Education Opinion

The Trouble With Grit

By Dave Powell — May 29, 2016 5 min read
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Get ready, people: the grit train is coming through.

If you read periodicals like this one regularly you might think I’m a little late to the party (or to the station, as it were). People have been talking about grit for years, at least since Paul Tough published his acclaimed book, How Children Succeed, in 2012. It’s not like it ever left, but grit is back on the radar in a big way right now as Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is the widely acknowledged expert on the subject (in fact, it earned her acclaim as a MacArthur “genius”), has a new book of her own out called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. It is, in short, a great time to have grit. Especially if you’re one of those people who sells curricula to K-12 schools; NPR reports that “schools and districts around the country are currently working hard on creating curricula for grit,” and you probably know that tests are already being developed to assess it. (Here: you can take one right now.) Because an idea doesn’t really become real in the education world until we can test it. Not these days, anyway.

In short, grit mania is serving up yet another in a long line of supposedly groundbreaking new insights that promise to change everything about the way we educate our kids. As Daniel Gilbert, author of a book called Stumbling on Happiness, wrote in a blurb for Duckworth’s new book: “Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success, but Duckworth is the one who found it.” How could we have missed it for so long? Especially something so simple?

I’m a bit of a skeptic. Here’s where I am on grit: I like the idea, and of course I want both my own kids and my students to show some grit every now and then. Who’s against perseverance and determination and hard work and practice? Certainly not me. I also know that most of the things I do well are things that I have had to work very hard at, and that mastery doesn’t come easily. Likewise, the things I don’t take nearly as seriously are things I tend not to do as well.

But how much of this is directly correlated to my “grittiness”? We want to believe that when people have success it’s because they worked hard, because they were persistent, because they practiced something for, like, 10,000 hours. We also want to believe that when people don’t find success is because of something they did—not something we did. Or maybe because of something they didn’t do rather than something we didn’t do. We want to believe that people who fail end up failing because they made a conscious choice not to work hard, they chose not to persist, not to put everything they had into practicing and learning how to do something well so they could master it. But the truth is that it’s never that simple.

Take the so-called 10,000 hour rule, for example. This idea was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. The idea is simple: to get to be really good at something you have to spend at least 10,000 hours practicing it. Like a lot of popular ideas it seems to make perfect sense superficially: nothing comes easy, hard work will bring good fortune and all that. But is it that simple?

Over on his website, Gladwell has a whole page dedicated to the 10,000 hour rule. On it is an excerpt from his book, which highlights the fact that 14 of the richest 75 humans who ever lived were Americans born within nine years of each other in the 19th century. What all 14 of these people shared in common was not merely “grit” but an astonishing amount of good luck: as Gladwell himself notes, the American economy went through a profound transformation after the Civil War, and these fourteen people were lucky enough to be born in time to benefit from it. “There is a particular, narrow nine-year window that was just perfect for seeing the potential that the future held,” Gladwell writes. “All of the 14 men and women on that list had vision and talent. But they also were given an extraordinary opportunity.”

I’m not sure how this makes Gladwell’s point about the importance of hard work (as he puts it: “what that list says is that it really matters how old you were when that transformation happened”), but exactly. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

The point is that we’ve seen this movie before. Somebody comes along with a useful insight—and, to be sure, Duckworth’s work is insightful and it does have value—but it quickly becomes twisted by people eager to identify that silver bullet that will solve all our problems. Whatever happened to “growth mindset"—is that compatible with grit? What about differentiation? And giftedness? Are these incompatible concepts contributing to an incoherent education policy or are they all just synonyms for the same thing? Don’t they all just describe the kids we wish our kids were—or the kids we wish everyone else’s kids were? Or do they describe the adults we all wish we could be?

At the end of the day, of course teachers should encourage their students to be persistent and determined. This is probably especially true when students are trying to master a body of knowledge or concepts, like they would in the middle- and high school math classes Angela Duckworth used to teach. But what about the social studies teachers, the ones trying to encourage thoughtful and deliberative civic behavior? Do you have to have grit to be a good citizen, or are other qualities more important? What about the English teachers, the ones who are trying to expand their students’ understanding of the nature of human experience in the world? Is grit a factor there too? Only if you’re reading War and Peace, I guess.

The students who try the hardest often do wind up being the ones who do the best. But they also often have hidden advantages that even teachers cannot see. And what’s even more troubling about grit mania is that sometimes the kids who do poorly do so in spite of the fact that they’ve overcome tremendous obstacles just to get as far as they did. Like I always tell my students: the problem with multiple choice tests is that you can know a lot and still get the wrong answer. You can also get the right answer and not actually know anything.

So it goes with grit. Unfortunately you can work really hard and never find success—just ask any old man on a golf course, any young kid hoping to make it in the music business, or anyone trying to find a tenure track job in academia. Likewise, you can parlay a million dollar loan from dad (or whatever it was) into a real estate empire, not through grit and determination, necessarily, but through application of the old adage that it takes money to make money. Just do the rest of us a favor if you happen to have been born on third base: don’t go around thinking it’s because you hit a triple. And, while you’re at it, try to be mindful of your contributions to education policy too.

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