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Education Opinion

The Problem With Grit

By Jal Mehta — April 27, 2015 6 min read
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In recent years, Angela Duckworth’s work around “grit” has been widely taken up in school reform circles as a way of thinking about building students “non-cognitive skills,” which are presumably critical for later life success.

As with any concept that gains popularity, there have been detractors. The most prominent critique is that an emphasis on grit is a way of “blaming the victim"--rather than take up larger questions of social, economic, and racial justice, if only the most disadvantaged kids were a little “grittier” they could make it in life. I am sympathetic to this critique, but I also understand why schools and parents would want to focus on the variables they can control, and thus see building students’ abilities to persevere and respond to adversity as critical in their success.

Today I want to raise a different sort of critique, one which has actionable consequences for schools that are interested in work around grit. And that is that a focus on grit is taking a heavily impoverished view of human motivation; in the long run, most people do not persevere at things because they are good at persevering, they persevere because they find things that are worth investing in. The implication for schools is that they should spend less time trying to boost students’ grit, and more time trying to think about how their offerings could help students develop purpose and passion.

One good starting point for this discussion is Benjamin Bloom’s 1985 book, Developing Talent in Young People. Bloom retrospectively studied people who by their early twenties had achieved considerable success in their fields--Carnegie Hall pianists, Olympic swimmers, among other fields. In a recent talk at Harvard, Duckworth cited this study as an example of the role of grit in producing exceptional practice. But the book actually tells a much more ecological story of how these people developed: the swimmers, for example, began by playing in the pool when they were little, then they became part of local swim clubs and swim teams, then somewhere between 8 and 12 their identities shifted from “I’m someone who swims” to “I’m a swimmer,” then there was a long period of deliberate practice, a shift from local coaches to regional and eventual national coaches, and finally another period of play, this time at a much more sophisticated level.

You can see in this trajectory a mix of formal and informal learning, individual fortitude, and becoming part of a community of practice. And, for most of these folks, as is true for many who have become real experts in a domain, intrinsic motivation and identity as someone who cares about the domain is more important than sheer stick-to-it-iveness; and success and increasing mastery provides its own reward which in turn motivates more effort and engagement. Boiling that down to “grit” seems certainly reductionist and potentially highly misleading, in that the implications of the grit argument would be more about boosting perseverance, whereas the more holistic view would show how institutional environments can and should be shaped to create opportunities for growth and mastery.

Relatedly, if you spend a lot of time in classrooms, you will see why national surveys continue to report that 70 percent of high school students see themselves as bored or disengaged. Many classes are terribly unengaging places, with lots of worksheets and little connection to an authentic purpose. The places where many of these schools seem most alive are actually in their extracurriculars--in plays, musical performances, student newspapers--where students have the opportunity to connect to a real domain, where there are opportunities for repetition and practice, but where it is linked to an adult world that students want to emulate and join. The best disciplinary classes have the same characteristics--students are learning how to be historians, thinking like mathematicians, doing real world projects--but these are relatively few and far between. There are two ways to see this situation: 1) that students in most contemporary classes should increase their grit and perseverance; or 2) that many classes need to be made more interesting and engaging places that are more connected to authentic purposes. While some might subscribe to the eat-your-broccoli theory of school reform, I tend to think that, in the long run, schools will be more successful if they are places that students would actually want to attend.

While grit gets all the play in school reform circles, it is not actually the leading theory of motivation among psychologists. The most well-known scholarship on motivation is actually Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s “self-determination theory,” which synthesized decades of research to argue that people are fundamentally seeking autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and that they thrive in environments that enable them to maximize these qualities. Research on (and experience with) adolescents also suggests that they are particularly developmentally primed to explore their individual identities (autonomy), take on roles where they can assume responsibility (competence), and have opportunities to connect and work with others (relatedness).

Most high schools are organized in ways that run directly against these needs: students are expected to sit passively, assimilate the thinking of others, work individually, and are rarely given opportunities to take significant responsibility either for others or for their own learning. Not surprisingly, some of the schools that are most known for “deeper learning” in the Hewlett Foundation networks and elsewhere feature heavy doses of project- or problem-based methods, stances that create opportunities for students to exercise autonomy, develop competence, and work within communities of practice.

One interesting wrinkle of self-determination theory is that it does not rely exclusively on intrinsic motivation. The theory acknowledges that as people set goals they are seeking to pursue, or work in fields in which they are developing competence and capacity, there will frequently be tasks that are not intrinsically enjoyable but are necessary as part of the larger goal. Thus to say that schooling needs to create more opportunities for authentic engagement and opportunities for students to grow towards mastery is not to deny the reality that there are some basic things to be learned and some portion of this learning will be tedious and dull. But the key, as was true for the practice of the Olympic swimmers or Carnegie Hall pianists, is that the learner is willing to accept this tradeoff as necessary for a larger objective which s/he does feel is worth achieving.

Pushing grit is the easy way out. It not only enables us to bypass harder conversations about structural inequalities, it also frees us from thinking harder about whether basic elements of the “grammar” of schooling need to be rethought. Young people show grit all the time - they pick themselves up after losses on the playing field, retake the stage after flubbing their lines, continue to search for love after having their hearts broken. What these experiences have in common is that there is something they are seeking, something that they are hoping to attain. Our goal should be to organize schooling in ways that similarly promote the kind of purpose and meaning that will sustain students’ commitment when the going gets tough.

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