Monday, June 20, 2016

How to Teach GRIT - Ages 5 and 7, and Ages 8 to 10

In 2007, Angela Duckworth came up with the concept of GRIT.   Here is one of her papers.  This concept is so mind blowing that it's a turning point both in cognitive development and education.  It's much bigger than the concept of intelligence; I feel that it undoes a lot of the damage that 100 years of misguided intelligence research and literature caused the American education system.  The education system is slowly working these concepts into the curriculum.  Common Core is somewhat consistent with GRIT if done correctly.

Every parent should come to terms with the concept of GRIT and put it first in their child's education.  It's not an acronym, but it's so important that I'm going to capitalize it.  I should probably follow it up with 3 exclamation points.

In short, here it is:   Children (and adults, by the way), who work hard, don't give up, and see things through are more likely to succeed regardless of how they stack up on tests of any type.

Think about that.  If your child has GRIT, you can stop worrying about everything else.  If your child falls short on the GRIT skills, then your #1 priority is to fix it.

GRIT is related to cognitive skills in two important ways.  First, the foundational cognitive skills are very similar - reading a question thoroughly, multiple times, even though the child is completely baffled, trying to figure out the solution, getting it wrong, and trying again.   Secondly, without these foundational skills, the child is never going to pick up and refine their cognitive skills set, because they stop at some point before they think everything through and solve the problem, thus learning or practicing the cognitive skills needed.

Five years ago, I read The Homework Trap and admired the unusual approach that the author recommended.  Now I simply recommend a direct approach - teach GRIT, teach cognitive skills, and set your child up to succeed.

Ages 0 to 2
It appears that a child is born with GRIT and learns a lot of tough things right away that they are completely unprepared for, like talking and walking.   Parents naturally have an instinct to support GRIT with patience, encouragement, and low expectations.

Age 3
The parent starts to worry about education and the GAT tests that are coming up in a year or two and crushes GRIT out of their child.  5% of parents don't crush GRIT out of their child, and these are the 5% of kids who score in the top 5% of cognitive skills tests and end up in Kindergarten GAT programs.  When authors state that "Tests are the enemy of learning" or "speed is the enemy of learning", this is what they mean.

Ages 5 to 6
Re-teaching GRIT to little kids is pretty easy.  Give your child some advanced academic work to do, let them take as long as they want to figure it out, and don't fret incorrect answers, no matter how many times they get it wrong.   Any impatience or expectations on the part of the parent will teach the opposite of GRIT and undermine the rest of the child's education.

Reading builds GRIT in numerous ways and is easy and fun.

Ages 8 to 10
It becomes harder to teach GRIT to this age group, because the parent is competing with school.  School teaches the opposite of GRIT, 8 hours a day, over 200 days a year.  School teaches that a child is expected to know something easy, know it quickly, get it right the first time on homework or a test, and teaches 1000's of really easy things that must be memorized.  

The first time I parented through this age category, I didn't realize how much damage school could cause, and my child and I proceeded through school type material at a fast pace, going a few years out.  By 4th grade, we hit the Classic 4th Grade Train Wreck, which manifests itself as a big fat C in math, not just from sloppiness, but from a lack of skills.   How can schools present a child with 5th grade math that includes thinking and abstract concepts, after 4 years of not thinking at all?

How can a child zip through 3 years of school getting all A's, and then end up unable to do marginally challenging work in 4th or 5th grade?  It's because GRIT and the related cognitive skills are not taught.  In fact, they are unlearned in school.

The Antidote
Since there is nothing on the market for GRIT, and very little for the related cognitive skills, I developed Test Prep Math Level 2 and Test Prep Math Level 3.   There is not Level 1, because Level 1 would be ages 5 and 6 and as you can see from the section above, I don't think special material is necessary.  Also, there is a treasure trove of test prep material for this age group that teaches cognitive skills, but after 1st grade, there is almost nothing.  Two exceptions are the verbal section in Building Thinking Skills for later grades, and Vocabulary Workshop.

The Test Prep Math books have goals for the parent and goals for the child.   For the child, I want the basic elements of GRIT in each question.  The math isn't really that hard.  I stick with basic arithmetic, usually just addition and subtraction.   I also avoid brain teasers.  I think brain teasers are great learning tools, but a brain teaser usually has a solution that can't be derived from the content of the question so it doesn't help with more advanced cognitive skills related to inference and logic.   Each question in Test Prep math is somewhat convoluted.  If my test group got a question right on the first try, I reformulated it so that the answer wasn't so easy.

