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Friday, July 26, 2019

Grit: The Key to School Success

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. Her findings are that 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. I know from personal experience: I excelled in school because I was an "overachiever."

Indeed, excellence is not even a goal for most students. Many students just want to do the minimum required to pass tests. This limiting attitude is reinforced by teachers who yield to the pressure of "teaching to the test." 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," which led me to publish a book with that title with Rowman and Littlefield.  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 pays off.

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 newest book has just been released: Triune Brain, Triune Mind, Triune Worldview, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. See descriptions and reviews of all his books at

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Ability to Learn More Important Than Ever

Expertise is out and ability to learn is in. I recently learned this from the Atlantic magazine. I subscribe in spite of the fact that I disagree with much of its hyper-political content. The reason is that they do have a few informative articles without snarky politics. One such article in the July 2019 issue is about the training philosophy for a new class of ships they call “Littoral Combat Ships.” The
Source: U.S. Navy
USS Gabrielle Giffords is the first of a series of such vessels under construction. Several compelling factors drive the training protocols for developing crews for these ships. One factor is that these are high-tech ships that demand an intelligent and flexible crew that can respond to unexpected contingencies. Another factor is that these ships have a hollow belly which can be readily retrofitted for different kinds of missions. Another is the need to reduce crew size to hold down costs. The effect on training is that expertise is out and ability to learn is in. The Navy wants “hybrid” sailors who can readily learn and perform multiple kinds of tasks. Careers in such a navy depend not so much on what one knows but what one is able to learn.

The same trend appears to be happening in the civilian world of work. Employers are always looking to do more with fewer workers. Where workers cannot be replaced by technology, the hiring priority goes to workers who are good learners. This not only reduces labor costs but also creates an adaptable workforce that can respond to rapid shifts in technology and market opportunities and demands.

The education community should be adapting to these real-world dynamical shifts in worker capabilities. I fear that we are still stuck in 19th Century education models that focus on knowledge acquisition. State and Federal education standards have a near-exclusive emphasis on transferring knowledge and skills.

Schools tell students what they need to know, based on what we think is important in today’s world. Tomorrow will not be like today. What we need to know in tomorrow’s world is likely to be vastly different from today.

After school years have ended, who will hold a worker’s hand to teach them what they did not learn in school? How prepared are students to learn on their own? Where are the educational programs for developing ability to learn? Testing rests on assessing knowledge with multiple-choice tests. Students are drilled to levels of conformity where “no child is left behind” (which is equivalent to “no child pushed forward”).

Where do schools teach children how to memorize, so they can remember acquired knowledge for future use? Where do schools teach creativity? Where do schools teach insightfulness? Do we even know of ways to increase intelligence? Do students have many opportunities to learn to love learning for its own sake? Do they have many opportunities to experience the joy of real discovery? Are they taught how to collaborate with others to learn and solve problems? Are they taught how to integrate knowledge across academic disciplines?

Worse yet, schools tend to eliminate certain kinds of teaching that do develop learning-to-learn skills. For example, cursive writing is eliminated as a national curricular requirement, despite the fact that it promotes learning of goal direction, focus, attention to detail, and the value of practice (see my several posts on this subject). As schools strive for cost-effectiveness by increasing enrollments to mega school size, students are deprived of opportunities to develop autonomy, individual nurturing becomes impractical, and testing devolves to guessing and weak recognition memory on multiple-choice tests.

The bottom line is this: the world is changing its workforce needs. Schools, particularly American schools, do not seem to be producing the kind of workforce the world increasingly seems to need.

