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It's Time to Change the Conversation About Grit

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    April Hattori

In Education Week's Classroom Q&A with Larry Ferlazzo on October 5, 2015, Chief Academic Officer Ron Berger shared his thoughts on question: Should we help our students develop grit and, if so, how? 

Rb Ferlazzo

If you would like to get into a spirited educational argument these days, a good subject to bring up is “grit.” Many educators and policy-makers currently celebrate grit--a term that means perseverance and mental toughness--as a key answer to America’s challenge to raise student achievement, particularly with low-income students. This idea resonates with many parents and teachers as common sense: if you work harder and longer and are more focused you will do better. School districts have adopted it as a focus; ASCD has endorsed it with a book; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan celebrates it; media coverage of education highlights it regularly.

The flip side of the argument is also compelling. Educational thought-leaders like Alfie Kohn and Mike Rose have ripped into the new “grit movement.” They point out that focusing on grit can actually be harmful. Some of their arguments:

  • When struggles of low-income students are attributed to lack of grit, we can conveniently ignore poor conditions in their homes, neighborhoods, and schools.
  • Grit in school can often be equated with obedience, i.e., sticking it out with work that is dull and repetitive and is neither meaningful nor important. Is this something to celebrate?
  • Grit, as defined by Angela Duckworth, the leading educational researcher in the field, prioritizes sticking to one thing and not deviating. Is that what we want for students and workers--people who resist being distracted by new, creative ideas?
  • The research cited supporting a focus on grit is extremely weak: it is based on self-report surveys and proves no causation at all; it only suggests correlations.

The grit movement began about a decade ago from the research of Duckworth and she remains its leading proponent--either a hero or villain, depending on one’s perspective. But viewing the grit movement as a magic bullet, or, conversely, as a destructive force, creates a false dichotomy. It’s not that simple.

In my role with Expeditionary Learning, I am privileged to work with a number of urban public high schools that regularly send 100% of graduates to college. In cities where just over half of the students even make it to graduation, these schools get almost every single student to graduation on time, and get every one into college every year. There are many reasons for this remarkable success, all nested within a supportive school culture that requires challenging and meaningful work. But, honestly, grit is a major factor in student success.

Many of these high schools send their students on a week-long Outward Bound trip, where they struggle together to get up mountains carrying heavy packs--sweaty, exhausted and often discouraged or even hopeless. But they all make it to the summit, together, and they feel like heroes afterward. They return to school with the ethic of working hard, together, to push and support each other to succeed in school and make it, together, to college. They celebrate grit in themselves and each other. Whatever they call it--whatever we call it--perseverance through difficulty and hard work is a foundation for their success.

The big mistake in our understanding of grit is that we conceive it as a trait that individual students have or don’t have. And if they don’t have it, we feel we need to give it to them. This conception suggests that if we can just focus on grit--tell students they need to have grit; create posters reminding them to have grit; tell teachers to focus on grit--then we will raise achievement.

But grit is rarely an individual trait. Aside from the self-sustained grit connected to following one’s individual passions (e.g., a student may have grit in practicing music because she is passionate about it), most students learn to persevere with hard work because they enter a community where their peers model, support, and demand it. They build grit together when they become part of a team that works hard together and makes meaningful progress. They develop grit when they are in a culture where working hard is a part of being cool.

If any of us, as adults, entered a professional culture where working hard and persevering was not the norm it would be hard to sustain a strong work ethic. This is even more powerful for youth, where peer relationships can be paramount. Students in our successful high schools don’t succeed because they were born with grit or because an adult told them to have grit. They succeed because they enter a school culture of challenge, where students work as a team and push each other--where persevering in academics is the norm. To fit in, they develop grit.

The critiques of the grit movement make good sense to me. Grit is no magic bullet. If a focus on grit compels us to ignore the devastating effects of poverty, to blame students for losing interest in shallow work, or to stifle the creativity of students pursuing innovative new ideas, then this focus is pernicious.

But let’s be real. The reason parents and teachers resonate with the concept of grit is that it is true that when we work hard, with perseverance, we grow. Grit matters. The key for us is to consider what conditions actually build grit in students, and also how school culture can join grit to other habits of character that we value, e.g., respect, integrity, curiosity, gratitude, compassion. Grit alone is nothing to be proud of: to paraphrase a student from one of our schools: “The drug dealer on my corner has grit. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.”

Our focus on grit should be about creating school cultures in which all students are respected with meaningful, challenging work and experiences that inspire them and cultivate grit within them. It should be about creating school cultures where students push each other and support each other to do more than they thought possible. In that context, I am happy to celebrate grit.