Tuesday, September 11, 2012
IQ and Grit
There's a curious narrative running through some big thought pieces lately. The big idea is that Americans are obsessed with IQ. How obsessed are we? We even have gifted programs! But IQ turns out not to be the be-all and end-all of success. Character traits such as persistence matter more -- ergo we should stop pushing children. The most recent piece along those lines was called "Opting out of the 'Rug Rat Race,'" which ran in the Wall Street Journal's review section this past weekend. It was excerpted from Paul Tough's book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. There is much to like about Tough's book, but I'm a bit wary of the way some of the discussion is framed. As regular readers of this blog know, American schools are most definitely not obsessed with IQ, at least to the point of doing much about it. The vast majority of gifted children -- even if they are identified -- are then given nothing more than 90 minutes of pull-out a week. Maybe they'll get to move a year ahead in math, but that's about it. The predominant focus of American education is on getting kids in the middle to meet grade-level tests. One piece of evidence Tough cites that test scores don't matter is a study of GED recipients. The GED is a test that high school drop-outs can take to show they understand high school material, and hence can go on to higher education or signal to employers that they are the equivalent of high school graduates. Tough cites a study finding that, while GED holders are more intelligent than high school drop-outs, they do about the same in life as high school drop-outs, whereas high school diploma holders do much better. The character traits that got kids through high school seem to matter more. Which is well and good -- but I'm not sure anyone would argue that character traits like persistence don't matter. I'm also not sure how you can control for the life circumstances that lead to people getting GEDs instead of high school diplomas. Beyond that, I think a lot of the folks arguing how much more grit matters than intelligence are looking at the world from their own perches of it. Everyone who works at the New York Times magazine (where Tough is a contributing editor) has a pretty high IQ. Academics look around their academic departments -- where everyone has made it into or through graduate school -- and see that the people who are most persistent and have the most self-control and discipline do best. This does not mean that you could pull two people off the street and only the person with the most persistence will do better in life. Wide differences in intelligence will matter too. What Tough writes -- that I agree with -- is that many of America's children, "especially those who grow up in relative comfort, are, more than ever, shielded from failure as they grow up." But a big reason kids don't experience failure is that they're never challenged. They're never given work that is truly right at the edge of their abilities... partly because we aren't obsessed enough with IQ. We aren't obsessed enough to make sure that highly gifted children are identified and then put in situations where they'll actually have to work to grasp the concepts they're trying to learn. That is how you learn grit. I pretty much coasted through school until I went to the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities back in the mid-1990s. This public residential school for gifted children featured extremely challenging classes, and for the first time, I really had to work hard to get good grades. Sometimes, I didn't get good grades -- a flirtation with failure that made me realize I could work harder and change a situation. I didn't have to learn persistence until I was truly challenged. I worry that today's highly gifted kids won't get that chance to be challenged the more people repeat this story that intelligence doesn't matter and that we should just step back and let kids be kids. In other news: The Davidson Institute just announced the 2012 Davidson Fellows. You can read more about these inspiring young people -- and the amazing things they've done -- at the Davidson institute's website.