December 16, 2013

Toughness and Grit Pay Off in the Classroom

The 60s may have been all about hippies and ‘free love’, but in the classroom, teachers still held students to a higher standard- and students benefited from it.

Strings Attached Book Cover


Joanne Lipman, a former deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and former editor-in-chief of Condé Nast Portfolio, recalls her “tough to the point of abuse” orchestra teacher Mr. Krupchynsky, in her new book,  Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations.  However when he died a few years ago, there was profound amount of love and respect shown to him by his former students- many of whom had become very successful.  She knew there has long been established a correlation between music education and academic achievement, but she knew there must be more.    Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations, outlines what she sees as the discipline and work ethic that her former teacher instilled in her and others.


Here is an excerpt from a post in the Wall Street Journal:

A little pain is good for you. The much-quoted study by psychologist Anders Ericsson showing that 10,000 hours of practice is needed to attain true expertise, also found that the path to proficiency requires “constructive, even painful, feedback.” High-performing violinists, surgeons, computer programmers, and chess masters “deliberately picked unsentimental coaches who would challenge them and drive them to higher levels of performance.”

Memorization pays off. Fluency in basic math facts is the foundation of higher achievement, but many American students aren’t learning their times tables and basic math facts. Lipman says one reason Asian students do so much better in math is the hours of drill in their schools.

Failure is part of the learning process. In a 2012 study, French sixth graders were given extremely challenging anagram problems. One group was told that failure and persistence were a normal part of the learning process, and this group consistently outperformed their peers on subsequent assignments. Lipman says American parents and educators worry too much about failure being psychologically damaging and haven’t given children the right messages about failure being intrinsic to the learning process.

Strictness works. A study of Los Angeles teachers whose students did exceptionally well found that they combined strictness with high expectations. Their core belief was, “Every student in my room is under-performing based on their potential, and it’s my job to do something about it – and I can do something about it.” A fourth grader summed it up: “When I was in first grade and second grade and third grade, when I cried my teacher coddled me. When I go to Mrs. T’s room, she told me to suck it up and get to work. I think she’s right. I need to work harder.”

Creativity is not spontaneous combustion. “Most creative geniuses work ferociously hard and, through a series of incremental steps, achieve things that appear (to the outside world) like epiphanies and breakthroughs,” says Lipman. Creativity is built on a foundation of hard work on the basics.

Grit is more important than talent. Angela Duckworth’s study of 2,800 high achievers found that the best predictor of success is passion and perseverance for long-term goals, not innate talent. Another key element of grit is students’ belief that they have the ability to change and improve, and this can be inculcated by teachers who share that belief.

Praise must be strategic. As Stanford professor Carol Dweck has found, complimenting students for being “smart” has negative consequences, whereas praising a student for being a “hard worker” leads to greater effort and success.

Moderate stress makes you stronger. Researchers have found that being exposed to challenges – including “a hard-ass kind of teacher” – builds resilience and confidence. What’s going on here? Lipman believes it’s that students are picking up an underlying faith in their ability to do better. Thinking back to Mr. K’s super-tough approach to his orchestra, she says, “There is something to be said about a teacher who is demanding and tough not because he thinks students will never learn but because he is so absolutely certain that they will.”


When parents and teachers agree that children of all ages must be held to a rigorous standard, we will see effort-and student results-change.  I regret that many of these core beliefs have fallen out of favor with many in the education community, but not with me.  I refuse to do for children what they can do for themselves.  I call it “Learned Helplessness“, it needs to stop- our kids deserve more.  That’s why I am sharing this with you. Sound off below in the comments section.

Read the full article on the Wall Street Journal.

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