11/15/2013 11:06 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Every Generation Must Find Its Own Way to Teach "Grit"

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I was raised in the Baby Boom era when parents were committed to preparing children to take advantage of opportunities that had been unavailable during the Great Depression. Parents and mentors were devoted to teaching us to be "inner-directed" persons, with the self-control, responsibility, and stick-to-it-ness necessary for a healthy and meaningful life. They were known for instructing us, "Pay close attention; I'm only going to show you once."

It was a signal to focus -- something exciting and important was about to be revealed. And by role-modeling how a curious mind interacted with the world, adults also taught us to "learn to how learn." Coaches and fathers had another phrase that embodied this principle. After making an error on the ball field, the kid would be told to learn something from it, "Go to school on that!"

Our parents came from the "Greatest Generation," forging their self-control through economic deprivation and World War II. Having endured so much, some could attach an authoritarian tone to the words "I'm only going to show you once." In my experience, however, mentors were supportive, nurturing, and loving in communicating the need to "pay close attention." Of course, they then showed us more than once.

Adults were teaching us how to build an internal locus of control, so we did not have to be repeatedly shown what to do. We were being taught character, to not be an "outer-directed person" who only knew how to follow orders. In Oklahoma, we were warned to not be like the Red River, "a mile wide and an inch deep."

Even in my conservative state, adult mentors were like progressive educators of the era, teaching us how to become lifelong learners. My best teachers believed that their job was not to "teach the subject," but to "teach the student." Book smarts were great, but academic success was not the end-all, be-all of school. Back then, a prime purpose of education was cultivating the quality that is now known as "grit," or the perseverance, motivation, and passion for accomplishing long-term goals.

Then came the high-stakes standardized testing mania of the contemporary school reform movement. It began innocently enough, founded on the theory that traditional "input-driven" policies should be replaced by "output-driven" accountability. Reformers did not trust educators to make the proper "inputs" into the hearts of students, but they did not intend to damage kids by turning them into outer-directed conformists.

"Test-driven accountability has been a disaster." -- John Thompson

Accountability-driven reformers sought an unflinching focus on the testable curriculum, however. Valuing the teaching of the student over the teaching of the subject, it was argued, showed that the system was irredeemably broken. Carrots and sticks replaced the love of learning. The curriculum was narrowed, and art, music, and other extracurricular activities were replaced by nonstop test prep and basic skills instruction. When that failed, bubble-in testing became a weapon to fire teachers who placed the socialization of students over measurable academic outcomes.

Test-driven accountability has been a disaster. Had top-down school reformers taken the time to study cognitive and social science, they might have understood that the building of trusting relationships, not cut-throat competition to meet other people's external targets, is the key to success in academics and in life. On the eve of the movement, which has now degenerated into market-driven or corporate reform, Noble Prize winner James Heckman documented the importance of socio-emotional factors, such as grit, to academic success. They should have followed Heckman's wisdom and helped invest in high-quality early education and full-service community schools.

One bright spot, however, is that KIPP and some other "No Excuses" schools have shown success while embracing a commitment to teaching children to be students. While I do not support most of their approach, these schools recognize the important of instilling the values of self-control and perseverance, and that creates a common ground for a next generation of school reform.

Today, McArthur Foundation "genius" grant winner Angela Lee Duckworth is an articulate advocate for science-based school improvement. A former teacher, Duckworth can explain why high-poverty schools cannot be turned around by an unflinching focus on "the Head," or worse, a narrow portion of the brain. A scientist, Duckworth calls for more research and she may or may not accept my terminology. For me, schooling is fundamentally an affair of "the Heart."

Of course, I speak metaphorically; teaching and learning is a holistic emotional, physical, intellectual, social and political process. But, first, we must remember that children learn from those who love them. Our students' emotional and moral cores are the rock on which better schools must be founded.

I am not saying that this generation must adopt our vocabulary and tell kids, to build their "grit" or "pay close attention; I'm only going to show you once." Every generation must articulate their own wisdom. But, children need a long-term goal worthy of their inner selves. Young people welcome the challenge of passing values on, generation to generation. We need to show them how adults lovingly nurture gritty, inner-directed children.

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