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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘It’s Time to Change the Conversation About Grit’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 05, 2015 21 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series on “grit”)

This week’s question is:

Should we help our students develop grit and, if so, how?

“Grit” is certainly an education buzz word at the moment, and this series will feature many guest contributors commenting on they think it means.

Today’s post features responses from Kristine Mraz, Christine Hertz, Ebony O. McGee, Ron Berger, Thomas Hoerr and Dave Stuart Jr. In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Kristine, Christine and Ebony on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find also see a list of, and links to, previous shows.

Before turning over this column to my guests, though, I’d like to share my own thoughts, some of which come from my forthcoming coming book (co-authored by Katie Hull Sypnieski), Navigating The Common Core With English Language Learners.

Professor Angela Duckworth defines grit as having a passion for a goal that you can stick with for a long time. With my students, I describe grit as “doing something - even when you may not feel like doing it at that moment - because it will help you achieve the big goals you want most” (distinguishing it from self-control, which I define as “not doing something that you’re not supposed to do even though you want to do it”).

Many of our students have demonstrated in the past, and continue to demonstrate, extraordinary amounts of grit and resilience in their lives - by the sacrifices that many English Language Learners made in their often perilous journeys to the United States, by many of the extra responsibilities students take on at home to care for family members, and by the long hours they often work outside of school to contribute towards the household income.

So, when I talk about helping our students develop grit, it’s with the idea of encouraging them to apply qualities that many already have - the difference is that I want to help them develop intrinsic motivation to apply these attributes to academic pursuits.

Encouraging the use of metacognition, learning strategies (sometimes greater effort will lead to de-motivation if we don’t know how to adjust what we’re doing - and that could include asking for help), and the positive attitude of a growth mindset (particularly teacher feedback focused on effort instead of intelligence or ability) are important ways teachers can support students using grit and resilience in the classroom. Applying these concepts in our classes will reinforce what researchers David Yeager, Gregory Walton and Geoffrey L. Cohen have defined as “the fuller formula for success: effort + strategies + help from others.”

At the same time, however, I am wary of pushing the “grit narrative” too far, as some have done already by proclaiming what I call The Let Them Eat Character strategy. It is in the self-interest of many in our society to use the “all it takes is hard work” mantra as a public excuse for perpetuating political and economic policies that thwart the dreams of many because of their race or economic class (see The Washington Post article, Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong).

Yes, let’s help our students apply academic grit in the context of “the fuller formula for success: effort+strategies+help from others.” However, let’s also help them learn what the formula means outside of the classroom. Let’s assist our students to recognize the socio-economic challenges that they might face and help them acquire active citizenship skills. Then, they can also effectively use their grit to combat those challenges. It is our responsibility as teachers to make sure our students understand one of the mantras of community organizing - we live in the world as it is, not in the world as we’d like it to be.

For additional information, you might be interested in The Best Resources For Learning About “Grit.”

Now, for responses from guests...

Response From Kristine Mraz & Christine Hertz

Kristine Mraz and Christine Hertz are teachers, educational consultants, and the co-authors of A Mindset for Learning: Teaching the Traits of Joyful Independent Growth (Heinemann). You can follow them @MrazKristine and @Christine_Hertz:

The word “grit” has become a hot buzzword in education. Like “rigor” or “data-driven” it is tossed into every conversation that attempts to tackle where schools need to go next. And like “rigor” and “data-driven” it appears to mean a host of different things to different people. Before we decide if we should teach it, we need to decide what it is.

“Grit”, according to Angela Duckworth, “is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort towards very long-term goals.” Angela Duckworth, of the University of Pennsylvania, is THE researcher on grit and the source of many studies on the power of this trait. These studies have found that high levels of grit and self control correspond to high levels of success in and out of the classroom. If something leads to high levels of success, then shouldn’t it follow that we teach it?

If grit is an ability to sustain interest and effort in something for a long period, we also need to teach a system of checks and balances for children to ensure that the thing they pursue is worthwhile and healthy- not only to them, but also to the world at large. Grit, in and of itself, can result in positive or negative outcomes. Sustaining interest and effort in a long term criminal enterprise demonstrates grit, but not many people would say that is a good thing. We, as teachers, should not just teach grit, but also the equally important traits of empathy, optimism, flexibility, and a practice of reflection to decide if the path we are on at given point is good for us, and good for the world.

Also, we must be wary that we do not hide our own teaching failures behind declarations that the students we teach were just not “gritty” enough. To teach children to develop these skills, it is essential that we develop classrooms that encourage just right risks. By doing so, children will build a powerful association between effort and outcome. So how does one develop a classroom of just right risk?

