Interview: Angela Duckworth Talks to School Leaders
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Interview: Angela Duckworth Talks to School Leaders

– My name is Elizabeth Rich. I am the Education Week Commentary Editor. We’re going to get to
questions very quickly. We have two people out in the audience. I don’t know if they’re down yet. Jason, right here. And Tracy, I think, is right in the back of the room. So, we want to get to as
many questions as possible. We are going to ask you to keep them to a single question, and not make it a paragraph. Please don’t make me cut you off. I really don’t want to do that. But before we get to that point, I do want to ask you a couple questions of my own. First, actually, I’m going
to turn to the audience. A lot of what you focused on, obviously, has to do with kids. I’m curious out there, we have a room full of district leaders, who are obviously very
good at what they do. How many of you feel that
you got to where you are through sheer force of grit? Wow. – Not that many. – Raise your hand high. High, super high Okay. – A third. – How many feel that if
you really understood how grit works that you might’ve actually gotten to where you
wanted to get to sooner? Okay. Sort of, about the same. So, I am curious about
leadership for adults. We don’t really focus so much on this. I think, if I were to ask you, how many of you thought
when you were 15-years-old, that you would be a superintendent, or a district leader, how many people would raise their hands? Nobody. (laughing) So, it’s a really hard job. It requires a lot of effort. There is pleasure, I’m sure, but district leaders really have to juggle a lot. Do you think there are things
we could be doing better to help grow leaders? – I’m not a leader in the sense that you guys are leaders, right? When I lead, it’s like 12 people. So, I’m hesitant to say, to a group like this, “Here’s how to lead”. But I will, actually,
point out the following. The root of passion, really actually translates to sacrifice. I know you love what you do, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of sacrifice at the same time. I think it’s well illustrated by an interview I did with one paragon of grit, Rowdy Gaines, who won the 100 Meter Gold Medal in the Olympics in 1984. He kept using these words, “Passion”, “I love swimming”. Then when he started
talking about practice, he talked about how awful it was. I was like, what do you mean? He’s like, “It’s four in the morning, “it’s dark out, “and raining, “you have to get into a Speedo, “and jump into a pool, “again and again and again”. He’s like, “Do you get
what I’m saying here?” I’m like, Oh yeah, right. That actually doesn’t sound that fun. He’s like, “Then you just swim until “you feel like you’re going
to have a heart attack, “and that’s basically practice. “And then you do it again”. So I said, so square this with me. You love what you do, but you don’t love practice. What’s going on? My guess is this, is that any leader, loves what they do with a passion, but there are elements… Board meetings, and district hearings, – Parents. – Parents. Yeah, exactly. I’m now channeling my mother-in-law here, that you don’t love. The end of the conversation with Rowdy, he said, “I loved the whole of it”. It’s a little bit like your kids. I mean, you love them, they also drive you crazy. I think what I would hope for, for leaders, and for any of us, is that we would find
something that we would say, “It’s my passion”. “I love it”. “I love it enough that I will “do the four a.m. practices”. “I will do the hard meetings”, “and so forth”. It’s not the ambition to have something that it’s fun every moment of the day, but as a whole, I wouldn’t do anything else. – The other thing, before we start, with the questions, there was something that I read, maybe you said it, maybe it was somewhere else, about this issue of… Your detractors in you saying, “Be careful about how much you use grit to change school policy, right?” There was an example of not using a contest of grittiness for SAT scores, for example. Maybe, a word of caution out there before the questions start, so that people understand, what the range is. – I am not a very policy oriented person. I’m not a policy oriented person. I’m not good at policy. I don’t really understand policy. Whenever anybody tells me about policy, it never makes any sense to me. I’m going to be appropriately modest in what I could say about policy. What I can say, as a psychologist, is that when policy makers, who sometimes, when I
just hear what they say, it’s like, have they even seen a kid, in the last century? (laughing) They say these things about kids and I’m like, they’re just completely out of touch with the psychology of young people. But anyway. So I’m reading this as a psychologist, and I’m like, wait,
that’s not how kids think. That’s not what drives people. What I worry about is
that certain policies, like high stakes assessment
of things like grit. What I worry about is
that these policy makers don’t understand that the
measures of these things are highly imperfect. They are, in most cases, totally fakeable. And they’ve got a million other flaws. So, I also worry that
policy makers seem to think that the only way you get a kid or teacher to do something, is to
reward or punish them, like a rat. I don’t know a teacher who
went into teaching because “It’s going to be another
thousand dollars”. That’s not why people go into teaching. – Right. – That’s also not what
drives a young person to be their best. I think rewards, punishments,
high stakes assessment on flawed measures, for a non policy person, who’s a psychologist, seems extremely dumb. (laughing) – Okay, you heard it here people. You can take that home. So, questions. There must
