr. Carol Dweck’s research with motivation has given her insight into a problem that many of our young students have today. Dweck believes the problem affecting our young people today is the misconception that intellectual ability is a gift rather than something that can be developed- (Dweck, 2007). This problem is what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset” vs. a “growth mindset.” “In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong”- (Dweck, 2006, para. 3). “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities”- (Dweck, 2006, para 4). Her research showed that if students perceived intellectual skill as a gift, they would be led to question that skill and lose incentive when they faced setbacks. Perceiving intellectual


skill as a feature that could be changed led students to meet the challenges with creative solutions- (Dweck, 2007). The solution to this problem might be to throw excessive praise on students for showing high performance scores. One should admire students whose performance shows that they have overcome the challenges presented in front of them. Dweck argues that this does not work. In a series of studies, the research she and her colleagues conducted showed that praising students’ capability (even after a job truly well done) has a series of detrimental consequences (Mueller & Dweck, 1998). According to Dweck (2007), the acclaim of their high performance shows the high performing students that their abilities are a gift and makes them unlikely to take on challenging tasks. Dweck continues to argue that when these same students reach a time where they experience difficulty then they will often lose faith in their ability and give up. Her research poses a more simple way to respond to a person who demonstrates a “fixed mindset.” If we show students that learning abilities are a result of intense work rather than the innate qualities, students will have a better chance at success. Adults should stress that all abilities are cultured through “a process of engagement, value challenge and praise efforts to supersede frustration rather than only showing excitement over the right answer” – (Schwartz, 2013, para. 7). This means that her answer can be as simple as having a talk to students and explaining to them that their ability to do things in school has nothing to do with just being “smart” or “talented,” but is gained through hard work and dedication to learning something. One should enlighten students to the idea that a growth mindset is possible in anything, regardless of perceived talent. It is more about hard and adaptive work, not just being correct. Teaching a child that she can develop a growth mindset is not the only idea that psychology can bring to the realm of education. Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth of Penn University


has her own idea that meshes with those of Dweck’s. In a “TED talk” (A forum for conferences with the slogan "ideas worth spreading”) Duckworth proclaimed, “Growth mindset is a great idea for building Grit”- (Duckworth, 2013, 5:28). The history of Grit began with Duckworth’s passions. In her twenties Duckworth moved from job to job trying to find out what her passion was. During that time she came onto a stretch of four years in which she found herself as a mathematics teacher- (Perkins-Gough and Duckworth, 2013). She noticed that her most talented students were not always the ones excelling in their schoolwork. “I made quizzes and tests. I gave out homework assignments. When the work came back, I calculated grades. What struck me was that IQ was not the only difference between my best and my worst students. Some of my strongest performers did not have stratospheric IQ scores. Some of my smartest kids weren't doing so well. And that got me thinking”(Duckworth, 2013, 0:40). She gave up teaching in order to pursue education from a perspective that was much more motivational and psychological. Duckworth went on to do research at the University of Pennsylvania and “started studying kids and adults in all kinds of super-challenging settings”(Duckworth, 2013, 1:54). Duckworth wanted to figure out one thing in each of the studies she did, which was, who was going to be successful in any given situation and why was that person successful - (Duckworth, 2013). She and a group of her colleagues developed a concept which they called Grit. Grit was defined as “trait-level perseverance and passion for long-term goals”(Duckworth and Quinn, 2009, p.1). Duckworth calls Grit “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them”- (Hanford, 2012, para.2). She claims “the gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina”- (Duckworth et al., 2007, p.2). She and her fellow researchers created a test with questions involving things like perseverance, achievement, and work ethic and used it to try and predict how successful certain groups would be at a given task. This test was a self-reported scale from “very much like me” to


“not like me at all.” Two samples of questions from this test were questions such as “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge” and “Setbacks don’t discourage me”(Hanford, 2012). They then took this test and applied it to a multitude of groups in unique and challenging settings to see how it would predict their success. They took two groups of West Point Cadets, a group of Scripps National Spelling Bee finalists, and a sample of adolescents(Duckworth and Quinn, 2009, p.2). In the two groups of West Point Cadets the Grit Test was a significant predictor of which of the candidates would continue through a rigorous summer training session before entering the military academy. It even predicted who would stay “over and beyond the Whole Candidate Score” (which is a composition of cadet’s class rank, ACT/SAT scores, and multiple other leadership scores coming out of high school) – (Duckworth and Quinn, 2009, p.6). In the group of Scripps National Spelling Bee finalists the Grit Test showed that the grittier the finalists were the more likely they were to move on to further rounds in the spelling bee- (Duckworth and Quinn, 2009). Finally, in the group of adolescents took the Grit Test and it showed that the grittier they were the higher their GPA was and the less often they watched television- (Duckworth and Quinn, 2009). The Grit test was able to predict which individuals would succeed over others. I pondered how I could use the idea of Grit to generate student understanding and achievement in the classroom. Even Duckworth admits that there is no clear research that tells us yet. This however, is no reason to give up. Grit tells us what attributes really do indicate success in students. These attributes are many of the same that Dweck’s growth mindset has been indicating all along, and that is hard work, practice, and perseverance in the face of obstacles until we are able to master them. These are teachable and learnable despite the fact that there may not be specific research indicating just exactly how to do it. Duckworth says, “It’s not clear


