When I was six, I had a dream. I dreamed of being a ballet dancer, floating across the stage in my white tutu and tights. I would dazzle the world! Alas, I never made it. I was built like a brick, and had no sense of rhythm. I had plenty of determination, but so what? Not even 10,000 hours of practice would have made me fit to carry Karen Kain's pointe shoes.
The notion of "grit" – a combination of hard work and
perseverance – has caught on everywhere. It has been widely embraced by educators, along with its companion, "character education." Grit is based on the idea that intelligence isn't everything, or even the main thing. Non-cognitive factors are just as important to school success. Teach them grit, the theory goes, and even mediocre students can become high achievers.
If only it were true. Alas, it's not. The most significant predictor of how kids will do in school is how their parents did in school. Nothing the education system has tried so far has changed that. The latest confirmation comes from a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It assessed the data from test results in the U.K., where everyone takes a universal exam at the ageof 16. The researchers focused on the test scores of 2,321 twin pairs, who are part of a long-term study to determine the various influences of environment and heredity on behaviour and life outcomes. Their conclusion is both good news and bad news for those who think intelligence is highly overrated. They found that educational achievement does indeed depend on far more traits than just IQ. The bad news: Those traits are highly heritable, too.
These findings, the researchers noted in the British version of the study, "turn some of the fundamental assumptions about education upside down." While intelligence may be genetic, achievement has always been thought to be due to the environmental influences of home and school. The non-cognitive components of school success include traits such as self-efficacy and motivation, curiosity, emotional intelligence, conscientiousness, well-being and prosocial behaviour. But an increasing weight of evidence shows that these traits are substantially heritable, too. As researchers say, "The high heritability of educational achievement reflects many genetically influenced traits, not just intelligence." In other words, grit does matter to success – but the stuff we think of as grit is made up of characteristics that people are largely born with (or not). Efforts to teach it make very little difference.
At this point, a lot of folks will be inclined to stick their fingers in their ears and say "Na, na, na, I can't hear you." Fifty years of social science, education theory, parenting beliefs and progressive thought depends on the blank-slate view of human nature, which holds that kids are unformed lumps of clay who are entirely shaped by their environment. Despite the evidence all around us, it is not polite to say this isn't so. It is not polite to say that people differ in their innate abilities, and that there's not a whole lot we can do about it. Better to pretend we live in Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average and could probably go to Harvard if only they had the right social advantages.
Educators and politicians are heavily invested in the blank-slate theory. They are always looking for the magic bullet (pre-K, incessant testing, common core, and – the newest craze – computer programming for all) that will be the Great Equalizer. Once they find it, our children will not only survive but flourish in the competitive, high-tech, highly cognitively weighted 21st-century. The new deluge of findings from behavioural genetics are an icy bath for people who believe that we could iron out all the inequalities of society if only we adopted the right policies. But these findings should also be discomforting to conservatives who believe that kids who don't do well in school just need to pick up their socks and shape up – and that lousy teachers, lousy schools and lousy parents are to blame.
If schools can't make kids smarter, does that mean schools don't matter? Of course not. Good schools should bring out the best in every kid. They should stimulate the brightest ones, and do a much better job of ensuring that even the most disadvantaged children can read and add (something they are shockingly bad at now). They should teach every child the value of civility, citizenship, and kindness. We need them to be our leading agents for integration, and to identify merit wherever it may be. (To our credit, our schools are very good at that.)
The trouble with reality is that it tends to be politically incorrect. But think what we could do if we used our resources more thoughtfully. We might even find better answers to the social problems we have now. Not every kid can be a ballet dancer or a top student. But every kid deserves our love and nurture all the same.