Why Johnny Can’t Pivot

Back in the day when songs were stories (think mid-1970s), singer Kenny Rogers summarized the problem of the human condition with a country-rock haiku for the ages:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em,
Know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away,
Know when to run.

The song is ostensibly about a seasoned gambler’s wisdom, back in the days when gamblers traveled on trains bound for nowhere and died quietly in their sleep. What the song is really about, though, is the quality of the metric we use to make choices. We make so many choices in the course of a day that they have become the defining fabric of modern life: aisle or window, cup or cone, soft or firm, Android or Mac.

When a start-up engages in this decision-making struggle on business development, it may use the language of “persevere or pivot.” But when a student is faced with similar struggles in school, psychologists typically employ only one term—“grit.” There is no palpable alternative to grit, only “Johnny has grit” or “Johnny is lacking in grit.” Lacking in grit is considered bad. Hold ’em, never fold ’em.

Grit is a buzzword in educational circles right now. MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Angela Duckworth’s research focuses on grit as an indicator of school and professional successes throughout life. Students who have lots of grit, a close cousin of self-control, will align themselves toward a goal over a long period of time. This can-do spirit is positively correlated with long-term achievement, such as “surviving the arduous first summer of training at West Point and reaching the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee, retention in the U.S. Special Forces, retention and performance among novice teachers, and graduation from Chicago public high schools.”

Don’t get me wrong. Grit is great. But I am concerned that there is no equivalent to the dialectic of “persevere or pivot” in this constellation of holding and folding behaviors for young people. We need to remember that there is such a thing as too much grit. I hope that educational activities for younger learners are clear and possible to accomplish. As learners mature, however, we typically introduce them to more complex, ambiguous tasks that more closely resemble the cacophony of the adult world. There are fewer clear right answers, and sometimes no good answers at all.

And as such, learners need to appreciate that sometimes—often—it makes absolute sense to change course. We do our learners a disservice if we do not teach them how to assess the wisdom of a given course of action in an ongoing fashion. In our rapidly moving world, what was true yesterday is often not true today and may directly conflict with tomorrow. We need a reexamination of how grit is considered in education so that we produce a generation of learners who can both embrace long-term goals and recalculate course when necessary.

This post originally appeared on Margaret Weigel’s blog, On Media Engagement.

Created by: 
Margaret Weigel