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Can personality characteristics be assessed?

Students lined up outside classroom in hallway.
Photo courtesy of Chris Hondros / original article

Angela Duckworth has been getting a lot of press lately.

The researcher, who is best known for her pioneering work on ‘grit’, is at the center of a new controversy on whether it is appropriate to evaluate students on non-academic qualities. This is surprising for two reasons: first, because Duckworth’s work is not new (her TED talk came in 2013, and her research has been ongoing for almost a decade); and second, because teachers have been scoring students on non-academic qualities for years (such as the ubiquitous ‘plays well with others’).

Yet this week several news outlets have featured high-profile disagreements with Duckworth’s work, claiming that Duckworth’s research pigeonholes students and is not subtle enough to explain why only some members of a cohort succeed.

But let’s take a step back: what exactly is ‘grit’? In very broad terms, ‘grit’ is the ability to persevere in the face of challenges. In fact, people with grit tend to seek out challenges in order to push themselves to grow. On the face of it, it is reasonable to believe that those who push themselves to excel will experience more success in that sphere than those who do not.

The criticism comes from two spheres. John Warner at Inside Higher Ed objects that grit seems too all-encompassing. He is interested in students who have grit in one or two areas, rather than overall grit. His (admittedly anecdotal) autobiography provides the counterpoint: is he gritty if he has persevered in the face of rejection as a writer, but abandoned other subjects such as math that he found boring? (I think Duckworth would say no, but that the opposite of ‘grit’ is not ‘abject failure as a human being’ – but that is my understanding of her research and should not be taken as her opinion).

At The New Republic, in contrast, Jeffrey Aaron Snyder is alarmed about the potential of grit to invade the curriculum. Using KIPP schools as a starting point, he envisions an educational future where all children are graded on character as well as academics – something that is already true in the KIPP system. While grit is only one of the ‘character strengths’ highlighted on a KIPP student’s ‘character report card’, Snyder is concerned about the absence of morals or ethics. What is the end goal of striving for success if concern for others’ well-being is not important? His answer: Bernie Madoff. Yet when you visit KIPP’s character education website, the first sentence relays their motto: Work hard. Be nice. Madoff this is not.

So why is everyone so concerned about character and grit all of a sudden? Perhaps it is related to the idea of teaching ‘intangibles’ and whether or not that is valued in modern schooling. This was underlined by the recent judgment that teacher tenure is unconstitutional in California. Slate writer Jordan Weissman quotes David Berliner, an expert witness in the trial: “he [Berliner] doesn’t necessarily believe that low test scores qualify somebody as a bad teacher. They might do other things well in the classroom that don’t show up on an exam, like teach social skills, or inspire their students to love reading or math” (bolded emphasis mine; italicized emphasis is Weissman’s). This is getting awfully close to teaching character. So maybe this is where a character report card and giving students more grades starts to hit home: is it ever better to stop assessment?

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About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

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