be some in the audience. Right here. – [Audience Member] My
name is Bondi Gibson. I’m blessed to be the
superintendent in Jefferson County, and often times, when
our teachers try to build persistence among students, they translate that into simply
spending additional time. If they’re trying to build
persistence in reading, so what advice would you have, as leader trying to support them, in other ways to build
persistence among children then simply slogging
them through building up? It’s more like building
immunity to pain and boredom. (laughing) So any advice you have
will be most helpful. Thank you. – Yeah, I will say this, I think and you must
know this better than me, but I feel like anything that
you say could be misused. It’s like almost any good
thing could be misinterpreted, or implemented in a kind of ham-fisted way that doesn’t work. Here’s one thing that you
might try to take back that would make things a little. You could say that Anders Ericsson finds, when he studies world class athletes, at the very top of their career, like in preparation for
the Olympics themselves, they only do, at the
peak, maybe four hours of true deliberate practice a day. Not eight, not nine, not 20, right? Why? Because it is actually, when you’re fully
concentrating on something you can’t yet do, with feedback and then
your making your refinement and you’re doing it
again, it is exhausting. The first thing I would say is, let’s not have the expectation
that kids should do hours, and hours, and
hours of homework a night. Why would we want to do that? They’re developmentally a lot younger than a world class athlete. And also, not even the
world class athletes are spending hours, and hours, and hours slogging through mindless stuff. The first thing is, just
take as an indicator, that at the limit, we’re
talking about a few hours, that for young people, it’s
got to be a lot less than that. When I asked Anders Ericsson
personally for advice on my own teenage daughters, he said, and he stroked his beard, he said, “Maybe they could do 15 minutes”. He was talking about
practicing their violas. Like, “Maybe they could do 15 minutes”. Then I asked Roberto Diaz, who is the head of Curtis,
which is the Music Academy that’s roughly twice as hard
to get into as Julliard. I said, “Roberto, how much
practice should my children do?” He said, “Maybe 15 minutes”. So, it’s quality practice, not
sustained over tons of hours. The key is the quality, right? The key is it’s mindful, it’s appropriate, it’s very precisely designed, and it’s the quality,
is the message, right? Once you get quality down, then we can start talking
about appropriate quantities. But the quality should
be the primary focus and the quantity, the secondary. – Is there another question back there? There’s one over here. I’m going to ask you while
they’re getting the mic, is there an age that’s appropriate also to start talking to a child
about this effort-pleasure issue so they understand what’s going on there? – So, your kids are smarter than you. You already knew that, right? Your kids are smarter than you. Actually, your processing speed, like your clock speed for your brain, it peaks at the senior prom and then it goes down after that, right? (laughing) So I’m not kidding when I say that your kids are smarter than you. You just know more, right? Here’s one lesson, I don’t think, it’s
shocking how early you can, sometimes you think when do we talk to kids about the following because it’s pretty complex. I don’t know, as early as you can, right? I love this children’s
book series Frog and Toad. I don’t know if you ever? – Yeah. – Frog and Toad cookies,
The Kite, The List, right? Those are books for kids who are what, four-years old, to be read to, right? All of those concepts are
deeply psychological, right? They’re about persistence. They’re about delay of gratification. They’re about social intelligence. So, I would say, it’s
really never too early to start talking to kids
about their own minds, about their own psychologies, about their emotions, about their motivation. I have two kids at home. I know, I’m a psychologist, so it’s weird. But, I will say that, as soon as they could really
talk about almost anything, they could start to
talk about these things. – Is there a question over here? – [Audience Member] Hi, I’m Brian Pick from DC Public Schools. Thank you for spending
the afternoon with us. – Thank you. – I bet you’re a really cool mom too. In the spirit of leaders to learn from, I’m wondering if you look
out at the education arena, particularly school districts, or perhaps charter networks. Are there particular places where you’re seeing this
work being done at scale? What are those places? And can you give an example
of something they’re doing? Thank you. – So great question about where do I see work on
character strengths. By the way, use your own synonym, right? I don’t care. You’ll call it character strengths, call it SEL, you know? I’m on the board of Castle. I love Castle. Call it 21st Century Skills. 21st Century is a lovely
century, you know? Call them whatever you want to call them. (laughing) I don’t care. But I’ll use the word character. So where do I see character work being done well at scale? I don’t know what I don’t know. I’m not saying that… I like the expeditionary
learning schools a lot. Like, Ron Berger is amazing. I think, one of the
things I really appreciate about expeditionary
learning schools is that when they teach things like grit, and I had a recent email
