Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Instant Grits

One of my late mom's (it's four years this month, still miss you daily) best jokes, belated Mother's Day tribute:
Shopper: I'd like some grits, please.
Attendant: Hominy?
Shopper: Oh, two or three...
True Grits by NibbleMeThis.
David Brooks has put his humble-failed-political-journalist baseball cap back on the rack and shown up in his world's-greatest-education-expert mortarboard, for the first time in weeks or months ("Putting Grit in its Place", New York Times, May 10 2016):
We all know why it exists, but the grade-point average
No, you mean like any time you have a set of integers between 0 and 4 you can calculate the mean and—
is one of the more destructive elements in American education.
No wait, I think I don't know why it exists. Can we go back over that, Prof?
Success is about being passionately good at one or two things,
It is? In what sense? Is it a limit, like it's not OK to be passionately good at three things, or that's the best you can hope for? Is it what high schools or colleges should be aiming at, graduating kids with a minimum number of passionate skill sets, or is it a choice the kids should be making, in contradistinction to aiming at a high GPA, say? Is it a definition of success in school, or is it about preconditions for success in their future lives, that if they don't come out of school with those passionate skill sets they will end up failures as adults?
but students who want to get close to that 4.0 have to be prudentially balanced about every subject.
Meaning they need to be balanced in a way that proceeds from prudence as opposed to some other kind of balance, or they need to do it with the kind of prudence you'd expect in a business context?

And if they get the 4.0 they aren't, or won't in the future be, successful? And does your passionate goodness in biology prevent you from getting an A in French or history? And on the assumption that most students don't get that close to the 4.0, what are they, chopped liver?
In life we want independent thinking and risk-taking, but the G.P.A. system encourages students to be deferential and risk averse, giving their teachers what they want.
OK, I'm stuck on that hyphen that seems to have snuck out of "risk-averse", where it clearly belongs, to jump into "risk-taking", where it's arguably not needed. Is there a copy editor in the house?

We're getting to a point, though, where I can see a glimmer of an idea I'm sympathetic to. It is about the future, "in life" as opposed to "in school", and success of some kind might be associated with an independent style and a willingness to take risks, and school doesn't encourage that, does it? Although what's the association between that independence model of success and the two passionate skill sets model? I mean, I'd think both are good, and not mutually exclusive, but not interdependent either.

And what about schools as they are doesn't encourage students to be deferential and risk-averse? Why single out the GPA "system", which seems to have its malign effects only on the small minority who are bound to get a 3.5 or higher?

Still, praise where praise is due, and I think it's lovely to see old Brooks jumping on the progressive education train here, protesting against the design of our educational system as a production facility for docile robots and demanding change—why can't our schools turn out passionate, committed, daring individuals? I can't wait to see what kind of radical reforms he's proposing—

Hahahahahaha. Of course not. As Susan always says, the conservative motto is "Nobody can do anything ever." The "GPA system" in the US is like the weather in England, unpleasant, but given, and what Brooks is going to recommend is coping strategies, the educational equivalent of the umbrella:
The G.P.A. ethos takes spirited children and pushes them to be hard working but complaisant. The G.P.A. mentality means tremendous emphasis has now been placed on grit, the ability to trudge through long stretches of difficulty. Influenced by this culture, schools across America are busy teaching their students to be gritty and to have “character” — by which they mean skills like self-discipline and resilience that contribute to career success.
Isn't it weird how the "GPA ethos" has influenced schools, rather than the other way around? Anyway, it looks like we just dumped the one-or-two-passionate model of success in favor of a gritty one. Trigger warning: your teeth may start to hurt in the subsequent discussion.

And when I say grit, you know I mean Angela Duckworth. I don't need to go over this in detail, as it was covered in a moderately funny Brooks parody of August 2014, but Duckworth has now committed her grit work to a grit volume, appropriately entitled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (and please don't read that aloud if you've got sand in your mouth) and detailing "everything I've learned about grit as a scientist, teacher, and parent"), and it's got some good stuff:
Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania is the researcher most associated with the study and popularization of grit. And yet what I like about her new book, “Grit,” is the way she is pulling us away from the narrow, joyless intonations of that word, and pointing us beyond the way many schools are now teaching it.
What's that "and yet"? "Even though she's the world topmost expert on the subject, what I like about the book is that she has something surprising to say about it." Also I don't believe he knows what the word "intonation" means.

But the good news is that there are more grits than just the narrow, joyless kind; sure, hard work is unpleasant, grinding, arduous. But you'll get a better score if you put some moral purpose into it!
And yet Duckworth notes that moral purpose also contributes to grit. People who are motivated more by altruism than personal pleasure score higher on grit scales. She also notes that having a hopeful temperament contributes to perseverance.
A-and some of that hopeful temperament! And high-quality longing!
Most important, she notes that the quality of our longing matters. Gritty people are resilient and hard working, sure. But they also, she writes, know in a very, very deep way what it is they want.
I want hyphens in "hard-working" if you're going to put them in "risk-taking". But I digress. Brooks's solution to the serious issue of the GPA system, "one of the more destructive elements in American education", is that it's all up to the kids: they just need to have some moral purpose, be hopeful, and go for the high-grade longing, because that cheap longing isn't going to get you anywhere, frankly.

Which gets him to the point where the Brooksian "we" can find something to do:
How do we help students decide what they want? How do we improve the quality and ardor of their longing?
High-quality and high-ardor. The grit forms on the right.
I don’t know about you, but I’m really bad at being self-disciplined about things I don’t care about. For me, and I suspect for many, hard work and resilience can only happen when there is a strong desire. Grit is thus downstream from longing. People need a powerful why if they are going to be able to endure any how.
Anyway, long story short, he's not too clear about how to integrate this into the curriculum, I guess he doesn't ardently long to design a new kind of school, but he can sketch out a couple of ideas:
Say you were designing a school to elevate and intensify longings. Wouldn’t you want to provide examples of people who have intense longings? Wouldn’t you want to encourage students to be obsessive about worthy things? Wouldn’t you discuss which loves are higher than others and practices that habituate them toward those desires? Wouldn’t you be all about providing students with new subjects to love?
See, it's simple!

We're talking about the school David Brooks wishes he'd been sent to, where he could have picked up some passions instead of the endless joyless drudgery, well, eight or ten hours a week of joyless drudgery, that he's needed to sustain himself all these years! He could have been a success if his longings had only been trained in a more elevated direction!

Elevated Yearnings High! Famous people anecdotes 101 and worthy obsessions in the morning, lunch break and recess, and then love hierarchies, that's math, and desire practice as an alternative to gym or instrumental music in the afternoon. And you could have new subjects, too, monthly surprise classes, kids love that! And they love it when you tell them to be passionate about some elevated subject in opposition to the disgusting things they'd otherwise be passionate about too. I'd be all about that for sure! And as an unexpected side effect no more GPA ethos grinding you down and hindering your success, because these joyous grit classes are obviously ungradeable.  I'm going to go home and design that school right away! It could be like the Educational Great Leap Forward, in fact, we could all go design elevated-yearnings schools in our back yards! Well, probably not that radical:
In such a school you might even de-emphasize the G.P.A. mentality... 
OK, GPA ethos de-emphasized. The same stupid school, in fact. only with the famous people anecdotes, that'll be some novelty, huh, and the unfailing technique of urging the kids to adopt elevated yearnings, which worked so well in the 1880s. You can have your grit and eat it too. Thanks, Prof!

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