Editorial: Rethinking school smarts
Amherst Regional Middle School principal Betsy Dinger watches students share an activity on stage in the auditorium during the early Friday morning "pep talk". KEVIN GUTTING
Amherst is pioneering a new approach to public education. Other school systems in the region would be wise to pay attention. This movement is partly based on the research of University of Pennsylvania professor Angela Lee Duckworth, who found that a person’s “grit,” or dogged perseverance in pursuit of a goal, is a better predictor of success than intelligence or grade point average.
It has been popularized by journalist Paul Tough, whose book “How Children Succeed” has been a bestseller. He gave a talk at Amherst Regional High School Nov. 7.
Superintendent Maria Geryk, a former school psychologist, fully endorses this approach, seeing it as a more wholistic way of looking at education. Katherine Appy, a psychologist who chairs the Amherst School Committee, says she wants the committee to expand its vision of success and work to nurture the qualities that make all students capable of achieving it.
According to Tough, it’s time to throw out conventional wisdom that’s guided public education for decades, especially the emphasis on IQ tests, which measure just a narrow range of skills. What’s really important, he says, are particular personality traits, also known as executive functions or “character.” These include not only grit but conscientiousness, self-control, curiosity and optimism.
Tough also believes that students struggle not because they’re dumb but because they often have been worn down by chronic stress caused by trauma, chaos, noise or instability in their home lives. While these children need buffers against adversity, other, more fortunate children have often been too protected from failure and need more challenges in their lives, he says.
This is a more satisfying explanation of the persistent “achivement gap” in schools than race or income. Genes have nothing to do with it, and every child has the ability to unlock his or her individual talents and succeed in school, if properly nurtured. Parents and teachers should respond to good work not with “You’re so smart” but with “You worked hard on that.”
Amherst’s principals are putting these ideas into practice. Betsy Dinger, the interim principal of the Regional Middle School, has addressed all students on “the myth of intelligence” and helped them develop strategies for working hard and working smart. She’s asked teachers to stress “effective effort” as well as subject matter.
It’s a lesson too many schools forget to teach, she says. At Amherst Regional High School, Principal Mark Jackson asked the entire ninth grade, the newest students in the building, to sit in on Tough’s talk. A big part of his official plan for improving the school focuses on developing a culture of effective effort. The school has a “social norms” campaign this year to survey students on what they think about effective effort and create posters to make their ideas widely visible.
Maybe he can make trying hard in school a cool thing to do. We think the Amherst schools are moving in a bold and innovative direction.