Recent Post

What do you think is the major determinant of whether our children excel in school? IQ? Good teachers? Good schools? Good standards and curr...

Grit's Role in Learning

What do you think is the major determinant of whether our children excel in school? IQ? Good teachers? Good schools? Good standards and curricula? No, I say it is the students' motivation, or just plain grit. Other teachers think so too.

Education reporter, Libby Nelson, calls attention to the issue of grit in student learning achievement. Teachers and parents sometimes put too much emphasis on intelligence, when the more typical problem in education is that students don't try hard enough and are not sufficiently persistent in trying to achieve excellence.

Indeed, excellence is not even a goal for most students. Many students just want to do the minimum required to pass tests. A few students don't care at all. They just drop out. One student told a teacher friend of mine, "I don't need to learn this stuff. Somebody will always take care of me."

Nelson points to evidence of grit's importance with these examples:

·         West Point cadets who scored highest on a scale of grit were more likely to complete the grueling first summer of training.
·         National spelling bee contestants with more grit ranked higher than other contestants of the same age who had less grit.
·         College admissions officers know how important grit is (more important than SAT tests) but they don't know how to measure it other than grades, which of course may be inflated and inaccurate indicators of grit.

Clearly motivation is essential. I regard motivation as the cornerstone of what I call the "learning skills cycle." Learning begins with being motivated to learn, and successful completion of every step in the cycle strengthens motivation. However, every step in this cycle (organization, attentiveness, understanding/synthesis, memory, and problem solving/creativity) requires a degree of grit—the more, the better.

As applied to specific learning tasks, grit is central to all the ideas in the learning skills cycle. In the case of memory, for example, the well-known strategy of deliberate practice requires disciplined grit. Students diligently need to use established memory principles in a systematic way. This includes constructing a systematic learning strategy that includes organizing the learning materials in an effective way, intense study focus in short periods, elimination of interferences, use of mnemonic devices, and frequent rehearsals repeated in spaced intervals. Learning success depends on mental discipline and persistence.

Students differ enormously in their level of grit. It would be nice if we knew how to teach grit. Surely, parental influence is central. Parents lacking in grit are unlikely to model or teach it to their children. Some schools, especially private schools, teach grit by having high expectations and programs that help students discover the positive benefits that come from having more grit. One of those benefits is confidence, because grit promotes achievement and achievement develops confidence.

Confidence in the ability to learn is necessary for a student to try hard to learn. Here is the area where teaching skills count most: showing students they can learn difficult material and thereby building the confidence to take on greater learning challenges.

Students who have passionate goals are much more likely to invest effort and persistence in doing what is needed to achieve those goals. It is unrealistic to expect grade-school children to have well-formulated career goals. But certainly by early high-school, students should be forming specific lifetime goals. What a career goal is probably does matter as much as having one in the first place. Achieving a goal, regardless of whether it is later abandoned or not, teaches a youngster that grit is necessary for the achievement. The student learns that grit has a payoff.

Grit may not always lead to excellence in students with innate limited abilities. But grit allows such students to "become all they can be," as the Army recruitment slogan claims. Moreover, the benefits of grit perpetuate beyond success at any one learning challenge. Learning anything requires physical and chemical changes in the brain needed to store the positive attitudes that come from learning success and the learning content itself. In other words, the more you know, the more you can know.


"Memory Medic's new book has just been released: "Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain."


All children, if given the chance, will play, preferably with other children. The games they play are often creative, rough and tumble, and ...

The Neuroscience of Why Children Play

All children, if given the chance, will play, preferably with other children. The games they play
are often creative, rough and tumble, and of course―fun. Some consequences are obvious:

·         Fun is a positively reinforcing emotion. It makes kids happy.
·         Play encourages exploration with fewer constraining boundaries than the drone of regular life.
·         Play is an effective way to socialize and make friends.
·         Play stimulates initiative and engagement, rather than passively observing what others do.

But there is another less obvious reason, one that is biological. In a review in the American Journal of Play (yes, there really is a scholarly journal on play), evidence is provided from controlled studies in rats and some primates. These studies show that when young animals are encouraged to play they develop improved social competence, cognition, and emotional regulation later in life. Play experience also makes them more adaptable to unexpected situations.

It is true that play is not a developmental feature in all species. The capacity (and need) for play is most evident in higher mammals with developed neocortex and that live in complex social environments. Play fighting is adaptive in predator species, like bears and lions that depend on aggression for survival as adults. In all species that exhibit juvenile play, play is a developmental tool that promotes the neocortical executive control regions to control other neural systems.

Play fighting is especially interesting because the juveniles must construct and obey certain rules. They intuitively recognize that they must not bite too hard, for example, and must give the opponent at chance to win sometimes or at least hold their own in the contest. The juveniles are clearly learning self-control, which will serve them well as adult. This reminds me of the touch football games that kids play.

Species that most obviously exhibit juvenile play are humans, dogs, cats, and ravens. In species where adults play, play can have immediate functions such as defusing social tensions and dominance relationships. Rats are an interesting case. They engage in juvenile play much more than other rodent species. Adult rats seem to exhibit novel mental capabilities, especially those involving social interactions that are not so prominent in other rodents.

When members of a play-oriented species are denied access to juvenile play, they can become dysfunctional adults. For example, rats raised in social isolation show physical and chemical deficiencies in their brains and they have behavioral abnormalities linked to impaired executive control function. They show excessive anxiety to stressful or fear-inducing situations. They over-react to benign social interactions. They are less able to coordinate movements with a partner, both in sexual and non-sexual contexts. They are less able to solve mental tasks. Similar problem are seen in monkeys deprived of juvenile play. Being raised by a surrogate mother is emotionally and intellectually devastating, but less so if the surrogate is robot-like and can interact in play-like behavior with the infant.

Juvenile play sculpts the brain to be more adaptable later in life. In modern human society, juvenile play is often obstructed by such externals as over-scheduling, too much adult supervision, and too many restrictions. The restrictions are often for reasons of safety, which is understandable in today's world. When I was a child, we had a lot more freedom to play, and in safety. It was not unusual in the summer time for a kid to leave home after breakfast and not return until supper, going alone to a park or neighbor kid's house to play unsupervised as we wished. Sadly, that is too much freedom these days. In this respect, the "good old days" really were the "good old days."


Pellis, S. M., Pellis, V. C., and Himmler, B. T. (2014). How play makes for a more adaptable brain. Ame. J. Play. 7 (1) 73-98

"Memory Medic's new book has just been released: "Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain."