Deconstructing conscientiousness

5C commitment refers to our ability to stay on track despite setbacks and drops in motivation; it's our persistence, that dogged determination to get things done. As we have seen, it also shares many attributes with conscientiousness. Persistence is also recognised as trait within the TCI model of personality, which in turn correlates positively with the Big 5 trait conscientiousness. Conscientiousness, in turn, correlates positively with

Duckworth's 'grit' model (the new kid on the block). Does this then mean that conscientiousness, persistence and grit are actually the same thing just with different names?

The answer is, probably, although there are a number of subtle differences in both definition and the ways in which these traits have been studied. If we deconstruct each one, we'll find that their ingredients are very similar; they also include all those components that teachers will recognise as being part and parcel of the successful student. For example, persistence (as viewed through the TCI lens) includes a number of sub-scales: eagerness of effort, work hardened, ambitious and perfectionism. Grit is seen as perseverance and passion for long-term goals, including the ability to maintain effort over time despite setbacks.

Grit represents the most recent addition to the resilience literature and has resulted in a great deal of excitement and a wonderful new buzz word to add to our already cluttered buzzword collection (academic buoyancy included, I might add). Grit, according to Duckworth, is what propels individuals beyond their comfort zone and forces them to break through arbitrary mental thresholds. Grit is certainly about resilience and the determination to succeed despite setbacks, dips in motivation and fatigue and, at least on the surface, this looks pretty much like classic resilience. It also fulfils the criteria proposed for academic buoyancy. In one study, Duckworth assessed cadets at the elite West Point Military Academy and found that grit was a better predictor of success than any other measure. She also found similar results when investigating participants in a spelling bee competition (Duckworth et al, 2007). Duckworth's insights have certainly helped us to understand the components that are involved in success (and failure) but there still exists a question mark over the difference between grit and other constructs, namely, conscientiousness. Duckworth does tend to study elites (those who have passed the rigorous West Point selection process or skilled young spellers), so it would be interesting to see results that look at the average student.

While all these seemingly identical terms might seem confusing and, dare I add, a little bit superfluous, we can examine these notions and identify those components that can be included in our definition of commitment. Martin, himself, remains a little vague about any definition, perhaps assuming that such things are obvious. But, as we have seen, we neglect precise definitions at our peril. For this reason I'm going to suggest that commitment (as it is used within academic buoyancy) is perhaps a better term than conscientiousness, as it places more emphasis on the achievement elements rather than the dependency elements.

Commitment or conscientiousness?

What, therefore, is the relationship between commitment and conscientiousness and are we simply using different terms to describe the same thing? Commitment, as it pertains to academic buoyancy, is more than conscientiousness, that is, conscientiousness can be best described as a factor or an element of commitment.

To be committed to a task or a goal requires more than just conscientiousness. The ability to keep going even when the task becomes more or less challenging requires a degree of self-control and other skills related to executive function, as well as the ability to regulate potentially damaging emotions such as boredom, frustration and anxiety. We can tentatively include grit to the mix, despite the issues surrounding its similarity to conscientiousness. Commitment is not, then, just about personality or just about skills learned from experience - it constitutes a combination of these.

In action

Fixed traits needn't be as problematic as they at first appear and there are a number of ways to overcome their powerful influence, both in ourselves and in our students. We can, for example, make them work for us or we can temporarily suspend them is order to complete a specific task. In other words, we may not be able to change our tendencies, but we can change our behaviour, even if it's only temporary.

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