what makes some people grittier than others”, but she believes, “Grit is something people can probably learn” – (Hanford, 2012, para. 26). Teachers should try to instill gritty qualities in their students by teaching them about resiliency and perseverance in the face of odds in school. Perhaps they should bring in examples from academic, athletic, and all sorts of life contexts and try show students what it looks like to be gritty so they can model those same behaviors accordingly. Knowledge of what types of qualities make students succeed provides a starting point from which a foundation can be built on. These ideas of Grit and a growth mindset are tools researched by leaders in the field of psychology and could be useful tools to educators everywhere. They need to be spread to educators everywhere and then discussed and practiced in an academic setting so that these educators can develop a process of teaching them quickly and implementing them effectively so that our students can become stronger and more effective in their studies. There is one particular example of implementation of “Grit” and “growth mindset” that has been applied in the classroom. Dan McGarry, an assistant superintendent for the Upper Darby School District on the border of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was reading into Angela Lee Duckworth’s work when he decided to call her and build a plan to deal with the school’s discipline and student achievement. The plan led to a relationship between the school district and Pennsylvania University. This relationship helped to build an intensive character building program within the school. Meanwhile, Duckworth studied the ideas of perseverance and Grit within the school to try and help with the program. Administrators and teachers were taught courses in positive psychology from Duckworth and her associates and they were then asked to implement the ideas with their students through both their teachings and a citizenship class thirty


minutes a day. The students who were behaviorally or academically having the most difficult time worked with the school psychologists and University psychologists directly in order to help them learn the tools necessary to succeed. The results were significant. The intensive character-building program showed results at the elementary level, middle school level, and even as far as ninth grade. Because of the program, retention rates decreased, discipline problems dropped off, and student achievement increased – (Perkins-Gough, 2013). Another University that would find particularly good results in a relationship with a school district would be the University of Toledo and St. Pius X. This would be a perfect pairing of programs for a number of reasons. First, the well-built relationship that exists through the Star Mentee program is ideal. There is already communication between St. Pius X and University faculty. Because of this relationship there can be input from both sides. Second, the proximity which no doubt was a factor that stemmed the Star Mentee program’s investment in St. Pius allows for the quick and easy allocation of resources between the two places. Third, both parties would benefit from pursuing a program to invest educationally in both psychological research and in the education of the students at St. Pius. It is a win-win scenario. How can the Upper Darby school district be modeled by the University of Toledo and St. Pius X? To begin, the University of Toledo and administrators from St. Pius get together and University psychologists introduce the ideas of growth mindset and Grit to those at St. Pius. The psychologists can explain the literature and offer to help the teachers develop a program to teach these traits to students within St. Pius. For growth mindset, they can have kids read and learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to being challenged. This will show


them that they are much more likely to persevere when they fail because they won’t believe that failure is a permanent condition. That is what Carol Dweck does- (Duckworth, 2013). For Grit the psychologists can try giving kids the Grit test and then experiment with different factors to increase Grit and give them the Grit test again to see if any of these factors improve their scores. These things can either be done by the psychologists on site at St. Pius or through free classes at the University of Toledo by a trained instructor. In exchange St. Pius then allows the University to run experiments within its vicinity testing how to best teach growth mindset and Grit to its students based on different groups to see what yields the best results. Whatever helps to create the grittiest and most growth minded students could be analyzed and published and perhaps published and used to refine the Grit/growth mindset program at St. Pius. This relationship allows for the University of Toledo to benefit from fieldwork that produces interesting and intriguing research and it brings beneficial, cutting edge knowledge to administrators, teachers, and students at St. Pius. This knowledge will help their students to reach more of their potential then they ever have and allow St. Pius to establish itself as even more of a place where students excel. I once heard a fourth grader say, “I’m just not good at math.” The resonation of those words empathetically led me to research by Carol Dweck and Angela Lee Duckworth. Their combined investigations show how we can fix this student’s fixed mindset and develop her skills not only in math, but in a plethora of educational settings. All it would require is action by University of Toledo psychologists in partnership with St. Pius administrators and teachers encouraging them to refine their skills to help their students in the very best way possible.


Works Cited

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101. Duckworth, A., & Quinn, P. D. (2009). Development and Validation of the Short Grit Scale (Grit-S). Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(2), 166-174 Duckworth, A. (2013). Angela Lee Duckworth: The key to success? Grit. TED: Ideas worth spreading. Retrieved November 24, 2013, from Dweck, C.S. (2006). MINDSET. What is Mindset? Retrieved November 24, 2013, from Mindset Dweck, C. S. (2007). Is math a gift: Beliefs that put Females at Risk. Stanford University Hanford, E. (2012). How Important is Grit in Student Achievement? MindShift. Retrieved November 24, 2013, from Mueller, C. M. & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Intelligence Praise can Undermine Motivation and Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 33-52. Perkins-Gough, D. (2013). How Upper Darby School District Builds Student Resilience. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 18-19. Perkins-Gough, D., & Duckworth, A. (2013). The Significance of GRIT. Educational Leadership, 71(1), -14-20 Rogers, C. (1975). The Counseling psychologist: Empathetic an unappreciated way of being. (Vol. 5, pp. 2-10). La Jolla California Schwartz, K. (2013, April 24). Giving good praise to girls: What messages Stick.