Pi and Grit

One of my all-time favorite “educational books” is How Children Succeed by Paul Tough. Highlighting years of innovative social science research, Tough stresses the importance of certain performance character traits as predictors of achievement and life satisfaction. Twice in the past several weeks, I’ve found myself pulling this book off my shelf.

Last month, students in grades 2-8 took the ERBs, a series of standardized tests. These tests are not a focal point of the TDS curriculum, but they do provide a trove of data on our students and, in the aggregate, on our academic program. As parents analyze their children’s results, one natural question is: how can my child do better?

Tough shares a study conducted by Calvin Edlund in the 1960s. He administered an IQ test to young children. Several weeks later, the kids took a similar test, but this time half the group earned an M&M for each correct answer. While the control group scores remained stable, the IQs of those in the M&M group shot up by twelve points (p. 65). So much for the conventional wisdom about the permanence of intelligence! While I don’t think we’ll be doling out M&Ms during ERB tests next February, it’s worth remembering that motivation is one of many factors that influence performance on these assessments.

As you know, last week was Math Week at TDS. Students donned shapes and numbers, attempted problems of the day, and took a guess at four different Estimation Jars. Many also responded to the challenge to memorize digits of pi. In fact, I gave away more than one hundred oatmeal creme pies, which means that approximately 40% of students recited 25 or more digits from memory!

Why spend so much time memorizing these digits? It’s not easy. Or exciting. Or necessary. Patrick Dean (4th grade), our reigning champion, knows ten times the number of digits required to calculate the circumference of the entire universe with an accuracy equal to the diameter of a hydrogen atom. Perhaps some are motivated by the pie, or the chance to recite during the all-school assembly, but most students simply dive into the task and exhibit remarkable determination.

In any case, I have good news. Tough also highlights the research of Carmit Segal, who analyzed the results from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Segal focused on an assessment that measured coding speed, widely regarded as “the world’s most boring test” (p. 68). Segal reasoned that the assessment actually measured one’s ability to force oneself to focus on and care about such a boring, low-stakes task. Twenty years later, the fast coders were earning significantly more than those with slower coding speeds. Why? Tough concludes that the quality of trying hard even when there are no obvious incentives – or conscientiousness – is important in the workplace.

Yesterday, I noticed that Ame Cabrera (5th grade) was still carrying her sheet containing the first 300 digits of pi. She did not win the class competition, and she earned her pie a week ago. Still, she has learned more than fifty digits in the past few days. Ame is but one example. I’m proud of all of our students who demonstrated traits that Paul Tough would describe as comprising “performance character.”

Doug Norry
Head of School