Grit: imagine that!


Grit is the new buzzword in education circles --- without this "ability to demonstrate effort and passion over time," academic success is unlikely. University of Pennsylvania Psychologist Angela Duckworth has studied high-achieving students only to find that they "pursue goals that are neither too easy nor too hard, [while] individuals high in grit deliberately set...extremely long-term objectives and do not swerve from them – even in the absence of positive feedback."

In sports, we often use mental imagery to prepare for competition or when an athlete is injured – practicing in your imagination fires neural networks along muscle paths that are used in an actual physical activity. Such vivid imagery stimulates activity in the brain's frontal lobe, which controls higher cognitive processes, perception, and motor control. Building an ability to visualize a performance in your imagination creates success in your mind's eye.

What is most interesting, however, is that imagination and perception "occur along parallel neural pathways and are constantly competing for attention," says Susie Neilson in How to Survive Solitary Confinement. "The more there is to perceive, the less intense our mental imagery will be." More movies, video games, and social distractions in students' lives impair their abilities to imagine and to focus. Because creativity requires alone time and silence, all imagination is not the same.

Our wandering minds (daydreaming in class; diversionary tactics during homework time) give us a chance to unwind. However, a controlled imagination initiates creativity and increases the ability to overcome mental obstacles. Impaired control might lead to, as Neilson reports, "psychological disorders like substance dependence and attention deficit disorder." Random thoughts do not result in productive creativity.

Forming this focused, "controlled" imagination is the goal of truly academic programs. Babies have the innate ability to learn to walk without instruction and training, and persist every time they fall down. With guidance, that natural initiative can be cultivated even as students begin to face middle and high school assignments. Art, music, and drama classes assist creative imagination, which is enhanced by work done in classic academic disciplines.

The intertwined, related curriculum that North Fork School teachers coach students through each year is laser-focused on creating this elusive skill-set called "grit" in all students. Starting early, middle school students find that the incremental building of pieces toward longer and more all-encompassing assignments enhances their creative focus. Such gradual building of skills increases imagination, problem-solving, and academic ability – regardless of innate intelligence. This creative ability, practiced over the long term, is grit – and the college and career successes of those students who have attended The North Fork School for more than five consecutive years absolutely attests to that.

by Marie Furnary