Two teenagers given the same new thing to master. The task is hard: it’s going to be a real challenge. Both of them struggle. One gets there in the end, the other is just hopelessly confused...
This scenario is played out in every school, every day. Some individuals just seem to be more able to master certain academic challenges than others. In fact, some individuals seem to be more able than others to master almost anything.
This kind of observation led Francis Galton to propose that there are individual differences in “intelligence”: an innate ability that affects everything we do. So pervasive is this concept of “IQ” now that it’s hard to imagine how educators lived without it. Yet they did, until the mid-19th century.
IQ rapidly became the main explanation for individual differences learning, so much so that today, we tend to automatically assume that academic ability and success reflects IQ. That has implications for how we teach, implications which are not always very constructive: “Cruel to push the young too hard, if they haven’t the IQ for the task; worthwhile to put extra time into that one, though – very, very bright.”
Yet this way of thinking about IQ creates self-fulfilling prophesies that undermine our efforts to get the best out of all. And IQ is not what we once thought it was...
Some things you may not know about IQ
It seems to be true that IQ has a genetic base: bright children tend to have bright parents, bright siblings. But where we once thought that a genetic disposition to be intelligent (or otherwise) meant that one’s IQ is fixed for life, we now know that that is not so.
The first evidence came from Terman’s study of genius, begun in the 1940s, which followed the progress of a group of children with very high IQs through their whole lives.
Most of these did exactly what you would expect: they soared academically, and as adults were more successful, wrote more books, contributed more to science and literature (and so forth) than their less well-endowed contemporaries.
But there was a subset who did not fulfil their potential. And indeed, when retested, many of these showed marked falls in IQ. On investigation, it emerged that high IQ may not survive if a child’s family or circumstances falls on hard times.
At the other end of the scale was a study of men who had been “diagnosed” as having very low IQ in childhood. But when retested in middle age, many had caught up with siblings who had tested in the normal range as children.
We now know that IQ can vary in an individual over time. Changes of up to 20 IQ points are often observed. Changes of 40 IQ points are not as rare as you would think.
This has made many experts wary of labelling a child on the basis of a particular IQ test, still less educating them in the light of that result.
True: IQ has been one of the best predictors for academic success over the past 100 years. But how much does that reflect the educational experiences a child gets, in light of his or her presumed IQ? We don’t know. And in the end, intelligence is only a hypothesis as to what shapes ability. There are other hypotheses.
A new view
One hypothesis now in vogue is the notion that academic success reflects “grit” as much as intelligence: in other words, the drive and commitment to persist with a task even though it is hard.
Of course, this is not a new idea. William James made it prominent in 1907; and even Francis Galton thought grit as important as intelligence. But somehow the idea fell out of favour, to re-emerge only now.
Common sense tells us that high IQ without much grit may be less successful than grit without high IQ. However powerful the tool (and IQ is only a tool), you need to work with it to make it useful.
Research corroborates this: from secondary level through to university, grit is a powerful predictor of achievement.
Interestingly, grit does not seem to correlate with intelligence. A range of studies has found either little or no correlation, or even a slight negative correlation between the two.
Perhaps this should not surprise us: the higher the IQ, the less challenge a child faces in primary school – and the less grit is needed to get through, so the less opportunity to learn or practise perseverance. Is this an explanation of why some high fliers at primary level sink to earth in face of the harder challenges at secondary level? Can we foster grit in the young, and in the process, boost academic performance? Expert opinion is that we can.
Self-belief and ambition are essential components of grit. In fact, they are fundamental to any sort of success: no-one persists with any hard challenge if they don’t care about the outcome, or if they believe that the task is beyond them. How to inspire these things in the young?
There is no short answer! But every good teacher knows that a child’s self belief starts with your belief in him or her. And as the fridge magnet says: “Teachers put the stars within our in reach”.
And sometimes that involves teaching the self control to work on an immediate but dull task, focusing on the fact that it is a key stepping stone to those stars.
Develop a healthy mindset: research shows that the more a teenager believes that his or her abilities are genetically “fixed”, the less he or she will work to improve abilities or academic success. Sadly, such misconceptions are constantly fostered by the popular press!
Simply convincing a child that ability is as much the product of effort as anything else can turn this around and create a healthier mindset, more conducive to a gritty approach to challenges: yes I can, whatever my genetic legacy.
Resilience to failure is a vital component of grit. Everyone is going to experience failures along the way, when the task is hard. Individuals with grit see these as setbacks to be overcome. Individuals without grit see failure as exactly that: failure, evidence that the task is too hard for them so why not give up?
Typically these pessimists also fail to realise that they are not alone in struggling, not alone in experiencing failure: that even the ablest in the class face the same things. Making that fact clear to all, and turning a stumble from a block to a challenge is essential to building grit.
Discuss how to try harder: the gritty approach that turns a setback into a success is not simply a matter of persistence. There are ways and ways of overcoming a problem!
Surprisingly few young people have clear ideas about how to overcome a setback – though research shows that the more specific strategies and tactics they know, the more likely they are to engage in focused efforts. Classroom discussions of strategy and tactics can offer valuable insights into how to try harder more effectively.
No quick fixes
It is a marathon, not a sprint: grit is not about the quick-fix. But we live in an “instant” society, a world where waiting for results, patience are strange concepts.
Too many of the young will go in for a sprint to solve a particular problem, but are not there for the marathon that is required to build-up real skills in an area. Changing this attitude alone can provide a powerful foundation for a grittier approach to life and learning.
Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development.