'Show some grit!'
Can we measure it and how do we get it?
The links below this blog are to two articles (from April 2013) in leading newspapers that make two claims about children's emotional strength and their capacity to cope with adversity. Adrian Furnham's article, in the Sunday Times, whilst raising my initial concerns for traditional views of 'keeping a stiff upper lip' with his mention of 'refugees' and the picture of a military training session, does conclude by offering a reasoned and modern approach to human resilience. He suggests that in all lives, to differing degrees, we are challenged and tested- how we cope with these hard times and the way we 'learn' from them is the key to our emotional and personal development. It's an optimistic article, suggesting that we can all, given the right guidance, get stronger through tough times. Roger Dobson's article, in the Independent, taking the image of Marshal Rooster-Cogburn from the usefully-named Western 'True Grit,' offers the reader a slightly less hopeful view of a person's capacity for emotional strength- what he terms grit. Dobson's article, like many aspects of human understanding today, seeks to explain that we can now empirically measure a person's grit. When we know how gritty they are, now that we also know there's a link between grit and success in life, we can then predict who will come to the fore in competitive 21st Century society.
Dobson cites researchers from the University of North Carolina who have devised the 'grit test.' They use eight statements designed to measure perseverance and consistency. Tough, in his book, How Children Succeed (2012), also cites some core components of resilient young people's nature, but he does not seek to label their grit/ resilience a personality trait and this is the key to my concern. In Tough's core components for grit and character strength, he describes several aspects of people including: zest, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. I imagine that the Carolina researchers Dobson mentions do much the same. However, Tough does not suggest that you can measure these qualities; at best you can objectively, given criteria, say that they are evident in someone. This is tricky enough, without even considering the ever-fleeting nature of these abstract qualities in the first place- it's like trying to measure joy or comfort.
The second key point to the Dobson article is that, counter to Tough's research, his researchers state that grit is a trait and it innately exists in a lucky number of us to a greater extent. Thinking about this with regard to schooling makes me anxious. A trait is something that stays with someone, it largely exists as part of their character throughout their life and it will suggest to some children that they may never have greater grit or resilience and are thus labeled and ranked as unable to succeed to the extent of others. (admittedly it's a new poor homework excuse too) Furnham's point is that it's the learning from adversity and the nature, systems and quality of this learning that is the key to resilience development in children. As is evidenced in the research of Anderson, Gentile and Buckley in 2008 (on the powerful and positive 'buffering' by parents on their children's level of sensitivity to social media and gaming) Furnham's article suggests that schools and teachers and professional psychologists may well want to invest in this key aspect of character development- children's grittiness- and if they do and teach this just as thoughtfully as maths, the arts and sciences, not only will children achieve more in schools, but we will develop happier more emotionally strong people who will one day become parents themselves.