Learning How to Learn – Acquiring Grit

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As students begin the new school year many will find themselves moving on from a comfortable and successful learning environment where they acquired quite a bit of content and were productive as reflected by high grades.  Now, perhaps in middle school, early on in high school, as they hit the wall of honors and AP classes, or for others in college, for the first time their study methods no longer save the day.  What happened?

What started me thinking about them and the implication that they have not learned how to learn, although they exhibited proficiency at times sufficient to be considered high academic performers based on cramming for tests, is the popularization of the term “grit” and the many books with similar titles (Make It Stick, Build Grit, Grit to Great, and Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance).

Before reading Duckworth’s new book, I had been one of the two million viewers of the YouTube version of her TED talk of just over six minutes.  Apparently I had the same reaction as many who commented on how she ended that talk. As she explains the reaction of Pete Carroll, coach of the NFL Seattle Seahawks:  “It was just the part at the end that irked him.  Science, I’d confessed in that talk, had at that point disappointingly little to say about building grit.  Pete later told me that he just about jumped out of his chair, practically yelling at my on-screen image that building grit is exactly what the Seahawks culture is all about”.

I had the same reaction.  As parents, coaches, teachers, mentors in varied situations, are we not called on and even capable of, and at times even successful at developing a culture of excellence, competition, desire to achieve, a motivation to be of service to others which can last a lifetime?

The challenge teachers are facing at this very moment in classrooms throughout the world is not merely testing to see if students have temporarily acquired content; rather, it is to provide students with the ability and desire to learn how to learn, to share with them the strategies that cognitive and educational psychology research is presenting as the most effective for students at all levels. With their students, they are exploring which study habits and techniques are least likely to be helpful, although they remain the most widely employed by students.  For example, self-testing would receive high marks and may be the most valuable learning habit for a student to acquire, while highlighting/underlining and rereading do not fare well as study strategies when closely studied. 

Grit?  A teacher who is able to convince students that there are effective and efficient ways to learn that are also productive if they commit to them and are consistent about smart practice (daily review of my notes? what?) is fostering a culture of grit, or getting students with grit even grittier.  The term will run its course, but teachers need to be grittier about developing students who are confident learners and are not relying on study methods that have a poor track record for improving academic performance.  The books noted above will provide other resources indicating the current research favoring the top two or three study methods and why the most popular study techniques used by students may be the least effective.

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