In short, the answer is through encouraging an atmosphere of play and curiosity in all aspects of learning. In play, children naturally seek out uncertainty and risk. As teachers, we can use the efforts of children engaged in playful learning to help them build narratives of themselves as resilient, persistent, empathic, and optimistic individuals. Traditional teaching structures- such as conferences, shares, and read alouds- can also be repurposed to draw out the self-talk, stories and actions of those that demonstrate these stances. It is the interplay of grit and empathy, flexibility, resilience, and optimism that empowers children to make a better life for themselves, and for those around them.

Response From Ebony O. McGee

Ebony O. McGee is an Assistant Professor of Diversity and Urban Schooling at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and a member of Scientific Careers Research and Development Group at Northwestern University. As a former electrical engineer, she is concerned with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning and participation among historically marginalized students of color. Her research focuses on the role of racialized experiences and biases in STEM educational and career attainment, problematizing traditional notions of academic achievement and identity development in high-achieving STEM students of color:

Statistics that framed the lives and educational experiences of Black children in deficit-oriented ways (e.g., a culture of poverty, negative stereotypes) were ubiquitous during my doctoral studies. My own experience as an African American mathematics learner and eventually an engineer, and the experiences of many of my K-12 and college peers, belied this framing. In trying to reconcile this state of affairs, I became determined to study the academic perseverance that is so often understudied and unacknowledged in the lives of Black learners.

What I have learned from the research, and from my own studies on Black high achievers in math-intensive fields from high school to the doctoral level, has been simultaneously disheartening and unsurprising. The data confirm what many Black high achievers have confessed to feeling: they are marked and marginalized by both real and perceived stereotypes formed at the critical intersections of race, gender, and ability in their math-related disciplines. However, recent research has attributed these high achievers’ sustained success to passion and perseverance in the face of seemingly ceaseless obstacles.

Recognizing the need for hard work and persistence has long been cited as a key factor in students’ academic perseverance. In my own research on the academic survival and success of high-achieving students of color, I too had focused excessively on students’ ability and agency in combating a racially discriminatory education landscape. The latest iteration of such resilience is the grit construct.

The “grit factor” has in fact predicted undergraduates’ grade point averages more accurately than standardized tests like the SAT (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007; Duckworth & Quinn, 2009). Education researchers and professionals describe individuals who have grit as tortoise-like and uncommonly able to maintain “effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress” (Duckworth & Eskreis-Winkler, 2013, p. 1). Lack of grit has been cited as a major failing in students who cannot succeed academically, as grit represents maintaining a focused application of effort over a long period of time. Researchers of the grit factor argue that it is up to the student, guided by responsible adults (e.g., teachers), to embrace grit as a strategy for success.

However, missing from this perception of grit as an individual trait is a proper recognition of the structural barriers--the racial practices, policies, and ideologies--that force Black students to maintain continual mental toughness in order to advance academically. Continually attempting to excel in an environment rife with racial obstacles often produces devastating outcomes, such as disengaging from school and mental health issues. The education community thus should contemplate how much grit and perseverance are healthy, and at what point we are asking students to compensate for society’s failure to address structural and institutional injustices.

The question before us is this: Should we ask Black students to become grittier and more resilient, or should the education system commit to disarming the structures of racism so that Black students do not have to push to the point of compromising their mental and physical well-being in order to succeed?

My answer, and thus my optimism, lies with my appreciation and advocacy for the grit many Black students are forced to develop to succeed academically. However, our education system must also bear responsibility for, and address, the challenges these students face in the currently inequitable education system.

Duckworth, A. L., & Eskreis-Winkler, L. (2013). True grit. The Observer, 26(4), 1-3.

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1,087.

Duckworth, A. L., & Quinn, P. D. (2009). Development and validation of the Short Grit Scale (GRIT-S). Journal of Personality Assessment, 91, 166-174.

Response From Ron Berger

Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer for Expeditionary Learning, taught public school for more than twenty-five years. He is the author of An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students and a co-author of Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-Engaged Assessment and Transformational Literacy: Making the Common Core Shift with Work That Matters:

It’s Time to Change the Conversation about “Grit”

If you would like to get into a spirited educational argument these days, a good subject to bring up is “grit.” Many educators and policy-makers currently celebrate grit--a term that means perseverance and mental toughness--as a key answer to America’s challenge to raise student achievement, particularly with low-income students. This idea resonates with many parents and teachers as common sense: if you work harder and longer and are more focused you will do better. School districts have adopted it as a focus; ASCD has endorsed it with a book; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan celebrates it; media coverage of education highlights it regularly.

