Can Character Traits Like “Grit” Be Taught in School?

Something called "character education" is quite trendy in education reform right now. It's based on research from positive psychologists such as Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson that suggests traits like "grit"–perseverance, goal-orientation, and long-term ambition–are more highly correlated with academic and workplace success than traditional measures of skill and talent such as IQ. 

There's a lot of interesting, if methodologically questionable, research on these findings. Check out this 2007 study, which attempted (via surveys, some administered online) to correlate the "grittiness" of a few thousand adults with their life outcomes. The researchers identified two major types of grit: "consistency of interests" and "consistency of efforts," asking respondents to rate themselves on a 5-point scale as to whether "new ideas and new projects sometimes distract me from previous ones," or "I have achieved a goal that took years of work."

The study concludes that even when IQ is controlled for, grittiness is associated with degree attainment and higher GPAs. The grittiest people, however, do not have the highest SAT scores. Perhaps those who perform well on standardized tests have so many other advantages going for them that they aren't forced to be particularly gritty in order to achieve their goals. 

You can see why a finding like this one would be fascinating to eduwonks. If people with low SAT scores but lots of grit are good at earning degrees, then maybe we can increase high school and college graduation rates for disadvantaged kids by somehow teaching them grit. When I heard KIPP founder Dave Levin speak a few weeks ago at a conference here in New York, he was very excited about the potential here, which he saw as a confirmation of his charter schools' focus on developing "character" in children. 

The problem is that we have no idea whatsoever whether traits like grittiness can be taught in school. To what extent are they taught at home? To what extent are they internal to a child's DNA? As Education Week reports, the largest to-date federal study of character education programs has found they lead to no discernible, long-term improvements in students' academic performance or behavior. 

This shouldn't be taken as the last word on character education; some smaller studies have reported more positive results, and school buildings that are suffused with talk of hard work, decency, honesty, and other positive character traits are likely affecting children's attitudes in ways that are impossible to quantify. 

Still, a helpful reminder of how complex the human brain is, and how very difficult it is to point to any one reform strategy and say, "Eureka, it works!"

8 thoughts on “Can Character Traits Like “Grit” Be Taught in School?

  1. Nathan T. York

    I’d think that school can provide challenges that might instill a little grittiness. Even for the highly intelligent, challenges arise from even pedestrian assignments, as I’m continually reminded by some of my more vapid classes.

    That the study found those with higher GPA’s and higher degree attainment to be more gritty is not surprising. This semester, for instance, I’ve had more trouble with the financial aid office than any of my classes.

    Nice to see my intuitions demonstrated as correct.

  2. Janet Robert

    Dana..I am commenting here since the comments are closed on your article regarding the SBAList and Congressman Driehaus. You used the word “Blue Dogs” as if all members of the Blue Dog Democratic Caucus are pro-life. That is not accurate. The coalition also contains pro-abortion Democrats. The Blue Dog Caucus’ primary issue is fiscal conservatism. The Blue Dog caucus was split on support for the health insurance reform bill.

  3. FGS

    Off hand, I’d say colleges select for grit far more than instilling it. Showing up on time, eating it, smiling and jumping through hoops while the authority figure says how high, are valuable skills too.

  4. Sara C.

    It doesn’t matter whether or not you (or I) believe that character traits can be “taught” didactically in schools. What matters is whether or not research shows it to be so.

    Many intelligent people believed the D.A.R.E. of yesteryear was great. Research proved it didn’t make a darn difference.

    The problem with this push for character education is that lots of time and money is going to be spent on implementing programs before they have even been tested.

  5. Jackie

    I feel that there should be a distinction between workplace success and academic success as they often require a different skill set and depends on the psychology of an individual in which arenas they choose to succeed. Also I’m not sure I agree with the emphasis on a good GPA in academia or getting a degree.

  6. Sarah Nun

    The problem with character education is we don’t approach it with the “grit” we bring to teaching of every other subject in school. Unlike with math and reading, most Ch. Ed. programs don’t call students to action. Students aren’t asked to practice what is taught, and they certainly aren’t tested on it. The assumption is talking about SE skills will result in the development of them. Here’s an article that provides an alternative approach:

    link to


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