Student Well-Being Opinion

So You Think You Can’t _____?

By Nancy Flanagan — November 22, 2015 3 min read
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I could have titled this blog with many variants on the theme: So you think you can’t do algebra? Can’t shoot a layup? Can’t draw or sculpt? Can’t identify the author’s purpose in a reading? Can’t deliver a speech, play a leading role or sing a solo on stage? What is it, precisely, that you are believe you unable to do?

Much has been written--a lot of it by Carol Dweck--about growth mindsets, the idea that becoming skillful at a particular task is dependent on diligent effort, rather than inherent (or perceived) aptitude.

When I first read Dweck’s work, it had some face validity for me, as a teacher. I’ve worked with plenty of music students who, at first blush, don’t seem to have much talent, but turn out to be very capable players and singers. In fact, I think the biggest mistake music teachers make is assuming that they can accurately identify innate musical ability-- then focusing their efforts on the most “promising” students.

Dweck’s observations (which always struck me as a kind of tarted-up-by-data common sense) and subsequent fame bestowed on Angela Duckworth for inserting “grit” into the edupreneurial lexicon have shifted our mindset, if you will, about human ability. It used to be that some folks were naturally good at something, and others did that thing for simple enjoyment even if their performance was merely OK--or worse than OK.

Now--with the advent of educational grit--students who aren’t naturally drawn to something are also saddled with a moral failing: Lack of Grit. You don’t hear much, these days, about making learning fun, motivating student interest with games and playful activities. If a standardized, required skill isn’t immediately appealing--or is even intimidating to students--well, tough. Saddle up and get yer grit on, kiddies.

As an “elective” teacher, I have spent a good portion of my pedagogical life luring students into trying things that are initially difficult for a vague payoff down the road. I’m intimately familiar with the phrase: I can’t do this! When you teach an untested (and thus less valued) subject, lots of your students will be tempted to move on to something else after the first roadblock is encountered--and there are always roadblocks, in any pursuit. Because it doesn’t really matter if you fail at [insert devalued ability]. Other things are “more important.”

In America, education policy-making and discourse has reinforced the idea that there is a clear hierarchy of useful skills and knowledge (i.e., the kinds of skills that will help you Get a Good Job and Make Lots of Money). STEM currently hovers around the top of the list, right there with deconstructing informational text, and sharpening one’s entrepreneurial abilities.

Writing poetry or engaging in civic advocacy? Not so much. And everyone knows that a degree in the arts is a ticket to waiting tables, and hoping for your big break. Might as well buckle down. Life is no bowl of cherries.

Nobody mentions personal satisfaction, joy, illuminating our own human values, or doing important work. It’s all about the data--visible indicators of success--and the effort.

I’ve been thinking a lot about grit lately--as the 2016 Presidential campaign sucks all the reason and dignity out of news reporting. Americans seem to be looking, as a nation, for a leader with observable grit--someone who has bootstrapped to prominence from poverty, made a fortune, shut down Congress, slammed protestors in the audience. Boom! Success!

You don’t hear a lot of praise for political leaders whose strengths lie in negotiating, diplomacy, steadfastness--or faith in humanity. Let alone thoughtfulness or restraint.

It strikes me that we are shaping our education system around the similar media-driven idea that only some ideas and abilities matter and must be pursued, full-bore. Other ideas--say, the nuances of representative democracy, or caring for our fellow humans--may be nice, but are completely secondary to striving and winning, nose to the grit stone.

What good is a growth mindset if the things you feel most passionately about doing and being are undervalued?

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