Student Achievement

Educational Researcher Awarded MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant

By Alyssa Morones — September 26, 2013 2 min read
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Educational research psychologist and former teacher Angela Duckworth has devoted her career to understanding traits beyond IQ or test-taking abilities that predict a student’s success— including grit and self-control. It is perhaps her own possession of these traits that helped lead the MacArthur Foundation to name Ms. Duckworth as one of this year’s 24 MacArthur Fellows.

All fellows named by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation receive a no-strings-attached award—popularly referred to as a “genius grant"—worth $625,000 that is paid out over five years. This is up from the $500,000 that previous years’ fellows received. The foundation awards fellowships to creative individuals demonstrating the potential to make important contributions to the world.

“I just really felt this overwhelming sense of gratitude, for all the teachers and mentors that I’ve ever had,” Duckworth said of her reaction to the award. “That feeling lasted, and it’s still there.”

Frustrated by the lack of effort she saw from many of her students, Duckworth quit her job as a high school math and science teacher to try to better understand the psychology behind educational achievement. She joined the University of Pennsylvania faculty in 2007 as an associate professor in the psychology department.

A biographical sketch of the researcher on the MacArthur Foundation website says, “In pioneering research showing that children can learn and practice strategies for internalizing self-control, Duckworth has turned intuitions about self-regulation into scientifically informed, highly practical approaches to teaching and learning.”

Duckworth and her colleagues began by developing ways to empirically measure grit and self-control. Even when controlling for cognitive ability, the presence of these traits were important predictors of success. Unlike simple measures of IQ or natural intelligence, these are traits that can be taught.

Now, Duckworth is working to develop interventions that foster these traits in children that can then be applied to education.

“For so long, we’ve focused on a very narrow set of student competencies—whatever we could measure with a test,” she said in a phone interview. “The whole child is so much bigger than that. I want to open the conversation to include aspects of student confidence and well-being far broader than those currently being used by policymakers.”

Her goal, Duckworth said, both in her use of the grant money and for her career as a whole, is to identify ways to change K-12 educational practice in a way that encourages the cultivation of grit and self-control in students. She hopes to identify a more adaptive set of strategies and beliefs than children currently have that would incline them to work harder.

“I hope my research is used primarily as a starting point to this conversation, as opposed to an end point,” she said.

Duckworth joins a long list of MacArthur Fellows making important contributions to K-12 education. Youth chorus founder Francisco J. Núñez and education economist Roland G. Fryer, Jr. were awarded fellowships in 2011. In 2010, the foundation honored Amir Abo-Shaeer, a high school science and engineering teacher from California, with a fellowship.

Be sure to catch Education Week‘s upcoming webinar, Using Video Games to Assess Students’ Noncognitive Skills, in which Duckworth will be featured as a presenter. The webinar will take place on Friday, Sept. 27, 2013, 2 to 3 p.m. ET. You can register here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.