"Memory Medic" has four books on improving learning and memory:

For parents and teachers: The Learning Skills Cycle.
For students: Better Grades, Less Effort
For everyone's routine living: Memory Power 101
For seniors: Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain.
                    Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine

For details and reviews, see Memory Medic's web site:

Friday, July 05, 2019

Happiness Can Make You Great, Can Make Your Country Great

Yesterday's 4th of July celebration in Washington reminded us of America's greatness. We saved the world from tyranny at least twice and our inventions have propelled prosperity around the world. America is great because it is free. It may also be great for another reason: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Some people might argue that the U.S. Constitution endorses hedonism, and indeed many politicians want to ignore or get rid of the Constitution. We should not be dismissive about encouraging people to pursue happiness. Happiness can be good for your brain. Depression is surely bad for your brain. Happiness helps people be more competent and productive, and that helps make their country great.

Text Box: Source: Christian Buehner. Upnsplash

Positive mood states promote more effective thinking and problem solving. A scholarly review of the literature demonstrates that positive mood broadens the scope of attentiveness, enhances semantic associations over a wider range, improves task shifting, and improves problem-solving capability. The review also documents the changes in brain activation patterns induced by positive mood in subjects while solving problems. Especially important is the dopamine signaling in the prefrontal cortex. 

Published studies reveal that a variety of techniques are used to momentarily manipulate mood. These have included making subjects temporarily happy or sad by asking subjects to recall emotionally corresponding past experiences or to view film clips or hear words that trigger happy or sad feelings,

The effect of happiness on broadened attentiveness arises because the brain has better cognitive flexibility and executive control, which in turn makes it easier to be more flexible and creative. Happy problem solvers are better able to select and act upon useful solutions that otherwise never surface into consciousness. Happiness reduces perseverative tendencies for errant problem-solving strategies. The broadened attentiveness, for example, allows people to attend to more stimuli, both in external visual space and in internal semantic space, which in turn enables more holistic processing. For example, in one cited study, experimenters manipulated subjects’ momentary mood and then measured performance on a task involving matching of visual objects based on their global versus local shapes. Happy moods yielded better global matching.

Other experiments report broader word association performance when subjects are manipulated to be happier. For example, subjects in a neutral mood would typically associate the word “pen” as a writing tool and would associate it with words like pencil or paper. But positive mood subjects would think also of pen as an enclosure and associate it with words like barn or pigs. This effect has been demonstrated with practical effect in physicians, who, when in a happy mood, thought of more disease possibilities in making a differential diagnosis.

The review authors reported their own experiment on beneficial happy mood effects on insightfulness, using a task in which subjects were given three words and asked to think of a fourth word that could be combined into a compound word or phrase. For example, an insightful response to “tooth, potato, and heart” might be “sweet tooth, sweet potato, and sweetheart.” Generating such insight typically requires one to suppress dominant “knee jerk” responses such as associating tooth with pain and recognize that pain does not fit potato while at the same time becoming capable of switching to non-dominant alternatives.
Other cited experiments showed that happy mood improved performance on “Duncker’s candle task.”  Here, subjects are given a box of tacks, a candle, and a book of matches, and are asked to attach a candle to the wall in a way that will burn without dripping wax on the floor. Subjects in a happy mood were more able to realize that the box could be a platform for the candle when the box is tacked to the wall.  

Such effects of happy moods seem to arise from increased neural activity in the prefrontal cortex and cingulate cortex, areas that numerous prior studies have demonstrated as crucial parts of the brain’s executive control network. Similar effects have been observed in EEG studies. Other research suggests that the happiness effect is mediated by increased release of dopamine in the cortex that serves to up-regulate executive control

The review authors described a meta-analysis of 49 positive-psychology manipulation studies showing that momentary happiness is readily manipulated by such strategies as deliberate optimistic thinking, increased attention to and memory of happy experiences, practicing mindfulness and acceptance, and increasing socialization. The effect occurs in most normal people and even in people with depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Biofeedback training, where subjects monitor their own fMRI scans or EEGs, might be an even more effective way for people to train themselves to be happier.

The main point is that in America people can be as happy as they choose to be. For more on how positive mood influences mental ability, see my book, Memory Power 101 (

Subramaniam, K. and Vinogradov, S. (2013). Improving the neural mechanisms of cognition through the pursuit of happiness. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 7 August. Doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00452