The Debate Over “Grit”

“Does Teaching Kids to Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead?,” By Tovia Smith, NPR’s Morning Edition, 3/17/14

It’s become the new buzz phrase in education: “Got grit?”

Schools are beginning to see grit as key to students’ success — and just as important to teach as reading and math. Experts define grit as persistence, determination and resilience….

“This quality of being able to sustain your passions, and also work hard at them, over long periods of time, that’s grit,” says Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who coined the term “grit” — and won a MacArthur “genius grant” for it…. Duckworth says her research shows grit is actually a better predictor of success than IQ or other measures when it comes to achievements….

But can grit be taught?… Part of the problem is figuring out how to assess grit. Duckworth says “these things are hard to measure.”

Letting Kids ‘Hit The Wall’

Jason Baehr, a philosophy professor at Loyola Marymount University, recently launched the Intellectual Virtues Academy in Long Beach CA. It’s a charter middle school that’s a kind of petri dish for grit, along with other so-called virtues like intellectual courage and curiosity.

Baehr says, “From our experience, I see [kids learning to be grittier] all the time. … You can create a classroom culture in which struggle and risk-taking are valued more than just getting the right answer.”

One way to make kids more tenacious, the thinking goes, is to show them how grit has been important to the success of others, and how mistakes and failures are normal parts of learning — not reasons to quit.

That message underlies every lesson at the Lenox Academy for Gifted Middle School Students in Brooklyn NY, a public school that has been trying to make kids grittier for the past three years. On a recent day, in a typical lesson, a social studies class is studying Steve Jobs. Kids raise their hands to offer examples of Jobs’ grit….

Students also get to practice being gritty themselves. When a kid struggles to answer a question, for example, teachers resist the urge to swoop in and offer hints. Instead, they let students squirm a little through an awkward silence. The idea is to get kids comfortable with struggle so they see it as a normal part of learning.

Tom Hoerr leads the New City School, a private elementary school in St. Louis MO, that has also been working on grit. “If our kids have graduated from here with nothing but success, then we have failed them, because they haven’t learned how to respond to frustration and failure.”…

“The message is that life isn’t always easy,” Hoerr says. His goal is to make sure “that no matter how talented [students are], they hit the wall, so they can learn to pick themselves up…and ultimately persevere and succeed.”

It is a major adjustment for everyone — perhaps most of all for parents. Hoerr says, “Parents love the notion of grit; they all want their kids to have it. However … no parent wants their kid to cry.”

Changing Mindsets To Help Kids Persevere

In order to get parents and kids on board with the idea of struggle, educators say, they first need to be convinced that their struggle is likely to pay off. Or, as Stanford University professor Carol Dweck puts it, they need to have a “growth mindset” — the belief that success comes from effort — and not a “fixed mindset” — the notion that people succeed because they are born with a “gift” of intelligence or talent….

Kids with fixed mindsets who think they just don’t have the “gift” don’t bother applying themselves. Conversely, kids with fixed mindsets who were always told they were “gifted” and skated through school tend to crumble when they hit their first challenge; rather than risk looking like a loser, they just quit….

The focus is always more on putting out effort than on getting the right answers…. Kids no longer hear “You’re so smart!” Rather, teachers praise students for their focus and determination. “You must have worked really hard!” …

The Latest Fad In Education?

“Grit as a goal seems to be flawed and disturbing,” says education writer Alfie Kohn. For starters, he says, “the benefits of failure are vastly overstated, and the assumption that kids will pick themselves up and try even harder next time — that’s wishful thinking.”

Kohn sees the focus on grit as just the latest fad in education…. He doesn’t believe that kids today are any less gritty than before. He says the research showing that gritty people tend to be more successful doesn’t offer any new insight. “It’s a pure circular assumption, like persistent people persist.”

Besides, Kohn says, if there’s a problem with how kids are learning, the onus should be on schools to get better at how they teach — not on kids to get better at enduring more of the same. “Grit’s taken off as a fad in education, because that’s a convenient distraction that doesn’t address the pedagogical and curricular problems in the schools,” he says….

Some have also raised concerns about grading kids on grit and with calling grit a “good character trait” or a “virtue.” As University of Pennsylvania education professor Joan Goodman puts it, those are loaded words with moral overtones…. “You don’t want to generate the notion that you are a bad kid if you are not gritty, and you’re a good kid if you are,” says Goodman.

Besides, Goodman says, grit may not be a character trait at all, but rather a byproduct of other traits, like confidence, courage and curiosity. And, she says, people can be gritty in some things but not others. A kid might be passionate about chess, for example, but completely disengaged in chemistry class.

Duckworth agrees that schools, teachers and parents all share in the responsibility to help inspire kids so they’re intrinsically motivated.

“I don’t think people can become truly gritty and great at things they don’t love,” Duckworth says. “So when we try to develop grit in kids, we also need to find and help them cultivate their passions. That’s as [important] as hard work and persistence.”

It’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg kind of question. Passion may drive kids to be gritty, but being gritty and able to tolerate failure also enables kids to develop and pursue a passion….

See also in ClassWise:

Wisdom worth sharing...Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Share on TumblrEmail this to someonePrint this page

Comments are closed.