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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

It’s the Hard That Makes It Good: Developing True Grit

By Mary Jane O’Connell & Kara Vandas — January 05, 2016 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is co-written by Mary Jane O’Connell and Kara Vandas, authors of Partnering with Students to Build Ownership of Learning (spring 2015).

In A League of Their Own, movie buffs might recall Tom Hanks shouting, “It’s the hard that makes it good!” when he admonished a discouraged baseball pitcher threatening to abandon the team.

In our schools today, do students understand that it takes the hard work to reap the good results? How easily do students give up when learning gets tough? Have our struggling students succumbed to the belief that excellence isn’t for them? Students who learn to embrace challenges, manage frustration, and squarely address failure develop the grit that will last a lifetime. Success comes as a result of effort and learning how to manage disappointments, persevere, and buckle down to the task at hand. This is what our students must understand to become resilient learners with true grit.

The Building Blocks for Teaching Grit
We can marvel at the courage of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakastani child advocate and Nobel Prize winner, who continues to defy the Taliban. Malala is like so many courageous, resilient students who have overcome incredible odds to develop the grit that leads to success. Researchers characterize grit as being: goal and action oriented; motivated and focused to succeed; self-regulated and able to tackle challenges; and, seeing failure as an opportunity to learn (Goodwin & Miller, 2013). An essential building block to developing grit in all students is to explicitly teach the beliefs and skills required to embrace challenges.

Welcome to the Pit Where Grit is Built
Most likely everyone has experienced a time when learning something new was exceptionally difficult and wanted to give up. It’s like sitting in a deep pit with sheer walls and the exit is blocked. Our students can also have these same feelings and many have no idea how to overcome obstacles and will simply offer the bare minimum or give up and disengage from learning. As one school discovered, “The Pit” is a perfect place to learn.

At Stonefields School (K-8) in Auckland, New Zealand they’ve discovered a way to teach grit, which is captured in their Learner Dispositions. The school is built on an abandoned gravel pit, which provides the perfect metaphor to describe when learning is hard, your head hurts from trying, and you feel like giving up. Learner Dispositions and a visual of “The Pit” offer students the language of learning, enabling them to express feelings of failure and generate strategies to emerge from “The Pit.” It is clear from the school’s website that students embrace challenges, expect stumbling blocks, and have the capacity to conquer failures through hard work and effort. Students are developing the skills and beliefs to overcome obstacles now and in the future. This is a difference maker that can build resiliency and true grit in all students.

Getting Started: A Credo to Live By
Just as students need explicit academic instruction, they will also benefit from dedicated instructional time to learn and practice how to develop grit. It will involve surfacing beliefs about learning, generating strategies, managing failure, and embracing feedback to move learning forward. The following describes some initial steps to build grit:

  • Think about a time you set a goal to learn something. It might be related to academics, a sport, or a hobby you wanted to develop. Share this experience with your students and describe your trials and tribulations and how your persevered.
  • Invite your students to do the same. As students share their experiences, list the ideas and make connections to the actions and beliefs that can promote or inhibit learning.
  • Explain how fear of failure and not feeling capable are related to a fixed mindset. Contrast this with examples of hard work, maintaining focus, and embracing mistakes promotes a growth-mindset that leads to greater learning and success (Dweck, 2006).
  • Have students work in groups to organize and synthesize ideas from the class discussion to capture the language of learning (i.e. beliefs and actions).
  • Take the process a step further and generate a class belief statement or Class Credo to highlight what is deemed most important at this point in time. Students might also generate their own personalized Credo.

  • Use the Class Credo and language of learning to provide students with feedback and to surface the strategies students are using. Consider the effects of the two conversations:

    • “I noticed that you are very focused on revising your writing? What is helping you improve your work? “
    • “You seem to be stuck right now. What’s going on? Take a moment to think about the ideas we listed about feeling stuck. What you might try? “
    • Create a Toolbox of Learner Strategies, by posting and discussing the effects of the strategies and making connections to the learner beliefs and skills.
    • In addition to learning about famous people who have persevered and understand the rewards of hard work, have students find and research the stories of grit in your school and community.

Teaching students the skills and beliefs to embrace challenges and overcome obstacles develops the true grit that can be carried forward in all walks of life. Our students can realize that through their own effort, “It is the hard that makes it good!”

Photos courtesy of the Stonefields School.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.