The flip side of the argument is also compelling. Educational thought-leaders like Alfie Kohn and Mike Rose have ripped into the new “grit movement.” They point out that focusing on grit can actually be harmful. Some of their arguments:

  • When struggles of low-income students are attributed to lack of grit, we can conveniently ignore poor conditions in their homes, neighborhoods, and schools.
  • Grit in school can often be equated with obedience, i.e., sticking it out with work that is dull and repetitive and is neither meaningful nor important. Is this something to celebrate?
  • Grit, as defined by Angela Duckworth, the leading educational researcher in the field, prioritizes sticking to one thing and not deviating. Is that what we want for students and workers--people who resist being distracted by new, creative ideas?
  • The research cited supporting a focus on grit is extremely weak: it is based on self-report surveys and proves no causation at all; it only suggests correlations.

The grit movement began about a decade ago from the research of Duckworth and she remains its leading proponent--either a hero or villain, depending on one’s perspective. But viewing the grit movement as a magic bullet, or, conversely, as a destructive force, creates a false dichotomy. It’s not that simple.

In my role with Expeditionary Learning, I am privileged to work with a number of urban public high schools that regularly send 100% of graduates to college. In cities where just over half of the students even make it to graduation, these schools get almost every single student to graduation on time, and get every one into college every year. There are many reasons for this remarkable success, all nested within a supportive school culture that requires challenging and meaningful work. But, honestly, grit is a major factor in student success.

Many of these high schools send their students on a week-long Outward Bound trip, where they struggle together to get up mountains carrying heavy packs--sweaty, exhausted and often discouraged or even hopeless. But they all make it to the summit, together, and they feel like heroes afterward. They return to school with the ethic of working hard, together, to push and support each other to succeed in school and make it, together, to college. They celebrate grit in themselves and each other. Whatever they call it--whatever we call it--perseverance through difficulty and hard work is a foundation for their success.

The big mistake in our understanding of grit is that we conceive it as a trait that individual students have or don’t have. And if they don’t have it, we feel we need to give it to them. This conception suggests that if we can just focus on grit--tell students they need to have grit; create posters reminding them to have grit; tell teachers to focus on grit--then we will raise achievement.

But grit is rarely an individual trait. Aside from the self-sustained grit connected to following one’s individual passions (e.g., a student may have grit in practicing music because she is passionate about it), most students learn to persevere with hard work because they enter a community where their peers model, support, and demand it. They build grit together when they become part of a team that works hard together and makes meaningful progress. They develop grit when they are in a culture where working hard is a part of being cool.

If any of us, as adults, entered a professional culture where working hard and persevering was not the norm it would be hard to sustain a strong work ethic. This is even more powerful for youth, where peer relationships can be paramount. Students in our successful high schools don’t succeed because they were born with grit or because an adult told them to have grit. They succeed because they enter a school culture of challenge, where students work as a team and push each other--where persevering in academics is the norm. To fit in, they develop grit.

The critiques of the grit movement make good sense to me. Grit is no magic bullet. If a focus on grit compels us to ignore the devastating effects of poverty, to blame students for losing interest in shallow work, or to stifle the creativity of students pursuing innovative new ideas, then this focus is pernicious.

But let’s be real. The reason parents and teachers resonate with the concept of grit is that it is true that when we work hard, with perseverance, we grow. Grit matters. The key for us is to consider what conditions actually build grit in students, and also how school culture can join grit to other habits of character that we value, e.g., respect, integrity, curiosity, gratitude, compassion. Grit alone is nothing to be proud of: to paraphrase a student from one of our schools: “The drug dealer on my corner has grit. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.”

Our focus on grit should be about creating school cultures in which all students are respected with meaningful, challenging work and experiences that inspire them and cultivate grit within them. It should be about creating school cultures where students push each other and support each other to do more than they thought possible. In that context, I am happy to celebrate grit.

Response From Thomas Hoerr

Thomas R. Hoerr has been the head of New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, since 1981. Tom founded, directed, and taught in the Washington University Nonprofit Management Program. He is the author of Fostering Grit: How do I prepare my students for the real world? (ASCD, 2013), The Art of School Leadership (ASCD, 2005), and Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School(ASCD, 2000):

“Are there differences between educating students for success in school and success in life?” is one of my favorite questions. Thinking about that answer causes us to step back and sort through our values to determine the purpose of school. That, of course, has implications for what we do.

