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Exploring Education, Issue #2
The Importance of Grit

In putting together this issue of Exploring Education, I was pondering the links between "play" and "grit" and I was reminded of something one of our 10-year-old students said not too long ago. Comparing her Exploration courses to the courses she takes at school, she said, "At Explo you experiment. And if you get it wrong, it's okay, you just keep on going. But, like, if you did it at school, you would just experiment and maybe your teacher would say that's enough for today because we kind of made a mess. But if you were at Explo, you would keep on going and then you would clean up the mess later because you kind of want to figure it out."

For lots of reasons, school often doesn't lend itself to making messes or (as an op-ed in The New York Times argued) to playing. But in many cases, it's the ability to make a mess and see things through that allows us to figure out how to approach things differently and solve problems. The path is not linear, and it's often time-consuming. Approaching learning this way requires us to have faith that eventually kids will figure things out -- even if, on the spectrum between chaos and order, it looks like chaos is winning out a good chunk of the time.

In the 1940s, my grandparents bought a television. My father, 16 years old at the time, wanted to see how the thing worked. While my grandparents were out, he took the television apart. When they returned home, there were scores of parts lying all over the living room floor. My grandmother stood in the doorway, saw the scraps of what used to be a television and, to put it mildly, had a fit. My grandfather sent her back to the car. In a calm voice, he turned to my father and asked, "How long before you can get this all cleaned up?" My father said two hours. My grandfather said, "We'll be back in three." When they returned, the TV was back together and fully operational.

Adolescent troublemaker or future engineer? So much depends on your view of the living room floor.

Moira Kelly
Executive Director
Exploration School/Summer Programs

PS -- To learn more about what -- and who -- inspires our creative and innovative mindset, I invite you to read our inaugural Exploring Education newsletter.

What's Inside

The DIY Revolution
How Make Magazine
inspired a wave of
homespun innovation

50 Dangerous Things
By Gever Tulley

(Book Review)

In Praise of Grit
(Review of the research
of Angela Duckworth
and Switch by Chip
and Dan Heath)

by Dr. Stuart Brown

(Book Review)

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Exploration Summer Programs
Students from across the country and over 50 countries have been spending their summers with Exploration since 1976. A not-for-profit organization, Exploration offers academic summer enrichment programs to students in grades 4-12 on the campuses of
Yale University, Wellesley College, and St. Mark's School. For more information, please visit

My grandmother saw the scraps of what used to be a television and, to put it mildly, had a fit.
Who We're Watching

The DIY Revolution
How Make magazine has made science fair challenges
and arts + crafts projects fun for everybody

For those curious, constructive types with a technological bent, there's a magazine that offers do-it-yourself (DIY) projects to satisfy your imaginative, experimental appetite. It's called Make, and its subtitle ("Technology on Your Time") offers a glimpse into how its fans and readers are putting it to use.

As both a magazine and online presence, Make has sparked a wave of backyard creativity among weekend inventors and engineers. With their web forums, free materials, and open sharing of fun DIY projects, Make has created a community of like-minded technological artisans who build elaborate, innovative devices and then share with each other the secrets to their inventions.

Make offers DIY'ers directions on all types of projects. On the simpler, more straightforward end of the spectrum, you can learn how to build a recycled kaleidoscope or a wheelchair out of shopping cart. For the more ambitious and truly industrious out there, Make provides DIY instructions for creating a trampoline-based Simon, stealth spy sunglasses, and (believe it or not) a virtual reality remote control car.

Here at Explo, we have become big fans of Make, scouring their materials for ideas for our summer programs. We've looked into their hack pollination techniques for our breeding and biology courses. We've followed their directions for creating a scanner camera in our photography courses. And for our crime and law courses, we've built a homemade lie-detector test.

But beyond specific projects, it's their passion for creativity and homespun technological innovation that, for us, has been nothing short of an inspiration.


