Education Opinion

True Grit

By Justin Minkel — October 07, 2013 3 min read
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Rosa is a stocky 5th grader who doesn’t look particularly fast. I was surprised to see her at an early morning 5K, one of the only children among hundreds of lanky adults in sweat-wicking shirts, pastel spandex, and running shoes in various shades of neon.

“Hey, Rosa!” I said. “Are you doing the 1-mile Fun Run?”

She shook her head, fixed her level gaze on me, and said, “Nope. 5K.”

26 minutes after the race started, I saw that same determined look in her eyes as she came striding across the finish line, way ahead of most of the adults in their Lycra running apparel and earbuds. She had run the 3.1 miles in 26:12, about two minutes faster than my own first 5K at the age of 35, which I ran after three full months of training.

I saw Rosa at another race the next weekend. She came up and told me, “I’m going to get 2nd place today.” She did, of course, beating her time from the previous weekend by almost a full minute.

My favorite definition of grit is “perseverance plus passion.” Rosa has both---she trains hard every week, and she loves running.

The question for teachers and parents is this: How can we cultivate that fusion of perseverance and passion? How can we help students to not just succeed, but to find joy in their success?

Non-Cognitive Skills (and Why They Matter)

This summer, Richard Roberts presented research that paints a compelling portrait of the value of non-cognitive skills like perseverance, collaboration, and goal-setting:

Devoting class time to these skills is a more effective way to increase academic achievement than spending all your time on the academic content itself.

Let’s say all you cared about was boosting reading ability, and you saw absolutely no value in teaching perseverance for its own sake. It’s still good strategy to build time into your day to cultivate perseverance, because it has such a dramatic effect on reading growth.

The same is true for science, math, and other core subjects. Imagine academic skills as apps for an iPhone. Non-cognitive skills are the operating system for the iPhone itself.

You might not need them to memorize state capitols or do 20 addition problems in one minute. But to do the kind of research built into the Common Core standards, or to take on the engineering design challenges involved in STEM curricula, kids need to develop perseverance, collaboration, and other non-cognitive skills.

Teaching for Triumph

So how do we teach an ability like perseverance?

Part of it has to do with posing more complex challenges to our students. If a problem is easy, it’s embarrassing to get it wrong. If a problem is so complex even the teacher hasn’t figured out the answer yet, failure becomes a step toward success. Kids are more likely to spend hours instead of minutes working on these kinds of challenges, because they’re worth the effort they take to solve.

My 3rd graders do an economics unit where they design, build, advertise, and sell a product. The teams (or “companies”) will spend hours perfecting their design for an animal-shaped sticker book or toy iPhone, rehearsing the script for their commercials, and even spying on other teams with similar products to find out how they’re pricing them.

The first time around, only two of the eight companies made a profit. The kids on those teams didn’t sit back with a smug grin the way some students do when they get an A on a paper. Instead, they figured out how they could improve on their success to make an even bigger profit the next time around.

Kids on the six teams that lost money didn’t hang their heads the way students do when they get a D or an F. They immediately began talking about where they went wrong and how they could make a profit next time.

This is the meaning of “productive failure.” When we create complex and meaningful work, kids learn more from failing at something hard but interesting than they do from succeeding at something easy but boring.

Responsibility and Delight

Rosa may have been born with a deep drive to persist. Her parents may have instilled perseverance in her through conversations and their own example. Or she may have picked it up from our school’s focus on “The 7 Habits of Happy Kids”--lifelong practices like goal-setting and collaboration.

However she developed it, one thing is clear: she has true grit. That balance of perseverance and passion will enable her to excel--not just when it comes to outrunning adults clad in pricey neon Lycra, but in school, college, and whatever career she chooses to pursue.

Whether she masters a musical instrument or becomes a skilled scientist, Rosa will triumph. More importantly, she’ll enjoy it.

As Philip Pullman wrote, “Responsibility and delight can co-exist.”

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The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher 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.