Inherent intelligence is more important than Grit (from the TES, 16/09/2016)

Given the noble propensity of teachers to reflect on their practice even during a much deserved holiday, many summer reading lists will have included Angela Duckworth’s new book Grit. Unfortunately the only thing Duckworth has conclusively proved is the observation of Jordan Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, that “It is very difficult to find a discipline that is more susceptible to fads than educational psychology”. Grit is merely a diluted rehash of the well validated personality trait conscientiousness. There is no evidence that it can be taught and every minute trying to do so is one where real knowledge and skills are not passed on. We urgently need to close this gap — between what is believed in education and what is known in science — if we are narrow the more important one between the life chances of the poorest children and their wealthier counterparts.

For those who need convincing on Grit, a recent meta-analysis on the topic covering 88 independent samples of nearly 70,000 people concluded that the trait’s very existence was “in question”, that mistakes in Duckworth’s empirical work led to “incorrect inferences about the size of observed results” and that overall “Grit is far less important than has commonly been assumed and claimed”. The University of Birmingham centre for character education stated that Grit’s “educational implications” were “underdeveloped and premature” and may just be “snake oil”. It is all a worrying echo of a previous fad, Gardners’ theory of multiple intelligences, of which UCL Professor of Psychology Adrian Furnham wrote that “Despite its popularity in educational circles, Gardner’s theory has been consistently attacked and criticised by those working empirically in the area”.

Why do theories without clear validity in data and criticised by the leading academics in the field find willing advocates in education?

The reason is firstly that teachers are given insufficient support and training in interpreting research, and are bombarded by pseudoscience championed by groups with an interest in short term headlines not long term problem solving (especially politicians). Secondly, it is because there is clear data and academic consensus on what makes pupils succeed in school. People just don’t like the answers very much.

Nicholas Mackintosh’s balanced summary of a wide range of research and opinion in the field reports “a consistent finding that IQ at one age predicts educational achievement” (and supports this US study in finding preparation or test taking skill is not the reason). Professor Robert Plomin of King’s College London has pointed out that the existence of inherent general intelligence (IQ) is one of the “core constructs” in behavioural genetics. Professor Peterson echoed him calling it “the most well-validated concept in the social sciences, bar none”. Questioning the validity of IQ tests or intelligence, says Stuart Ritchie of Edinburgh University, author of an excellent introduction to intelligence research, is akin to climate change denial or thinking vaccines cause autism. Vanderbilt University have undertaken a 50 year longitudinal study of 5,000 pupils that confirms the predictive power of standardised tests. It also supports the smart fraction theory showing the highest IQ people make a disproportionate (think Pareto distributed) creative contribution in fields like science, academia and the economy. Well validated personality traits, particularly conscientiousness, have also been proved to explain a significant amount of the variation in pupils’ performance.

I know from private conversations that teachers’ everyday classroom experience confirms this enormous body of research: a substantial portion of variation in pupil performance is determined by inherent ability. They just worry that acknowledging this undermines their professional vocation and will lead to reduced opportunity for some pupils.

Well it doesn’t have to be that way. Firstly, the research does not at all support any idea that education is futile or lives are wholly genetically determined (the tests explain only part of performance variation and their empirical validity lies at a group not individual level). Being taught the best that has been discovered, created and written should remain the birth right of every child. High quality teaching counts more than any educational intervention. To use a timely Olympics metaphor, Mo Farah was probably born with more potential for long distance running than I was. There is however no doubt that his success is also down to world class training and that I would benefit from adopting some of his regime (on this I am showing a lack of Grit that would appal Angela Duckworth).

Secondly, it was great progressives such as RH Tawney and liberal reformers like Charles Trevelyan who championed aptitude tests as the cornerstone of a socially mobile society. What can be more egalitarian than a belief that each should achieve on the basis of ability? What is more reactionary than wanting environment (where wealth and privilege will rule) to determine all?

It’s time for those of us who believe in the ability of education to empower individuals and enrich societies to reclaim the progressive mantle for aptitude tests and rigorous science.

The scientific method and research on intelligence and personality traits should be at the core of ITT and CPD. The wonderful ResearchEd should be given every support and encouragement. The DfE should increase the funding and scope of the EEF and step away entirely from promoting any pedagogical research or practice. Ofsted judgements of teacher quality and leadership are not based on rigorous research and should be scrapped, reducing inspections to data analysis, checks for child safety and spotting egregious practice (ie teacher absence).

Pupils should sit IQ and personality tests on entering primary and secondary school (CATS testing is already widespread in year 7) and adapt progress 8 and primary school accountability to use these as the benchmark. Teachers could use them for earlier identification of SEN and to truly personalise learning. The pupil premium should be given out according to scores on these tests, which are a better indicator of increased educational need than being on free school meals.

We should allow the creation of smart fraction schools selecting the top 1–2% of pupils (with regular chances to come in and out). This would utilise the finding of the SMPY study that “Special educational opportunities… can markedly enhance the development of talent” while causing none of the etiolation of local provision associated with the old grammar school system.

The great physicist Richard Feynman observed that “nature cannot be fooled”. We can’t wish away the truth about what makes pupils succeed at school. We can only harness it to once again place science and education at the heart of a great progressive mission to make opportunity more equal.