Tracking Attributes like Grit and Character–There’s an App for That

Founder, CEO & Chief Data Wizard at Schoolrunner

“There are so many ways to do this wrong.” This from a New York Times review of attempts to measure “grit” in students.

I know better than most that sometimes in education we get tied up in knots trying to measure things. Many of these attempts are well-intentioned or even necessary.

For example, as a citizen, I want to know if the students in my local elementary school can read and do math to some reasonable standard compared to students across the country or the world. But this is where we get back to there being “so many ways to do this wrong.” As hard as measuring academic performance can be, measuring fuzzier concepts like character development is even trickier. Sometimes, going back to an earlier post, we have to ask: “What is the problem you’re trying to solve?” That is, do we really want a standardized test to measure joy? I’m fairly certain that’s an oxymoron anyway.

Let’s take a step back and think about how parents all over the world teach their kids to be good people. In its simplest form, it usually goes something like, “Hey, when you helped your sister clean up the toys, that was really great.” We identify a behavior that represents a particular value, like teamwork, and we call it out. We do it reliably and and we do it predictably in the hope that kids will spot the pattern.

One approach to measurement we’ve taken at Schoolrunner is to use a mobile app to record when these events happen. What does that get us? Well, a few things:

  • Transparency–When parents ask their kids how their day at school was, they often get as response like, “Fine.” How different would it be if parents had a regular view into whether teachers were recognizing their child for being joyful vs. putting their heads down on their desks?
  • Consistency–Kids do best when they know what’s expected of them. By setting up a clear taxonomy of values like joy, grit and teamwork and then example behaviors (e.g. redoing the problems you missed on a math homework being an example of grit), it becomes possible to have everyone in the school supporting the same positive culture.
  • Trends–By tracking this information in a system, teachers and leaders can find problem areas. For example, one school was surprised to find in their data that teachers were recognizing examples of achievement twice as often as examples of enthusiasm. That didn’t represent their intention so they made a staff-wide push to call out the enthusiasm of their students over the coming quarter.

Can a mobile app teach your kid to behave? Probably not. But it can help students, parents, and teachers all get on the same page about what’s going on, so they can decide what needs to happen next.


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