exchange with Ron about this. He said, “You want to be careful”. “Don’t teach kids about grit without “also teaching them about “really having an other centered purpose “about having moral integrity”. Because there are a lot of
gritty people in the world, and think of your favorite
political leader, right? Who are gritty, but maybe misguided, and that’s really not a
good combination, right? (laughing) What I’d admire about schools
like the expeditionary- (clapping) Not making any assumptions about anybody’s political leanings, but just saying. So, I think that schools like that, of course, I’ve done a lot
of work in KIPP schools, but really, the thing
that is interesting to me about those schools is that they have the wisdom to know, of course, it’s not just grit, right? You don’t want a school
that’s just about grit. The expeditionary learning schools are not just about grit. They are about grit and serving others. Or, what about curiosity and imagination? The schools that are
doing the best at scale are really thinking about the whole child seriously, right? And not just thinking
about grit plus SAT scores, but a long list of things that it means to be a whole person. – More questions? Wow, nobody has a question. I can’t believe it. Okay, we have some questions from Ed Week reporters down here. Including Evy, who has interviewed Angela. – [Audience Member]
Yeah, I’m just curious, Hi, when we talk about grit, in terms of extracurriculars, it feels like a really
good way of explaining it, and we obviously know what a world class swimmer looks like, but maybe we don’t know what a world class
stay-at-home-parent looks like. It’s more measurable in that way. Also, it seems like, for a child, I’m sorry, I’m talking too much, it can be a little bit more deliberate, as far as explaining,
“I’m practicing this”. What about the children who have less margins in their life? Is there a way to identify the grit that they’re practicing through endurance, as opposed to practice? Like, say, getting to school, or dealing with a difficult circumstance. Is there a way to make that
more explicit, as an educator? – I’ll say this about extracurriculars. First of all, I’m doing
work with Margo Gardner, at Columbia, on extracurriculars, in the high school record, and we’re looking at massive data sets, and asking the question, what are these extracurricular
activities actually predict? The answer is, they predict a lot. It’s not like there’s school, and then there’s this thing. Got extracurriculars
and that doesn’t matter. Actually, if you look at
extracurricular involvement, and I’ll start here, and then we’ll get to
what you can’t measure. But extracurricular involvement is a tremendously powerful predictor of what kids are going to be able to do later on in life. And I think there are a lot of lessons that are learned about team work, about interest, about sacrifice and work ethic, that are easier for many kids to learn outside of math class. And in fact, it’s probably most kids. In fact, the data would support this too. When kids are doing their activities, they say, “I’m concentrating
and I want to be here”. When they’re in school, they say, “I’m concentrating and I
don’t want to be here”. So this magical combination
of working hard at something that feels good. Yes, it’s got deliberate practice, but as whole, I want to be here. I think that’s hugely important and it’s getting lost, I think, in a focus on standardized testing. So the second thing
that you asked, though, is really important, which is, what about kids who don’t
have opportunity, right? Since we’re coming to the
end of our time together, maybe I will answer this
question, in particular, because I think opportunity is not something that you say, is it either character that
matters or opportunity. It’s really that opportunity enables kids to develop character strengths like grit. The first thing about kids
without opportunity is I think they need more, right? Sure, as a psychologist, I can think, how do we get to their grit? But first, let’s just say, that every kid has a right
to be on a sport’s team, to be on a newspaper, to act in a play, to do stuff that upper
middle class kids can do. Now finally, to the current reality that the playing field is still uneven. It’s absolutely true that some kids are demonstrating their persistence in their home life, just keeping things together. You know, taking care of baby sister, while Mom’s at work. But I will say this, though that is true, one, is that it’s sometimes very hard for those kids to generalize those skills into calculus, into college persistence. It’s certainly there, but it doesn’t automatically
make them able to do things, like stay in school. The second thing is, yes, you develop a certain amount of grit by taking care of baby sister at home and keeping things together, but the kind of structure that extracurricular activities enable a kid to progress from
one skill to another, under the careful tutelage
and support of an adult. Like a coach, or a newspaper
editor, or a yearbook editor, like that, it’s not quite the same thing. So the imperative always
and I was listening to the presentation that came before mine. The very important one about poverty. It’s the work of a psychologist to understand the
development of human beings, but it is the work of educators to make sure the circumstances are there for all the things that
the psychologist says, “What about this, this and this?” It’s the work of educators
and policy makers to make those possibilities a reality. So not character or opportunity, but opportunity that
would lead to character. – Great. Well, that’s unfortunately
all the time we have. Please join me in thanking Angela. (clapping)

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