Can grit be taught?

Can grit be taught?

Grit has been a buzzword in education for some time now. Teachers around the country have been looking at how they can guide students to be more gritty. How can we increase grit through the application of interest, practice, purpose, and hope in every classroom, and how can we increase grit through a culture of relationships, language, identity, and skills and strategies? These are questions the staff at my high school is examining this year as part of its professional development. The challenge here is that there is no set answer to either question. The other challenge is that grit cannot wait to be developed solely in an academic setting.

Even before Angela Lee Duckworth’s Grit, and Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset were published, educators have been working hard to figure out how to encourage students to be more motivated, to be focused on long-term acquisition of skills as opposed to just quickly finishing a homework task to say it’s done or being fixated on grades alone. This is my 14th year teaching English. This also is my 14th year of wracking my brain to create activities that will promote intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation. I want to see students become a part of the learning process - successes and failures - so that they might more actively see why and how the skills in English connect beyond the classroom. I want them to see a failure (for some kids a B is a failure) as an opportunity for improvement; however, they have to be a part of that process. They have to want to work. They have to learn how to make individual choices even if a decision results in not achieving a goal. Grit is not easily acquired when students are just seeking short-term rewards.

Here’s where my curiosity ramps up. I have questions and so do the researchers. Duckworth’s wildly popular Ted Talk  about Grit highlights the very fact, one at which she arrived through research, that students who are gritty, who can work hard and practice skills over a long period of time without letting failure and disappointment deter them, are better positioned to succeed in school and in life. She suggests that students with grit were better able to learn from setbacks and persevere, often outperforming peers regardless of IQ. She also, however, admits to not know exactly HOW we ensure our kiddoes become grittier. Grit is defined as strength of mind and spirit, but Duckworth has amended the definition to include "perseverance and passion for long-term goals."

Perseverance means maintaining purpose and integrity in the face of adversity. I teach a number of students who were born into challenging lifestyles within which they had no choice but to either use that adversity in order to grow or let the challenges keep them in an emotionally devastating loop. This is not the case for all; however, adversity has many faces and can become a roadblock to success at any point of our students’ lives, regardless of economic background. Back to grit. Grit is not acquired after one set back. It is not something I, as a teacher, can provide in one lesson. Still we all want kids to have grit. This might mean that we have to let them fail sometimes. We need to guide them to see what it looks like to work hard and to earn as opposed to simply "getting" the grade. This is no easy feat for teachers or parents. I recently spoke to two of my dearest friends who are parents of preteens and teenagers. They talked about how different life is for their kids than it was for us in terms of parental involvement in all areas of kids’ lives. Why is there so much pressure for kids to be involved in so many activities instead of becoming skilled in a chosen one or two? Why do parents have to be chauffeurs all of the time? Are we working too hard to keep them safe, to ensure they succeed as opposed to giving them the “opportunity” to fail, the opportunity to become gritty?

The schools also work to “make it hard for students to fail.” We talked about this at my school years ago when the grading scale was changed to seriously make it hard for students to fail. The intention is good. The “fail” here is really focused on the grade of an F. For us as teachers we offer multiple opportunities for students to turn an F into another grade. This, for me, makes sense in terms of promoting grit. Giving students a chance to revisit an assignment, revise, and improve can help a student learn how to learn. The word fail is not tied only to grades, however. We all need to take a hard look at what fail and/or struggle means to us, whether we are educating the children at home or at school. We all want the best for our kids. We want them to be involved. We want them to be social. We want them to be critical thinkers, readers, and writers. We want them to earn good grades and have the best possible futures. We also should want them to learn how to fail/struggle and how to learn from those challenging moments.

What do students want? I find they often end up wanting what WE want for them. So WE have to help them see beyond the short-term and guide them towards long-term success. We can all be a part of this teaching process. Researchers like Duckworth and Dweck are going to keep researching and producing texts that are compelling and thought-provoking. The content can inspire us to be better teachers and  parents; however, this kind of research information is merely a starting point. We all have to start asking the important questions, the ones that start with the words WHY and HOW. How do we help them get grit, and why does it matter in the long-term?

I tried something different day one of the second semester. I started class with grit on my mind. I asked my sophomore English students to reflect on their long-term goals in sophomore English. I reminded them that after this year, English class will look a bit different. Junior year they will be facing the SAT and begin really considering what they might want to do after high school. I gave students index cards, and I asked them to write down three skill-based goals they would like to work towards by the end of this semester. Here are three of the most common goals that the students wrote:

I want an A.
I want to be a better writer.
I want to be better at not being distracted by my phone.

As you can see, these long-term goals are missing a critical component. How and why? This was only the first step, of course. Students next worked in groups to get curious about the HOW and the WHY. How can we reach our end goals even when we know there will be roadblocks along the way? What roadblocks can we anticipate? Why do I want to achieve this goal for myself? Why will it make me successful? How will I use my resources to help me be successful? There was struggle. The students at first thought this whole goal-setting activity Carroll had planned would be a cinch. Let me just write some words on an index card and be done.

Here’s a common issue in the learning process and, as a result, a hindrance to teaching grit. Being gritty takes patience. It takes time. Grit building demands discussion. Grit education is lost without guidance. This is where I had to step in. I had to be gritty. I connected their concerns about earning the grades they want or improving grammar to my concerns about any skills on which I have ever wanted to improve. I modeled my own curiosity about goal setting and how hard it can be to do it right. We want our kids to have grit; therefore, we have to talk about struggle. We have to define failure. We have to look past the labels (A, B, C, D, F) and instead talk about the learning, that sometimes EARNING an A means stumbling over some Cs on the way; instead of viewing a C as failure, we must see it as opportunity. We must be curious. Why did I earn that C? What will I do to avoid bumping into that C again when writing the next essay or lab report?

Duckworth said “we need to be gritty in order to get our kids to be grittier.” To become grittier, per Duckworth, means our students have to possess passion and perseverance about long-term goals even when moments along the way cause discomfort and struggle. This information is inspiring. It is a good start. It does not, however, include answers to the questions that start with how? How do we do that? So here’s what I have learned: We cannot just talk about grit or expect grit. Being “gritty” is not achieved from a single lesson. With grit as our long-term goal, teacher and parent educators alike have to make room to talk about what failure is and what it is not. Failure, whether we are talking about grading scales or life experiences, does not have to define the individual learner. The individual must face failure and see it for what it can be long-term, how it can be the genesis of success as opposed to some kind of end stop. This does not happen if we all keep protecting kids from it. Failure only wins when we use it as an instrument of fear as opposed to what it can be: the moment we started getting grittier. 

Follow me on Facebook @modelingcuriosity and/or on Twitter @modelcuriosity. You can also subscribe to this ChicagoNow blog to receive future posts right to your email inbox:

Type your email address in the box and click the "create subscription" button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

Filed under: Education, Parenting

Leave a comment