For the parent, my goal is to train them to be a good academic coach.  To enforce GRIT, the parent should be comfortable with watching their child read a question once and not know what it just asked, and also comfortable with repeated attempts to get the right answer.   The ideal pace to teach GRIT, and cognitive skills as well, is about 1 question a day.   Most kids work their way up to a few or even 5 questions a day as they pick up skills.   The very first edition of the first Test Prep book (it was level 3) had numerous errors in the solution set.   The reason for this was that we ended up arguing the solution or didn't even bother with it.  As a top academic coach, the actual answer has 0 importance in many cases.  I've since fixed the solutions, as far as I know.  Actually, the answer plays a critical role.  It's the excuse the parent needs to ask their child to solve the problem again.

The easy math in the Test Prep series has an important role.   7 + 4 is easy.  15 - 8 is easy.   But the problems are asking what is the difference between the results of these two problems, and with that, the questions cross from teaching arithmetic to teaching cognitive skills.  I want the child to be able to do the arithmetic in their brain (even though this results in more mistakes) while they struggle with the relationships.  Look at a cognitive skills practice test.   Every single question in there on the non-verbal and quantitative sections has this form: a) something happened here, and b) no apply this something to another case.  In my experience, children practicing the a) + b) format in GAT practice tests isn't going to push the child ahead from the 50th percentile to the 95th percentile, but the a) + b) + c) format in the presence of a convoluted question that is designed for an incorrect answer the first time will push them into the 99th percentile.  By the way, 99.9% of school problems have the form of a), with no b) and no c).

The purpose of a cognitive skills test is to present the child with a novel problem - one they've never seen before - and measure their abilities based on how they to solve it (or get it wrong).  While the cognitive skills test is officially measuring the skills that they need to succeed in school, the test might as well be measuring GRIT, because the two skill sets are closely related.

Working memory is essential to a complicated problem on a cognitive skills test, in math, or in most subjects.   Test Prep math hammers away at working memory not only on every word problem, but also in the purely quantitate section that follows the word problems.  Like a strong vocabulary and the ability to memorize definitions on site (see all of my articles on Vocabulary Workshop), working memory is a very powerful tool.

My last goal for the Test Prep series is to set the child up to succeed in their subjects, especially math, since it has "Math" in the title.   We spent 18 months with these books, not to teach math, but to get my children to the point where I could hand them some math work or concepts and let them figure it out for themselves.  For my 7 year old, this currently means that he is investigating arithmetic operations (+, -, /, x) with fractions.  For his older brother, this means generalized algebraic equations.  Teaching GRIT and cognitive skills is so much more rewarding than teaching math.  With a stronger skill set, the child can teach themselves, now, and in the years to come, whether they are facing a test question or conquering an advanced subject.


  1. I have been reading your blogs and inspired by your parenting GRIT immensely. I agree with many of your opinions. However,  I am puzzled by this one question: if you think the school systems especially the GATE programs your boys attend are so bad (In fact, GRIT are unlearned in school) why do you try so hard to get them in? and why don't you homeschool or experiment any other educational alternatives?

    1. Excellent question!

      Our school is heavily project based, which is a primary grit tool starting in high end preschool programs under the heading of Executive Skills. (We couldn't afford $50,000 for pre school, but I read about them when I researched Executive Skills). So far so good.

      My problem is that they have books, and I do At Home Schooling, not to mention homework, and seeing the curriculum, and remembering what I did, I totally blew it at home. When they were memorizing math facts, I compounded the disaster. The math curriculum for grades 1-4 is across the board awful, with no projects, even in our program. This changes beginning 5th grade, but by that time the damage is done.

      In an article a few months ago, I describe the reasons why GAT programs are so valuable, and I think all kids should have the option to volunteer for these, if they are willing to do the work. But these benefits never make it to math until somewhere around 5th to 7th grade.

      The real problem is that the bad habits taught in math - the opposite of grit - can leach into the rest of the education, especially when kids have a high workload in other subjects, and therefore, any school with a standard math program is undoing learning.

      I corrected that and saw benefits in all subjects, not just math. Now we're back to the pros of GAT and I'm happy.

  2. Hello there,
    Its a very nice blog. Do you have any article about "How to prepare for Terra Nova 2nd Grade" ?
    Thank you

    1. No, my specialty is cognitive skills. The Terra Nova grade 2 is a grade level test on math and reading/language arts. Since we were usually about a year ahead in these areas, we never studied, except for reading comprehension.

  3. Thank you for the information in your blog. You inspired me to help my above average daughter get to the 99th percentile. After following your advice for over a year, we got word a couple of days ago that my daughter passed the second and final screening for the the gifted program. Thank you for your guidance!

    1. I'm so glad to hear this. Keep up the good work. There's no secret to GAT programs, just the right effort in the right area. I hope she succeeds, but if she struggles some day, like 4th grade, know that you've got a bit more work to do.