Make Projects Online


15-Minute Ice Cream
Scanner Camera
Recycled Kaleidoscope
Spy Cellphone Camera

Competent people tend to poke at things to see how they work. They try to figure things out.
What We're Reading

Fifty Dangerous Things
(you should let your children do)

By Gever Tulley with Julie Spiegler

In the not so very distant past, in a time before cable TV, Facebook, and cell phones, most kids had to figure out ways to entertain themselves. Was burning things with magnifying glasses and super gluing your fingers together -- just to see what would happen -- doing anything other than killing time? Gever Tulley says, "YES!" and that kids don't do enough of that kind of thing these days. Hence, Tulley's book, Fifty Dangerous Things (you should let your children do).

Tulley laments the loss of the kind of exploratory learning kids used to do around their homes and neighborhoods. He's afraid that in our pursuit of keeping kids safe that we are preventing them from experimenting and learning, and in turn, we're making them less safe. When many, many things are seen as "not safe," kids don't learn the difference between those things that involve small risks that can be managed and those things that are truly dangerous.

Tulley believes that we can help create confident and competent kids by letting them tinker and play. He writes, "Competent people tend to poke at things to see how they work. They ask questions and when they don't get answers, they try to figure things out. They see problems as puzzles instead of obstacles. They tend to know a little about a lot of different topics. Competence gives us the confidence that, in any given situation, we will be able to handle whatever happens."

Tulley's book is set up as a workbook with how-to directions, materials lists, and barometers for duration and difficulty, as well as activity-specific warnings. For each activity, he has a corresponding page for "Field Notes," where participants can jot down observations, improvements, and new ideas. And for those of us who can't possibly see any compelling reason to let a child lick a 9-volt battery, Tulley includes a "Why" section. (The answer, by the way, is, "In bypassing the normal sensory processing system and directly activating some of the nerves in our tongue, we are exploring the actual mechanisms of sensing.")

I hope parents will allow their kids to take up some of the 50 challenges. In fact, I hope parents and kids will take up many of the challenges together. Instead of an afternoon at the local movie theater, excitement might come from a couple of hours of throwing rocks, cooking something in a dishwasher, and "playing" with fire.

Review by Moira Kelly
Executive Director
Exploration School/Summer Programs

50 Dangerous Things

50 Dangerous Things Pull Quote
Grit is... perseverance and passion for long term goals.

In Praise of Grit:
Review of the research of Angela Duckworth
and Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

It seems that some of the lofty verities, such as loyalty, restraint, discipline, industry, and even talents and gifts such as intelligence and strength, must now take a backseat when it comes to predicting a person's success in the world.
Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania says that her research indicates that when it comes to "making it" -- professionally and personally -- nothing predicts the future like the prosaic attribute known as "grit."

Duckworth defines grit as "perseverance and passion for long-term goals." Grit proves not to be tied to IQ. Instead, grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. Most interestingly, grit is a more accurate predictor of success than intelligence.

Duckworth says that "the gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course."

As to the question "Can perseverance be taught?", Duckworth and others answer, "most definitely." The book Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath offers a revealing example. The authors describe an experiment that took place in a middle school. In this school, students struggling with math were placed into two groups: one was taught generic study skills, the other was instructed in a "growth mindset" way. "Growth mindset" teaches students that the brain is like a muscle, and that with regular exercise, intelligence, and capability, it will grow. Students in this group learned not to be discouraged by frustration and early failure, and to stay the course and keep "exercising."

The results of this experiment were, in the words of the educators at the school, "astonishing." The group given regular training in generic study skills started their seventh grade year with a C+ in math. With the study skills help, they slipped to a C, and finally to a C-. The group given the training about grit but no additional math or study skill training significantly outperformed their peers in the class. And not just the ones who were struggling. They became the top students in the class.

With her research, Duckworth may have reminded us of something we have always known but recently forgotten. Notions such as "grit," "gumption," "pluck," and the like seem old fashioned and corny, good for their time but now considered quaint with our advanced knowledge of how the brain works. We spend millions of dollars on tutors and SAT prep courses for our children, hoping to compensate for subject-specific deficits our students may or may not have. But perhaps the greatest gift we can give our children is encouraging them to stick with it, teaching them that the road to knowledge, success, and happiness is long and slow, and that setbacks and discouragement are a normal part of the process.

