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NOV. 14, 2013

4 + 7 = Grit

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Screen Shot 2013-11-14 at 11.09.06 AMThomas Edison once said that “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

James Heckman and Tim Kautz, award-winning economists at the University of Chicago, would likely agree. In a recent study, they use data to determine the worth and malleability of skills such as self-reliance and curiosity that we so highly value at The Outdoor Academy. Heckman and Kautz address ambitious questions: “Can you change personality? Can you teach conscientiousness? Can you measure perseverance?” The answer they found is yes, and the development of certain non-cognitive skills is much more predictive of performance later in life than intelligence or test scores.

Conscientiousness, which they define as the “tendency to be organized, responsible, and hardworking,” predicts “educational attainment, health and labor market outcomes as strongly as any measure of cognitive ability.” Conscientiousness is one of the five aspects of personality often referred to as the Big Five in various studies. The other four include Openness to Experience, Extraversion (characterized by positive affect and sociability), Agreeableness (defined as the ability to act in a cooperative and unselfish manner), and Neuroticism/Emotional Stability.

Heckman and Kautz found that measuring a combination of these five personality traits, “grit” is extremely predictive of students’ future earnings, hourly wage, hours spent working, and education level as adults at age 35. Grit is defined as a measure of persistence on tasks and takes into account a person’s ability to respond with resilience to challenges.

They then turn to the question of how do we take this data and use it to influence the development of these traits in young people today. Can you really change someone’s personality or grit? How much of these non-cognitive skills is inherited from our parents or evolve from our culture? And do they really change over time? Most adults would report that they are more responsible and organized at age 35 than they were at 15, but is this a result of brain development or of situational changes and increased expectations? The answer, probably unsurprisingly, is both. Heckman and Kautz found that personality traits are 40-60% heritable, “tied to the person,” and therefore 60-40% tied to the situation and outward expectations. That is a lot of “play” space through which personality and grit can be influenced and, in a way, “taught” throughout adolescence and early adulthood.

Every day, our students at OA find themselves in challenging situations that they are encouraged to work through independently. This might be facing a rock wall or a river rapid, a piece of hot iron at the forge, or trying to express an idea just right. Our school and faculty provide the space in which our students come up against what they imagine to be their limitations and push through them with courage and determination. OA is a place where grit most certainly happens.

Laura Kraus
Math and Art Teacher