Saturday, November 30, 2013

UPENN Grit Workshop Visit #2 Laurence Steinberg

UPENN: Philadelphia
November 24th, 2013
Take Away Point: Building perseverance and grit for students requires building self-control. Building self-control takes practice and strategies and is not simply a matter of willpower. How can we practice? What are the strategies?

Last weekend I returned to UPENN to participate in the Grit Workshops hosted by Angela Ducksworth. The November workshop participants welcomed Dr. Laurence Steinberg from Temple University. Laurence Steinberg is a highly respected professor of psychology at Temple University. He is the author of more than 250 articles on growth and development during the teenage years, and the author or editor of 13 books. For all intents in purposes, Dr. Steinberg is one of the foremost researchers on adolescent development in the world. For some excellent clips of Dr. Steinberg click here to view his big-think series:

Dr. Steinberg spent about an hour explaining his upcoming book and latest research. We then spent a second hour in a question and answer session. Because his upcoming book is not published yet, I won't give away too many details, but I will say that I found his lecture very helpful. His major themes are the growing length of adolescence for our youth, more explanation of the adolescent brain which goes beyond just an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex, and the opportunity that increased brain plasticity provides during adolescence. He also provided the participants a sneak-preview at one of his chapters that explores how we might change the status quo in our high schools. Dr. Steinberg is increasingly interested in building self-control in adolescence as a primary intervention. Amongst other strategies he is exploring mind-body connections such as deliberate practice with a physical activity, controlled risk taking opportunities for students, mindfulness, and more. I am looking forward to the book's release and recommend looking through his big think videos

Quote: “The most important scientific discovery about self control is that it can be taught.”
-Walter Mischel (Original Researcher of the Marshmallow Test).

The second half of the session was led by Angela Duckworth. She spent an hour or so discussing her latest work with self-control. Angela began the conversation by saying she understands that the idea of self-control being important is an obvious one. What she emphasized as different about her research is just HOW important self-control is in determining success. She also expressed her generalized concern that young people were not being challenged enough, that expectations were too low, and that more young people could show grit if given the chance to understand confusion, boredom and frustration are important aspects of learning. Then she highlighted the importance of teaching strategies to students over simply advising them to avoid self defeating behaviors. She used the "Just Say No" campaign as an example of why simply telling adolescents what to do is not an effective method. Instead she recommended teaching students strategies to utilize when they are faced with situations of needed self-control. A few of the strategies she recommended were:


1) Pre-Commit: Think of Odysseus and his strategies to face the temptation of the Sirens. He planned ahead to modify his situation by tying himself to the mast, plugging his ears, and covering his eyes. For students this could mean making the decision to sit at the front of the class everyday, before ever walking into class. It could mean a plan to commit to healthy peers or productive school groups before transitioning from middle school to high school. She also cautioned that forcing students to modify their situation is unlikely to prove useful. Instead, the students must have the strategy explained and then make the choice to pre-commit on their own.

2) Situation Selection: Much as it sounds, this intervention suggests that we should not put ourselves in tempting situations. For example, alcoholics shouldn't go to bars, students shouldn't sit in front of the TV to do their homework. It might require physically moving your cell phone out of sight, or rearranging your workspace to be more conducive to accomplishment. It is a simply intervention, but perhaps often overlooked because of its simplicity.

Angela Explains Some Related Strategies on The Today Show:

COGNITIVE STRATEGIES (Require self-control in the moment)

3) Selective Attention: Kids in the marshmallow test provide a perfect example of selective attention. When faced with the tempting marshmallow, some students cover their eyes, or turn around completely. These are examples of in the moment selective attention strategies. In the classroom it means where students look matters. Which makes a strong case for student/teacher techniques such as SLANT (Sit up, Lean forward, Ask Questions, Nod your Head, Track the Speaker with your Eyes).

Cookie Monster Learns The Look Away Strategy:

4) Cognitive Reappraisal: This strategy refers to thinking of the moment in the third person. "What is happening for me in this moment?" This is a difficult strategy to invoke, and thus it is 4th on the list.

5) Response Modulation: This is the strategy we most often teach. In the moment we want to turn on the TV, turn in an unfinished paper, punch back, eat another piece of cake, lash out, or any of the things that cause us to make decisions that provide quick satisfaction but long-term harm, we have long suggested strategies such as, take a deep breath, just calm down, control yourself. This is good advice in calming down one's fight or flight or impulsive responses to conflict or temptation, but it often requires too much willpower in moments when willpower is scarce. Thus, the most often taught practices should really only serve as a last resort.

Professor Duckworth said that willpower isn't as much about strength as it is about being clever. Using your own versions of the above strategies to bolster your willpower can improve your self-control habits, and those improved habits will increase your chances for success in whatever you might wish to accomplish. She concluded with the following quote:

“Our virtues are habits as much as or vices…our nervous systems have grown to the way in which they have been exercised, just as a sheet of paper or a coat, once creased or folder, tends to fall forever afterward into the same identical folds."
William James 1899


  1. We work with a worksheet called the "32 Day Committment." It is a checklist that a student can use to put a check on each day that he or she completes (or doesn't) a specified task such as putting an extra 1/2 hour of work in on Math. The idea is that after 32 days, an activity becomes a habit.

    32-Day Commitment
    Because I know that this commitment will keep me on course to my
    goals, I promise myself that every day for the next 32 days I will take the
    following action: Study for 1/2 hour before bed.
    Day 1
    Day 2
    Day 3
    Day 4
    Day 5

  2. I feel like this is real strength of WITCs. Your work with ONCOURSE certainly falls within this area. Is the 32 day plan a specific form? Who published it, how can we get a copy?

  3. Skip Downing - see it a couple of pages down in the PDF at the link below:

    Anyone could make one pretty quickly though.