What Duckworth is saying is that grit is not only the most important attribute to bring to school (or work, or marriage), but that it is teachable. Part of the way in which we can teach grit is to allow students to be frustrated, and to encourage them to hang in there and show that struggle is just part of the process. One of the downsides to contemporary psychology is our tendency to pathologize struggling and difficulty, assign it a name, and maybe later, a medication.

No doubt some struggles need a diagnosis and medicine to help, but Duckworth's caution against "premature rescue" is important here. Grit has no place to grow and show its magic if we as parents, teachers, and coaches substitute the hard and rewarding path of grit for a series of gentler quick fixes that promise "results now." As we mentor and parent young people, maybe it is important that we show some grit and some perseverance with the real journey that leads to the things that matter.

Review by David Torcoletti
Head, Exploration Junior Program


Pull Quote

Some of the most fascinating gadgets on the planet came about from someone's tinkering.

By Dr. Stuart Brown

Aesop's fable about the ant and the grasshopper ends like all classic tales with good triumphing over bad. In this case, the industrious ant is happily satiated come winter, while the grasshopper, who frolicked and sang during the warm months, is dying of hunger when winter comes. The logical conclusion? Play is wasteful when there's work to be done.

But, what if something practical came from the grasshopper's play? What would we conclude then?
Could there be more to play than simple amusement?

Dr. Stuart Brown -- a psychiatrist, clinical researcher, and professor -- offers a resounding "Yes!"

In his new book,
Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Brown shows that play is not idleness but essential to both productivity and health development.

Though it is peppered with stories from his research expeditions and other interesting findings, Brown's book does not read like a science book. Brown summarizes the research conclusions succinctly by explaining that play "shapes the brain and makes animals smarter and more adaptable and consequently promotes survival... [Play] fosters empathy, makes possible complex social groups, [and] lies at the core of creativity."

If play is so important to our lives, shouldn't we know what it is? It's easy to recognize this behavior in a three-year-old building a castle out of blocks. But what does it mean for an 11-year-old, a teenager, or an adult? A problem arises when we assume that if a child is "playing soccer," "playing a video game," or "playing the piano" that this is play. A child at soccer practice is probably not playing by Brown's or other researchers' definitions and, therefore, is not necessarily reaping its cognitive benefits: building new neural pathways, honing higher order thinking skills, and learning to problem solve, to name just a few.

While some parents or teachers may worry that a child might fall behind or miss out on later opportunities if playtime takes the place of more "productive pursuits," Brown offers the moral of his own story: the case of Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Management at this facility (the premier institution in aerospace research for over 70 years) had a big problem in the '90s. They could not find good engineers to replace the retiring generation. Managers described the new hires as "missing something" even though they came from the top universities in the US. Despite the graduates' impeccable academic records and undeniable intelligence, these brilliant scholars were often unable to spot important flaws in complex systems or to solve a problem by breaking it down to its essential elements and rearranging them in new, innovative ways leading to a solution.

After conducting some research, JPL's leaders found that what was missing in their new hires was a past full of tinkering -- like taking apart clocks, making pinewood derby cars, or building their own robots and stereos. The older generation of engineers had spent their childhoods doing these things, while many of the newer generation had not. The new engineers were smart and well educated, but they weren't creative thinkers or tinkerers. After this revelation, the main thrust of the interviews of job candidates was questions about their play history and youthful projects. So, the grasshopper... hired!

Some of the most fantastic gadgets on the planet came about from someone's tinkering, and some of the architectural masterpieces started as doodles on a napkin. Someone even discovered electricity while flying a kite. What if these people had been too busy as children -- being shuttled from one structured activity to another or doing rote, written exercises from a textbook -- to practice imagination and innovation? Brown's research shows that although all work might have been good for the ant, no play has a larger effect than simply making Jack a dull boy.

Review by Cynthia Zwicky
Exploration Focus Program Manager

Play Cover

Pull Quote


Exploration Summer Programs is operated by Exploration School, Inc., a not-for-profit 501(c)3 educational organization.
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