Angela Duckworth was recently awarded a $625,000 "no strings attached" MacArthur genius grant for her research on "Grit." Along with perseverance, initiative, and optimism, grit is one of the hottest buzzwords in K-12 education. Many teachers, policy makers, and reformers are shifting their focus from cognitive skills to character attributes. Supposedly, these "21st Century Skills" correlate more directly to an individual's long term success. Unrelated to new technologies, or digital literacy, 21st Century Skills are all about desirable character traits. I'm all for a move away from dependence on standardized test scores, but the focus on "character" is suspect.
Paul Tough writes, "We have been focusing on the wrong skills and abilities in our children, and we have been using the wrong strategies to help nurture and teach those skills." In his book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Tough celebrates the KIPP charter schools. The KIPP schools use a "Character Growth Card." Teachers rate students' demonstration of a series of attributes, such as social intelligence, gratitude, and curiosity, on a scale from one to five. This report card is central to KIPP's pedagogical strategy.
Many of the current crop of education thought leaders call for a similar focus on character attributes. According to these thinkers, U.S. schools were designed to develop the skills necessary for success in an industrial workplace. Now that the information economy of the 21st century has arrived, new skills are needed. Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change The World, is one such thought leader. Wagner calls for a pedagogy that focuses on "skills that all students now need for careers, continuous learning, and citizenship in an increasingly flat world." Among Wagner's "Seven Survival Skills" are qualities like agility, collaboration, and leading by influence.
Although the language is distinct, there is little difference among the character skills that Tough, KIPP, and Wagner identify. What's more, neither the skills nor the narratives are new. Instead, they reflect the same familiar go-get-'em cowboy-individualism and unwavering underdog-tenacity that has always dominated the American mythos.
In 1835, Alexis De Tocqueville already observed that the U.S. had a love affair with the skills that lead to innovation, progress, and enterprise. He writes:
This perpetual change which goes on in the United States, these frequent vicissitudes of fortune, these unforeseen fluctuations in private and public wealth, serve to keep the minds of the people in a perpetual feverish agitation, which admirably invigorates their exertions and keeps them, so to speak, above the ordinary level of humanity.
In Democracy in America, De Tocqueville even uses the term "national character." He describes the ways in which American heroism is introduced into political laws, religious doctrine, economic theory, and, of course, educational conventions.
Almost two hundred years later, still committed to a narrative of progress, innovation, and enterprise, the education community hardly notices that these new 21st century skills are the same as the preferred character attributes of the 20th and 19th centuries. In fact, these may not even be skills at all, but rather, a collective value system. This worries me. After all, it is potentially dangerous to confuse subjective values with a codified objective skill set. Success becomes a moral achievement and failure is demonized.
Avi Kaplan, who teaches in Temple University's College of Education, agrees. "Attention to motivational outcomes over and beyond academic knowledge and achievement is extremely important," he says. "That's a positive emphasis in the 21st century skills movement. But why call it character?" Kaplan's research focuses on motivation and identity in educational settings. "When you fuse motivational outcomes with a moralistic perspective," he worries, "you make it the problem of the student. You lose sight of the role of the context."
Kaplan is not as concerned about the 21st century skills as he is with the way we think about and evaluate them. "The way to talk about these qualities should not be as the student's personality attributes," he explains. "What we need is a different paradigm of thinking about the educational process that supports their development."
I sat down with Kaplan to analyze a few of education's biggest buzzwords. He helped me navigate the positive motivational goals away from the landscape of American exceptionalism.
Paul Tough defines Grit as "a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission." To a country raised on pop culture narratives, it sounds great. Even as schools in the U.S. are saturated in the quantified accountability of No Child Left Behind, the mainstream messaging celebrates Grit. Pop songs inspire us: when we're knocked down, we should get right back up again. The action movie star carries on, no holds barred; he's determined even in the face of impossible odds.
The problem is that Grit in itself isn't necessarily a good thing, especially within a system that evaluates learning outcomes with standardized assessments. "Yes, knowing that failure isn't doom is important," Kaplan smiles, "except that right now in the school system, failure IS doom." His tone darkens when he complains about "one-shot testing." He references the SAT, the HSPT, and the ISEE, college and high school placement exams from which students get scores, but little feedback about the errors they've made. "Kids don't see where they were right or wrong, it's just a score--the ultimate measure of success and failure in the current system is the single score."
Grit and perseverance without contextualized feedback is the equivalent of banging your head against the wall until something breaks. This is hardly an admirable quality. Instead of celebrating the Grit, value the ability to figure out what to do after each failure. Kaplan says, "Grit has to be balanced with intelligent flexibility."
Additionally, Grit is hardly a skill unique to the 21st century. Remember Charlie Chaplin as the factory worker in Modern Times (1936). A cog in the industrial assembly line, he perseveres, turning bolt after bolt. He's motivated only to meet a quota with little thought of the final outcome. Chaplin's Tramp is just mindless labor for an industrial era machine. He has no intrinsic motivation; but he's got Grit!
