Raising kids with grit, not high test scores

We are right not to get too bogged down in educational rankings, but we mustn't ignore their obvious warnings 

The flurry of interest in NCEA as a preparation for university last week was followed by the news from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) that New Zealand’s global ranking in ‘Education and Cognitive Skills’ is now 16th, down 8 places from 2012. The EIU Learning Curve makes sombre reading. It reports that New Zealand has moved up one place from 9th to 8th in ‘educational attainment’, reflecting literacy and graduation rates. In cognitive skills, however, measured by PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS scores in Reading, Maths and Science, we have moved from 9th to 21st 

Education experts have rightly warned against too much emphasis being put on rankings, but the fact remains that in a system designed to compare educational performance across countries by standardising data gathering, other countries have moved ahead more rapidly -- and New Zealand appears to be falling behind in the very areas required to engage in a global knowledge economy. 

A quick look at the immigration website shows that most of New Zealand’s skilled shortage list has occupations requiring underpinning knowledge of maths and science. 

The shortfalls of NCEA, particularly to do with maths and science, have been discussed at length in the past. The Listener, for instance, obtained confidential Tertiary Education Commission reports last year and highlighted "a picture of substandard mathematics and science education, NCEA students coming unstuck in their first year of university resulting in tertiary providers scrambling to come up with their own diagnostic tests and remedial courses". 

Three main categories of problems were identified: 

  • poor advice and confusion about subject choice 

  • lack of preparation for tertiary level study 

  • poor work ethic. 

The sad thing for New Zealand is that these problems have been known for some time. Professor Luanna Meyer and researchers at Victoria University gave several reports to the Ministry of Education on the Impact of the NCEA and Student Motivation and Achievement between 2006 and 2009. This was considerably before the slide down The Learning Curve reported this month.  

In 2006, Professor Meyer’s research indicated concerns that "certain design features about the assessment of achievement standards were disincentives to maximising student motivation and achievement, for both high achievers and all students. These include the ability to not do parts of a course that the student didn’t like, not completing assessments where the student expected to do poorly, being able to avoid subjects and standards seen as challenging to one’s learning, and not sitting external examinations, particularly once the student has achieved the minimum number of credits needed. Such features could have a negative long-term impact on persistence and endeavour factors seen as necessary for being successful in the future".  

In addition, she reported concerns that some aspects of credit accumulation and assessments could motivate students to “do just enough” rather than do their best.   

Many of these points appeared in recent media reports. 

What hasn’t featured in discussion is the fact that "assessment could fragment subject understandings in some areas where integration, synthesis and/or evaluation across standards were seen as critical".  

Yet skilled labour is defined as involving complicated tasks that require specific skill sets, education, training and experience, and may involve abstract thinking. 

A further aspect not teased out from Professor Meyer’s report is the "negative long-term impact on persistence and endeavour", both of which are critical in the concepts of "grit and resilience". 

Grit is the work of Dr Angela Duckworth, University of Pennsylvania. Beyond IQ, grit is a combination of stamina, sustained passion, perseverance, tenacity and doggedness that leads to success. In many studies, including, one with West Point Cadets, Dr Duckworth found that high grit people are more likely to finish training (at West Point) or projects, and achieve goals, than those with low grit. Grit requires being goal directed, motivated towards those goals, self-control and having a positive mind-set so that challenges are embraced and failure viewed as a learning opportunity.  

Grit is also a key component in leadership. John McKinley, manager of the Global Fellows Program at Acumen Fund, a nonprofit venture fund that uses entrepreneurial approaches to solve the problems of global poverty, identifies resilient leaders as having three characteristics – grit, courage and commitment. 

Resilience, the other factor in Professor Meyer’s work, is the ability to spring back after adversity. If children don’t learn how to embrace failure as an opportunity to learn, because they don’t fail, they won’t learn, nor will they develop resilience. 

Clearly there will also be challenges with development of leadership – which is rated as the number one 21st Century skill required by the EIU Learning Curve report. Communication, working in teams and problem-solving were also included on the list – noting that these skills were in addition to, not instead of, basic reading, writing and arithmetic. 

A McKinsey Quarterly report (June 2012) focussing on leading in the 21st Century suggests leaders now have to cope with increasing uncertainty, risk and crises that are not of their own making. New leaders will be defined by their ability to adapt their company’s strategy to the external crisis.  

Of particular note is the suggestion reported by McKinsey that as volatility increases globally, leaders must resist the temptation to cope with chaos and complexity by trusting their gut: past experience is an unreliable guide to future outcomes. Good leaders ‘create a culture of constructive skepticism and surround themselves with people who bring multiple perspectives and have no fear of challenging the boss’.  

The three factors identified by McKinsey as being vital for future leaders are being able to see with a telescope as well as a microscope (future vision and attention to current detail), compete as a tri-sector athlete (inter-sector teamwork) and stay grounded during a crisis (grit and resilience). 

Current leaders did not experience an education system where ‘everybody gets a trophy’ and where over 40% of students (in America) achieve an A average (NB in the US system A indicates the top mark not, as in NCEA, Achieve….). Current leaders did not have helicopter parents or a sporting system where teams are changed at quarter time so that nobody loses.  

Current leaders have grit and resilience because of what they have experienced in getting to where they are now. 

Clinician, consultant and author Madeline Levine is clear that raising successful children requires ‘hanging back and allowing children to make mistakes’. She suggests that small challenges provide the opportunity for ‘successful failures’ – failures the child can live with and grow from.  “Depriving them of those challenges is to deprive them of the tools they will need to handle the inevitable, difficult and sometimes devastating demands of life”.  

The late James Lehman, child behavioural therapist, thought similarly. “When you shield your child from discomfort, what he learns is that he should never have to feel anything unpleasant in life. He develops a false sense of entitlement. He learns that he doesn’t really have to be prepared in school, because his parents will complain to the teacher, who will stop calling on him or expecting his homework to be in on time. He learns that his parents will raise the tolerance for deviance. If his parents are successful, the teacher will tolerate less compliance from him because of his parents’ intervention. He learns to confront a problem with power rather than dealing with it through responsibility and acceptance.” 

Parents and the schooling system have a role to play in enabling the younger generations to play a fulfilling part in New Zealand and the world in future. The NCEA system would probably have suited the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers that developed it, but in combination with modern parenting is not resulting in what was intended. 

A review is timely.