Alas, all too often educators see a difference between preparing for success in school and success in life, and they come down firmly on the side of focusing only on school. Their focus is the 3R’s and preparation for the end-of-unit test, semester grades, or maybe it’s pointing to what school their graduates will matriculate. Those are all valid goals but they miss the point.

Our job as teachers and principals is much more than creating successful writers and mathematicians; our job is to help prepare children to become successful adults. We should be working to help our students be successful and happy at age 35 and 55. Sure, those adults need to read, write, and calculate, but that’s just the start. They need to know how to understand and work with others; they need to appreciate people who are different than they are; they need bite off big problems; they must have grit! The one thing we know is that everyone - all of us - hits the wall upon occasion. We find tasks too difficult, problems too complex, and circumstances too overwhelming. Hey, that’s part of life!

Our success is determined by how we respond to these challenges. Do we back away and choose a flatter trajectory with less ambitious goals? Do we keep replicating our successes, narrowing what we do? Or maybe we maintain our desire to improve, accept challenges, and try, try, try again? Because the important questions and challenging tasks aren’t solved easily or on the first try, the direction that we need take is pretty clear. Grit is often the factor that determines success.

So if we believe that we should be educating students for success in life, not just in school, we must include developing grit in our students in what we do. We need to talk about grit with our students so that they will understand that difficulties are to be expected and that overcoming obstacles is part of success. We must help our students know that when they fall short, the question is what was learned from failure; the phrase “good failures” conveys that opportunity! Finally, we must help our students consciously work to gain grit, and what better place to do that than in a caring and supportive classroom?

Good teachers make a difference in students’ lives. They do that through their expertise and care, by supporting and stretching students, and by helping them become good people. Fostering grit is an important part of preparing students for the future.

Response From Dave Stuart Jr.

Dave Stuart Jr. (@davestuartjr) is a high school teacher who also writes and researches about literacy instruction, character strengths, and teacher flourishing. His work is read by over 35,000 people each month, and he gives keynote speeches and workshops around the country. He believes that all students and teachers can flourish, and he hopes his work helps you toward that:

I cannot imagine not wanting to help my students develop grit. I, like so many teachers, work hard because I love my students; I hope to provide them with the same education I would desire for my own flesh and blood. As such, how can I not aim to help them develop persistence and passion toward long-term goals?

That last phrase, by the way, is the definition of grit that Angela Duckworth herself uses: “persistence and passion for long-term goals.” In her popular, 6-minute TED Talk, Duckworth describes grit as “living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint... [and] sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality.” This is a far cry from a grit seized upon to raise standardized test scores (a phenomenon that Alfie Kohn rightly decries); rather, it’s a core component of things as wonderful and wide-ranging as the invention of the airplane, the building of great marriages, and even the success of Mr. Ferlazzo’s efforts on the Internet. Also, it’s worth noting that grit doesn’t mean you don’t quit -- it just means you quit wisely.

But even if you’re with me so far, and you agree that teaching grit is only proper, let’s move on to the much more interesting question: how do we teach it? Thus far, the research gives us suggestions, but little else. We can lament this, or we can excitedly dig in, realizing that our efforts lie on the cutting edge of educational research. (The latter, in my opinion, is more fun.)

Last school year, I was interested in a specific component of grit -- staying commited to one’s goals -- and so I started to experiment with how to develop that one skill. Every week, I would spend 10 minutes with my ninth grade English and world history students doing the following:

  • Mini-lesson on goal-setting (e.g., How to set a SMART goal)
  • Think-Pair-Share: What was your goal this past week, and how did it go?
  • Write a new goal
  • Think-Pair-Share again: What is your goal for the coming week, why did you choose it, and how do you intend to stay committed to it?

We did this for most of the school year (here’s a video). The problem is, I had no way of measuring the outcome of the experiment; rookie scientist move, I know.

This year, I’m grateful to be part of Character Lab’s Teacher Innovator Grant. This past summer, I participated in a “mini-Ph.D” workshop facilitated by Angela Duckworth, and, during the 2015-2016 school year, I’ll be studying the effects of pop-up debate on grit; specifically, I’m examining whether pop-up debates with a brief, follow-up reflection intervention, will give students experiential knowledge of deliberate practice, thereby giving them experiential knowledge of what it takes to realize our long-term, passion-based goals.

Thanks to Kristine, Christine, Eboy, Ron, Thomas and Dave for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. Reader’s comments will be included in Part Three.

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