The Grit Conundrum

By Scott Sterling

Grit has become a buzzword in the education community. It falls in with the conative skills that we discuss occasionally—skills that are not academic by nature, but important in the cognitive and academic growth of a student.

To be sure, perseverance is important. An effective teacher’s classroom becomes one of the most challenging and rigorous places a child encounters.

Grit falls under—and is often mentioned with—the growth mindset pioneered by Carol Dweck. When students believe they are capable of being more than they are, they are willing to struggle until they achieve.

The Science and Process Behind Grit

There is actually some science behind grit. Psychologist Angela Duckworth has made the conversation possible by studying grit seriously. She discusses her findings in this TED talk.

Through her work, Duckworth developed a “Grit Scale”, which proved to be an accurate indicator of GPA and graduation rates. That’s not to say that every incoming kindergartener should be screened using the scale; the truth is that if a child came back as low on the scale, we wouldn’t really know what to do.

Educators tend to start off with awareness. Students tend not to know that such a thing as grit even exists, or that it can be shaped. Sure, we study stories of underdogs overcoming significant odds to succeed. That’s practically the entire middle school ELA curriculum.

Next, it’s important for teachers to model grit themselves. Obviously, education comes with its challenges. If you truly want to teach grit, you’re going to need to model it in your daily life.

Controlled situations where failure is possible (but not detrimental) are valuable, but this goes into the zone of proximal development theories. Students should be allowed to struggle. Providing opportunities for that is perhaps the best “grit practice” available.

Case Studies

The problem has been that, until now, conative skills in general have been relegated to “character education,” a curriculum that typically receives very little time and even less funding in the traditional school. Some people are out to change that.

Last year, NPR explored the Lenox Academy for Gifted Middle School Students in Brooklyn. The school was starting to see performance drop over the course of a few years as the curriculum became tougher and the students became more resigned to the fixed mindset.

So they made a conscientious effort to instill the growth mindset and the concept of grit into every instructional strategy. They don’t even like to use the word “gifted” anymore (even though it’s in the school’s name) because it connotes the fixed mindset that some people are born with gifts and some without.

The Criticism

But again, these are still abstract concepts. There is no way to empirically measure grit. As Tom Hoerr, the principal of another school focusing on grit in St. Louis, says in the NPR piece, “Parents love the notion of grit; they all want their kids to have it. However… no parent wants their kid to cry.”

Plenty of people wonder if educators can actually teach grit. Is this just another case of teachers trying to fill the role that parents should play in raising children?

There is also becoming a stir about whether we should even teach grit. Critics point to the fact that grit and character education as a whole have distracted people from the true problems in education. Can a student truly persevere in an underfunded school with an undertrained teacher? Is persevering through endless high-stakes testing the same as being able to persevere in college and careers?

For some, grit is the key to unlocking success in every student, no matter background or intelligence. For others, it’s simply the next education buzzword.