Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Response to Edutopia's "Grit Happens in PBL"

Click here to view John Larmer's Edutopia Article titled, "Grit Happens in PBL"

Here is my response posted on Edutopia as well-

The folks that criticize grit do so from a primarily economic point of view. The critiques that I have read do not like the idea of telling economically disadvantaged students to "just be gritty". Its viewed as another version of "pull yourself up by the boot-straps". I believe these critics feel that there are societal structures that require serious change, and they are concerned that the "grit movement" will distract leaders from the real structural changes necessary to build a more equitable society. And in relation to those critiques, I have heard criticism of teaching students self-control (often associated with the grit research and researchers) as being more about compliance than learning.

I have spent a lot of time working with grit and the related research this year. I feel like there are two versions of grit in the education world. The first version is the pop version. Its the version I see on this particular post, and the version I see Alfie Kohn and Ira Socol criticizing. It seems to me that people hear the word "grit" and they assume that the research behind it simply says, "try harder", and you will "do better". I think people jump to that conclusion because many educators are attracted to that idea. Most of us see students who lack motivation. Many of us just wish they would try harder! So we hear grit, and we assume we know what that research and what all the fuss is about. But after really digging into the topic, I assure you, there is much more to it.

In summary, I think the second version of grit, the one that digs much deeper, is about executive functioning. I believe the research is discovering a particular trait associated with achievement (note I didn't say success), that is a function of a healthy developing brain. In that view, providing students from chronic stress scenarios (often students from violence and poverty, but not always) with the opportunity to grow a part of their brain (executive functioning) that is often stunted in chronic stress (see the work of Eric Jensen or Laurence Steinberg) is really about equality not compliance. The research shows that those with self-control and related executive functioning skills (i.e. grit) achieve well by all sorts of measures from all sorts of demographics. By ignoring schools' opportunities to develop these skills (particularly good opportunities in early ed, transitions, and early adolescence due to increased brain plasticity), schools would be perpetuating inequality. Does teaching grit replace the need for structural change and increased equity in our society? Absolutely not. But I don't know any researcher claiming that it will. In fact, since writing his book, Paul Tough has coined a phrase in response to this critique, he calls it the adversity gap. In this he explains that he is not suggesting that students from chronic stress need more adversity (!), but he is saying that students on the other end of the gap might need some in order to practice the executive functioning skill of grit more often.

And in regards to PBL or student-driven learning. PBL often engages students more than traditional schooling. Which is why I am big proponent of it. It often leads to more real work than the compliance content cramming most of us grew up with. It often gives students the opportunity to practice grit, which is great as well. But I would argue that if you are working with students from chronic stress, PBL will not address their executive functioning needs. In those cases PBL is just another mode of learning that students can't access deeply. When students develop executive functioning skills such as self-control and yes, grit, then they can access any type of learning...and hopefully that type of learning is PBL often is.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Summer 2014

As you can see, I haven't had a post in a few months. After returning from sabbatical into full-time middle school principal, I lost the habit of posting on the blog. A mistake for sure because there has been a lot happening!

EFMS: Our middle school is in the midst of developing and trying out our ideas for implementation. We saw a very good response from our celebration of achievement skills. Students took it seriously and we honored two students and two adults in our community as All-Stars. We also had success in reading the book WONDER as a school. Enosburg was featured on VPR in Mike Martin's commentary. I also filled in for our guidance counselor on maternity leave this spring in our guidance elective class. It was a joy to see about fifteen 7th and and 8th graders wrestle with the ideas of growth-mindset and self-control. Direct instruction seemed to land well. We also did a blog where students chose something to practice self-control with. Some students chose swearing less, not eating salt, going to bed earlier and so forth. They did a great job! Here is our blog:

Talks for Teachers: If you follow the blog, you know that I was one of the early participants in Angela Duckworth's series: Talks for Teachers. We concluded our last session in April. The last speaker was Grant Wiggins, who gave a very interesting presentation about measuring character. Look for some exciting work coming from him in the coming year out of Harvard. Overall, the series was fantastic. Each speaker was filled, so look for a condensed movie version somewhere down the road. I learned a lot and I had a culminating idea that has become a culminating document. I believe my idea will help explain what I learned in a clear and easy to access way for educators of all kinds. Its called, The Hierarchy of Achievement. I've posted some PDF versions in my twitter account and will dedicate a full blog post to the work this summer.

Spreading the Word: I have presented a number of times recently. I have a slideshow and some handouts that can walk the participants through some of the key ideas and research. The slideshow usually features 3 or 4 videos as well. Its a condensed version of this blog! I have presented for my supervisory union's guidance counselors, principals and superintendent's office, as well as for a group of folks from a neighboring school district. In each case, it seemed to be very well received. I also will present on Oct. 30th for the Rowland Annual Conference which will feature the keynote speech of Angela Duckworth. Angela has been amazing in her willingness to work with me and the Rowland foundation to bring this knowledge to Vermont. We are looking forward to Oct. 30th! I also am teaching an online class through Castleton State College's Continuing Education, titled, Increasing Student Achievement through Social-Emotional Learning. Gabrielle Marquette and I are co-teaching the course. We have 13 educators participating and it is going very well. It is exciting to see the strong interest in the topic.