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May 01, 2013

Where's the app for old-fashioned grit?

By Carol Lloyd, Executive Editor

                                                                                                       Photo: Flickr_whiteafrican

My third grader – an alternately sassy, shy, ferocious, giant-hearted empath – harkens from the new generation of digital natives. Armed with technology and passion, she believes there’s no problem, idea or fact too big (or too obscure) to resist the magic of her fingertips dancing across a touch screen.

She was first in our family – at age six! – to figure out that almost anything you might want to know could be coaxed from the Google’s mysterious algorithms: Does the giant anteater’s tongue feel sticky or wet? Where did Laura Ingalls Wilder go to the bathroom? She’s also the one who found a review site with a listing for Playworks, the nonprofit that provides recess supervision at her school, and wrote a not-so-flattering review. (Restaurant reviews, I knew about, but recess programs?) She navigated her way to a self-study of African American women’s history – pouring over scholarly web sites, YouTube postings, Netflix movies, and some very un-technological library books to create projects about Ruby Bridges, Wilma Rudolf, and Harriet Tubman.  That in turn spawned the idea to create a children’s book called Brave Girls, or a web site, hey no, why not a documentary?

Digital rascals

In a way that has never before been true, we live in the age of kid power. Thanks to the breathtaking speed of technology and the infectious power of awwww, the internet is a crackle with tales of ambitious and creative kids afire with insane feats of ingenuity.

The little Scottish girl whose blog “Never Seconds” spawned a school lunch revolution and raised 129,000 pounds to build a kitchen and feed kids at a Malawi school for years. Or the 6-year-old boy who wrote a picture book, Chocolate Bar to help raise money to fund research for the rare liver condition his best friend suffers with – racking up $200,000 and counting towards his 1 million dollar goal.  Then there’s the trio of 14-year-old Nigerian girls who invented a generator that can run six hours on a liter of urine. Or Sylvia’s Super Awesome Mini Maker Show, a 11-year-old’s diy own web TV show filmed and narrated with impeccable kid candor.  Or all those TedYouth Talks, with those brilliant children threading the needle on the universe one power point slide at a time.

We know how natural it is for kids to want to solve society’s problems. Now some of them have the tools and the acumen to actually do it.

The missing ingredient

But honestly, not many of them.  And I don’t mean the millions of kids who don’t have access to technology or basic education.  I mean another skill that’s lacking in our kids – one that’s gotten a lot of educational expert gasoline of late.  (From this Ted Talk no less, with the founder of the Grit theory and GreatSchools former COO Angie Duckworth).

The willingness to wrestle with the beasts of disappointment and frustration and keep trying. Call it old-fashioned grit.

According to a new field of research, grit is one of those character strengths that are more important than IQ and a host of other determinants in long-term success.  And yet, it’s one that I don't see our culture teaching. 

If anything, our school system’s generally low expectations, not terribly creative approach to education collides with the clickier-than-thou technology in a perfect storm of distraction and low-commitment behaviors.

Bracing against the byte storm

So I’ve been thinking about what it would take for my daughter to bring one of her bright ideas to fruition? She’s got passion. She’s got the ability to learn. But by the time she gets interested in one thing, there seem to be a hundred more that are battling for her attention. The sad (and happy) fact is that as she surfs the wide world of digital information, there’s always something more entertaining and, let’s face it, easier to captivate her attention.

It’s not that I want to be a hard-ass or push her to be the next winner of an Intel Science award. I know that would be a recipe for disaster. But I think it’s up to me to make sure she learns how to dig in – and stick with something. Not only does she need the courage of her convictions, but the persistence to make them a reality.  After all, what’s the use of growing up in the kid power generation, if all you do is videotape the cat?


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