Saturday, February 28, 2015

Grit and Non-Cognitive Skills – Framing the Narrative

More on the subject of so-called grit that is appropriately critical of this diversionary discourse. -Angela

by María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., and Hector Bojorquez

growing chorus of academics, administrators and policymakers are
steering educational research, money and the public’s imagination to
conversations around resiliency and non-cognitive skills. Words like
grit are now consistently being used to describe a student’s ability to
persevere, to face challenges and to overcome failure.

One reason for looking into these non-cognitive skills may be rooted
in a search for why – after years of high-stakes testing, standards
reform and progressive pedagogy – flat academic results persist. It is,
of course, necessary to reassess decades-long efforts. Maybe, the voices
behind non-cognitive research say, we now need to look at
social-emotional factors that contribute to success. Maybe, just as we
teach addition, subtraction, decoding and writing, we need to identify
non-academic skills that are necessary for success.

These may be fruitful paths. Too often though, questions are being
framed in ways that yield little but negative attitudes, defeatism and
deficit practices in the education of young people.

The research dealing with non-cognitive skills concentrates on the
importance of resiliency, an umbrella term for a person’s ability to
persevere and overcome obstacles. Grittiness, goal-setting,
self-discipline and motivation are non-cognitive skills that
increasingly are the focus of current research, with resiliency as the
unifying factor.

Tools, surveys and questionnaires, such as Duckworth’s Grit Scale,
are being used as a way of predicting a student’s ability to persevere.
The logic is as follows: Intelligence and talents may be important
markers of success, but one’s ability to shake off failure and try again
– on a test, a challenge, a class – may be more important.

Unfortunately, this logic and the hypotheses that follow from it may
not frame things in a manner that is relevant to educational practices.

Students’ apparent intellectual or socio-emotional characteristics
cannot be the basis for questions as to how schools and educational
systems categorize, teach and assess our youth. From the outset,
indicators of these characteristics have not been practically nor
conceptually shown to be valid.

Also, the questions surrounding either one of these issues
concentrates on what student’s “lack.” Metrics of student strengths or
school effectiveness are rarely considered.

Almost by definition, concentrating on student characteristics yields
a list of “skills” they must possess in order to succeed. Nowhere is
this more evident than with the field of non-cognitive skills. After
all, non-cognitive skills, such as perseverance and resiliency, border
on being defined as psychological traits that are popularly viewed as

You either have grit or you don’t. And what is a school to do with that idea?

Simply stated, the basic framing around these socio-psychological
traits in education concentrate on students lacking certain attributes
rather than the school’s role in shaping experiences that leverage
student strengths instead of blaming perceived weaknesses. Regrettably,
school administrators and researchers around the country are thinking
only about assessing students’ grit and resilience. They are already
assuming that students are lacking, rather than exploring how schools
must change.

There are, however, voices out there that are questioning the wisdom behind these new inquiries. In 2012, the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) published, Teaching
Adolescents to Become Learners – The Role of Noncognitive Factors in
Shaping School Performance: A Critical Literature Review
. The CCSR
review of the literature and research found that studies concentrating
on grit and resiliency, viewed as psychosocial traits, show little
conclusive evidence of being malleable.

For example, studies on grit have been limited because they (1)
concentrate on “high achieving” students as a means of defining this
trait among (2) populations like West Point cadets. Unfortunately, this
has steered the conversation into how students in high-need groups must
lack the traits found in high achieving cadets from West Point.

This not only presents a research problem but also casts high-need
students as fundamentally lacking psychological traits needed to
succeed. The CCSR report explicitly sees this as a problem because it
views high-need students as “broken” and leaves schools with no actual
approaches to strengthen non-cognitive skills.

They conclude that research must address the role of schools in
developing resiliency. IDRA is currently framing empirical and
experiential paths that will assist schools to find their role in
creating school environments that, themselves, are resilient and
encourage resiliency.


Duckworth, A.L., & P.D. Quinn. “Development and Validation of the Short Grit Scale (grit-s),” Journal of Personality Assessment (2009) 91, 166-174.

Farrington, C.A., & M. Roderick, E. Allensworth, J. Nagaoka, T.S. Keyes, D.W. Johnson, N.O. Beechum. Teaching
Adolescents to Become Learners – The Role of Noncognitive Factors in
Shaping School Performance: A Critical Literature Review
 (Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, 2012).

María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is IDRA’s president &
CEO. Hector Bojorquez is director of IDRA’s Student Access Success
Department. Comments and question maybe directed to them via email at

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2015 IDRA Newsletter
by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has
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