Monday, May 12, 2014

Edutopia Serves Up Grits (With Maple Syrup)

If you have been looking for ways to grittify your classroom, edutopia has you covered with a new addition to its "Research Made Relevant" series.  But beyond the lesson materials, the site provides a  study in contrasts.

Now, I've burned some bandwidth criticizing the grit movement, but in fact I think there are good things to say about grit. It is good to be resilient, to have stick-to-itivity, to see things through, to keep going, to tough it out, to push forward through adversity, to do your own laundry, to climb your own mountains. But when it comes to grittology and its programatic application to schools, I have some misgivings. Grit the quality is swell; grittology is problematic.

On the plus side, the material comes primarily from Amy Lyon, a real live thirty-year veteran public elementary school teacher in rural NH, where she keeps animals and serves in the volunteer fire department (and lives not far from Claremont, where I grew up, but I will not let that influence my faux journalist judgment).

Edutopia features a slick six-minute video (copyrighted by the George Lucas Educational Foundation) , featuring a ten-year old former student of Lyon's who does his own maple sugaring, complete with a team of steers dragging the sled, then moves on to Lyon's work of directly instructing her students in grit. Looking at her materials and her website "bit of Grit", I get the impression that Lyons is just advocating good old-fashioned character education-- teach students not to give up, to set goals and work toward them, to focus on long-term success and not short-term frustrations, to not quit. One of her lessons is called the Perserverance Walk, and it's basically preparing and conducting an interview with someone has worked hard toward a long term goal. So her version of grit lives somewhere at the intersection of the Foxfire project and that old coach yelling "Quitters never win, and winners never quit!" Nothing radical to see here.

On the other hand, edutopia has also pulled in the Founding Mother of Grittology, Angela Duckworth. Duckworth's preternaturally youthful face (seriously-- did she earn her PhD at age 15, or is she Pharrell's sister) appears in the video, and that's where the cogitive dissonance starts to set in. the beginning of life, your job is to figure out what you're gonna do, the little place that you're gonna hold in the world and how you're going to add value and survive.

Yes, as a small child I often bounced on my daddy's knee and asked, "Daddy, when will I be big enough to cross the street by myself, swim in the deep end of the pool, and add value." 

Duckworth also plugs her research partnership with KIPP schools. Too bad. While Lyon's seems interested in helping foster character, KIPP doesn't so much build character as judge it and blame the lack of it for, well, everything. Their teaching expertise has been all married up with Duckworth Lab's (that's a thing, with a cute logo and everything) scientific expertise.

And perhaps it is the scientific expertise that puts me off grittology. I cannot decide if Duckworth has found a way to give some of the oldest conventional wisdom in the book a credible base, or if she is running the biggest scholarly scam in proprietary pseudo-science that ever prepped someone for the tenure track. So much grittological research appears circular to me-- we select a group of subjects who have balorgnia; we identify them for selection by screening for brown hair; we check to see what all balorgnians have in common and, voila, it's brown hair.When you've rated a hundred five year olds for grittiness and then followed them around for forty years, I'll be impressed. But grittology is a young science, the toddler of sciences, really.

Duckworth looks young enough to be my daughter, but her message is basically the same as my grandmother's-- work hard, don't quit, stick to it, bounce back from problems, set goals, persevere, stay focused. But I suppose you don't get giant research grants and speaking engagements and your own research group walking around saying, "You should just listen to your grandmother."

But meanwhile, in New Hampshire (where my grandmother was a state legislator for a million years), a teacher took something she found interesting and turned it into classroom activities that she, and others, find useful, and which she implements with apparent caring an concern for each of her students, and that's pretty much my idea of how the education world should work. There is something cute about nine-year-old dreams (each very different in a not-one-size-fits-all way) and the kind of obstacles they imagine might get in their way, and I'm a little worried that Lyon's approach runs the risk of turning grit into a quality these children will someday file away as a childish dream, but you know what-- she knows her students far better than I, and so she should make that judgment call. And as the other actual teacher in the video says, "You're doing it already." You just need to highlight it a bit, organically.

Meanwhile, Angela Duckworth wants to spackle academic gobbledeegook all over grandmotherly advice, or imagine a gritty bridge between a ten-year-old rural kid in New Hampshire and a ten-year-old urban kid in the Bronx because there are materials and articles to sell and a college research department to fund. This silly attempt to create a proprietary brand out of things everybody already knows would simply be amusing if it cross over into an excuse to blame students for their own rough patches in life, or an excuse to dry up kindness, support and empathy, or marketing copy for charter chains.

Grit as practiced in Amy Lyon's classroom doesn't bother me a bit, but as practiced by KIPP ("Kick In the Pupil's Pants") it should stop yesterday. You can try to slap the same label on both practices, but that doesn't make them the same thing. This page is probably meant to help us associate the pseudo-science of grittology with actual teaching practice; instead it highlights the gulf between real teaching and gimmicky market research.

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