School & District Management

Angela Duckworth: To Grow Students’ Grit, Balance Challenges With Support

By Evie Blad — May 02, 2016 5 min read
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Get ready to hear a whole lot more about grit.

Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychology professor and 2013 MacArthur “genius” grant winner, released a new book on Monday that explores and explains her research on grit, which she defines as the ability to develop and sustain passion and commitment to achieving long-term goals.

Duckworth has captured much attention from educators and policymakers in recent years for her findings that high levels of grit correlate with success in many areas of life, from college completion to making it to the final rounds at the National Spelling Bee.

In her book, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” Duckworth explains her idea by exploring the life stories and philosophies of people she calls “paragons of grit,” including the Seattle Seahawks, West Point Cadets, and successful business leaders.

“Where is it that we find the ability or the inclination to sustain our interest so that we are pointing in the same direction day after day and to motivate ourselves through big setbacks or the little setbacks that happen every day?” Duckworth said, summarizing her research for an audience at the Education Writers Association national seminar Monday.

Duckworth’s book delves into her own personal story. As a child, her father would remind her: “You know, you’re no genius!” If she could go back in time, the Harvard graduate and “genius” award winner, writes, she would tell her father that raw talent and intelligence aren’t the sole drivers of success:

I would say, 'Dad, you claim I'm no genius. I won't argue with that. You know plenty of people who are smarter than I am.' I can imagine his head nodding in sober agreement. 'But let me tell you something. I'm going to grow up to love my work as much as you love yours. I won't just have a job; I'll have a calling. I'll challenge myself every day. When I get knocked down, I'll get back up. I may not be the smartest person in the room, but I'll strive to be the grittiest.' And if he was still listening: 'In the long run, Dad, grit may matter more than talent.' "

Grit Is Not Unfamiliar to Educators

That notion won’t be unfamiliar to many educators, who’ve embraced the grit concept in recent years along with a wave of research and policy centered on a variety of non cognitive traits and social-emotional skills, like growth mindset, self control, empathy, and healthy relationship skills.

Perhaps most interesting for educators, the book asserts that grit can be developed both by individuals within themselves and by outside forces who help them feel challenged and supported. For schools, that means giving students opportunities for deliberate practice so they can learn what it’s like to face a challenge and persist through it, developing the skill like a muscle, Duckworth said.

Teachers should ask themselves: “Is there a clear learning goal that’s very specific and do my students really know it? Do they have a clear strategy to remove distractions so they can focus 100 percent?” Duckworth said.

And they should offer frequent feedback, she said.

“They should ask themselves, ‘Am I encouraging repetition and refinement, or, as when I hand back your term paper or your test, is it over?’ ”

That advice is similar to advice researchers have given to promote a “growth mindset,” an idea popularized by Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck. If students learn that they can persist through challenges and eventually succeed, they will begin to define themselves by that persistence and not by momentary failures or challenges, Duckworth said.

Schools can also create supportive cultures and climates where students feel inspired to incorporate effort and persistence into their core identity, the book says. “If you’re a leader, and you want the people in your organization to be grittier, create a gritty culture.”

For example, both the Superbowl-winning Seahawks and the KIPP network of charter schools have promoted common language, behaviors, and norms that encourage effort and persistence, the book says.

And it wouldn’t be a book with education applications if it didn’t mention the oft-praised nation of Finland. But, instead of focusing on international test scores or student-teacher ratios, Duckworth hones in on the Finnish word “sisu,” a version of grit—refined by long, dark winter days—that many people there consider a part of their national identity. As one Finn told the New York Times: “A typical Finn is an obstinate sort of fellow who believes in getting the better of bad fortune by proving that he can stand worse.”

That norm-setting is important, Duckworth writes:

First, thinking of yourself as someone who is able to overcome tremendous adversity often leads to behavior that confirms that self-conception. If you're a Finn with that 'sisu spirit,' you get up again no matter what. Likewise, if you're a Seattle Seahawk, you're a competitor. You have what it takes to succeed. You don't let setbacks hold you back. Grit is who you are. Second, even if the idea of an actual inner energy source is preposterous, the metaphor couldn't be more apt. It sometimes feels like we have nothing left to give, and yet, in those dark and desperate moments, we find that if we just keep putting one foot in front of the other, there is a way to accomplish what all reason seems to argue against."

Clearing Up Misconceptions About Grit

Importantly, Duckworth told the EWA audience that she has not yet developed a curriculum package that interested schools can use to develop the character trait in their students.

But that hasn’t stopped schools and occasional third-party providers from promoting sometimes shallow or poor applications of her research, she said.

She told a story of a school principal who said her school was celebrating “Grit Week” by requiring its students to set goals for their growth in their scores on a standardized test they would take later that month.

“Raising your standardized test scores next week would not be the goal I would pick for 17,000 reasons,” Duckworth said.

The notion of grit has faced criticisms that educators who buy into the concept will ignore systemic problems, saddling poor and disadvantaged students with the full burden of their academic success by saying they’re just “not gritty enough” when they fail. Some students who face normalized trauma have to display a hefty amount of grit just to make it to the classroom every day, such critics say.

Author Paul Tough said in another address at EWA that the brain’s response to trauma can cause some students to appear disengaged or lacking in grit.

In response to audience questions Monday, Duckworth acknowledged that criticism and said schools shouldn’t use her research as a scapegoat to excuse themselves from responsibility for students’ success.

“None of these things are scapegoats because the whole point of the grownups in the room is that it’s our responsibility to get kids where they need to be,” she said.

Related reading on grit:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.