Kaplan asserts that what's really valuable is wisdom. "You need to be wise -- have Grit, but use it wisely."
INITIATIVE & ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Tony Wagner interviewed business leaders to identify the workplace skills that were necessary for a new economy. Among his "Seven Survival Skills," he includes Initiative and Entrepreneurship. Wagner believes that schools should teach individuals to "take more initiative and even be entrepreneurial in the way they seek out new opportunities, ideas, and strategies for improvement."
Kaplan immediately observes that Wagner is "catering to businesses." He questions, "Is that the view of education that we want?" Is education about creating workers, or creating reflective citizens? Either way, do entrepreneurs really make good employees? Do entrepreneurs make good citizens? Consider the popular image of the entrepreneur: recklessly independent, erratic, and unpredictable. Think of Tim Ferris, entrepreneur extraordinaire and author of The Four Hour Work Week. Ferris claims to work as little as possible so he can spend more time living in excess: tango dancing and kickboxing. Like the action hero, the entrepreneur embodies that enterprising American character that De Tocqueville described. Ingenuity, trickiness, and a willingness to break the rules all go with entrepreneurship. The entrepreneur is manic, boundaryless, and inconsistent; and that's okay, because she gets results. In the end, it all comes down to the bottom line, the final score.
Wagner's view is also caught up in a narrative of progress and innovation. He believes the economy has changed drastically and that the skills needed in the 20th century are no longer relevant to the 21st. The pedagogy of times past, he tells us, is as obsolete as the Apple IIc computer. The problem is that his argument is grounded in an inherent contradiction. If he believes that obsolescence arrives so quickly, why would he suggest that education should be constructed in service to a current workplace that's presumably as temporary as the last.
"If there's something we know about the future, it is that it is going to be different; it is going to change," remarks Kaplan. "Schools need to change in order to help kids learn how to cope with ambiguity." If the rigid categories of the present are always in flux, the real 21st century skill is adaptability, "figuring out how, by yourself and with others, to address new situations."
Education is not just about the professional skills of today's workplace. Kaplan agrees, "what we want is for people to be optimistic about the fact that they can face change. But, the current system only teaches them to conform, to solve problems they've already practiced. When students face a task that is new and unexpected, they panic."
ZEST & OPTIMISM
Zest and Optimism are two of KIPP's character strengths that supposedly lead to "engaged, purposeful, and meaningful lives." Both Zest and Optimism belong to the same strand of thinking as Grit and Perseverance. According to the KIPP Character Growth card, a student with Optimism "gets over frustrations and setbacks quickly" and "believes that effort will improve his or her future." A student with Zest "actively participates." He or she "shows enthusiasm" and "invigorates others."
Kaplan observes that "all of these labels are catch phrases that sound great in the abstract." The trouble, he explains, is that "the way the system is built right now encourages kids not to show enthusiasm. The messages they are sent about what's valued are the opposite."
Effort and enthusiasm are praised, but simultaneously devalued. In the U.S., value created without hard labor is financially compensated more generously than that which requires physical effort. In the business world, passive income is the ultimate achievement. A businessman once told me, "real success is horizontal income." He was encouraging me to buy properties and become a landlord, "you just lay on the couch and revenue pours in."
Kaplan describes how a similar attitude manifests in schools, "effort becomes an indication of lower ability." If two kids get the same grade but one does less work, we consider the latter more intelligent. When kids want to show that they're smart, they show it by doing better than others with little effort. Competition is not just about outcomes, but also about how little energy you can exert in the process.
Kaplan again emphasizes the need for a paradigm shift. He reiterates that we can't just throw new skills atop the existing infrastructure. "The system inherently undermines these 21st century skills. We pay lip service to these goals, but the underlying value system still privileges the opposite."
The trouble with 21st century skills is that they are not skills at all. They are subjective values that, when located within individuals and assessed like skills, become moralistic accountabilities.
Over a cup of coffee, Kaplan and I were able to imagine, for every positive instance of one of these so-called skills, a correlative negative. This is hardly surprising. After all, everything has a flip side. However, it takes a certain amount of comfort with ambiguity to be able to simultaneously hold contradictory parts of a single concept. It involves acknowledging context. It involves understanding that a single idea can change drastically depending on its surroundings.
Likewise, the value of a single skill can change drastically depending on the context. Long term success is not, and never will be, guaranteed by the ability to accumulate a particular skill set. The implication that success and failure rest solely in the hands of the individual, removed from political and economic structures that contribute to the existence of an achievement gap, potentially leads to a society that congratulates privileged students for their superior character.
Despite my own comfort with ambiguity, I can't reconcile such a system with a fantasy of social progress.