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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: To Teach Grit or Not to Teach Grit: That Is the Question

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 10, 2015 21 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series on “grit.” You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

This week’s question is:

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

Part One featured responses from Kristine Mraz, Christine Hertz, Ebony O. McGee, Ron Berger, Thomas Hoerr and Barbara Blackburn. 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.

Part Two included contributions from Bryan Harris, Ben Spielberg, Mike Anderson, Gravity Goldberg and Barbara Blackburn.

Today’s post shares commentaries from Andrew Miller, Barry Saide, Sara Truebridge, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Trevor Bryan, and William Dikel. In addition, I include comments from readers.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is on the faculty for the Buck Institute for Education and ASCD, and is a regular blogger with ASCD and Edutopia. He is the author of Freedom to Fail: How do I foster risk-taking and innovation in my classroom? (ASCD, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @betamiller:

Failure can be a powerful tool to develop grit, but only when utilized effectively and with careful attention. When we think of grit, we need to be careful not to equivocate it with complete failure. It’s easy to oversimplify developing grit, by making something intentionally too difficult for students, but that will not help students develop grit. If we want students to be able to preserve through failure, then the challenge needs to be appropriate to the learner. Gamers and game designers refer to this as “flow.” The challenge isn’t too easy, yet it’s too hard. Students have the skills, but are as pushed to develop those skills. A good challenge to develop grit balances the “just right” feeling between anxiety and boredom.

As teachers plan and help students develop grit, they can plan these challenges, and still anticipate failures. Here though, the failures are not “epic,” as in it seems impossible to bounce back. We’ve all experienced those times where something was way outside out realm in terms of challenge and skill. Students who feel this way will not feel engaged to bounce back from a failure. Instead they will fully give up. So where is the balance? Teachers should plan for and anticipate smaller failures, where there are moments of mistakes or errors, but that those errors and mistakes can be overcome.

It is also key to remember that grit is developed on your own. As educators, we are partners in supporting students developing grit, and as partners we must support them through problem solving, scaffolding and resources. Instead of giving answers, we can give hints. We can ask probing questions to prompt thinking of students, not doing the thinking for them. We can give scaffolds to give students the skills to move forward, and we can help give them effective feedback as they problem solve. Teachers who help their students develop grit know where their students are and give them tools to think, not do the thinking for them.

Response From Barry Saide

Barry Saide is a fifth grade teacher in Bernards Township, NJ. Barry is a class of 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader whose areas of expertise include character education, differentiated instruction, teacher leadership, and technology. Connect with Barry on the ASCD EDge social network and on Twitter @barrykid1:

Students are born with grit.

At some point, every single thing a student tries is new to them. They will persevere, and “do” grit quite well. I wonder whether the question isn’t whether we should teach grit, but are we coaching students to have less of it?

Perhaps we need to trust ourselves to allow for student persistence. Watch a child learn to walk, play with a puzzle, ride a bike, or navigate a search engine, and it’s obvious: children are innate problem solvers. If we as educators consistently embed problem solving opportunities within lessons, are the problems we ask of students not challenging enough, or are we not allowing for failure as part of the critical-thinking process?

A critical component in education is to produce collaborative, creative, solutions-oriented citizens who will add value to a global society that doesn’t exist yet. On a micro-level, this means supporting each child by tailoring learning experiences where the right answer isn’t as important as the way to get there. Educators teach multiple problem solving strategies, and encourage students to share additional strategies the classroom teacher hasn’t thought of. These approaches build learning capacity. Student ideas and approaches are not only solicited by the teacher, they are a necessary expectation embedded into lesson design. Unless we actively draw out student thinking, true cognitive growth will not occur consistently.

If this is the blueprint, and we all know it, then what happens on the way to Oz? Somewhere along the way, are we the well-intentioned adults telling students “how” to do something? Do we spoon feed them answers? Is our fear that students will become frustrated and shut down? Have we already decided that students cannot get the answer, solve the problem, or complete the task without our assistance? Is our desire to help getting in the way of prime learning opportunities?

The thing is, the more time I spend with children, the more I can’t tell whether a student is going to solve a problem unless I let them attempt it without support first. I need to see how long a student will apply themselves before asking for help or giving up. Before revising a task, reteaching a concept, or pairing a student with another student, I ask a confused student to restate their problem solving strategies. What have they tried? What was the result? What did they learn from these first attempts in learning? It is this quick student retell and opportunity to then reflect that often spurs a student to continue with more attempts to solve the unsolvable. Is this fostering grit, or providing general reassurance? I’m not sure.

What I am sure of is the information gleaned from this quick student check-in is critical in understanding where a student is, designing learning tasks to support their academic stamina, while tiering the difficulty of the problem to match their current capabilities. Anytime we use this student check-in as an opportunity to tell a student how to do something, we unintentionally are also telling them if they struggle with a concept in its infancy, we will be there to hold their hand. We take the thinking out when we show how. Each time we do this, we shave off a piece of the individualized learning process, until a child, faced with a problem, will automatically enlist the support of the nearest adult, because that’s what’s been modeled. Instead of modeling the grit we want to see in children, children are entirely comfortable seeing us model the grit we already have.

If we model more than we should, who’s really doing the learning and growing? I understand that I’ve raised more questions than given answers. But, I will persevere in solving these questions. That requires grit. And, I ask that you persevere, too. Then, you’re doing the real learning and growing, which is what lifelong learners do.

Response From Sara Truebridge

Sara Truebridge, Ed.D. is an education consultant and researcher specializing in resilience. She was the education consultant for the documentary, Race To Nowhere and author of the book, Resilience Begins with Beliefs: Building on Student Strengths for Success in School (Teachers College Press, 2014). She moderates the weekly Twitter Chat, #resiliencechat, Mondays 7-8pm PST. Her TEDx Talk can be accessed here:

Grit has become an education word “du jour.” To say that we shouldn’t help our students develop grit might be considered by some to be heretical. Yet it’s questions like these that are a blessing because it gives us an opportunity to take a concept that we have heard so often and dig deeper within ourselves and outside in our world to see what it means and to ensure that we’re using it and applying it correctly. Unfortunately, when a word or concept becomes so popular--as grit has in the context of education--it can begin to be thrown around, used, and abused, in ways that are not conducive to furthering the public good.

My work in education is around the concept, “resilience.” I’m often asked whether resilience and grit are the same thing. They’re not. Seminal resilience researcher Ann Masten (2014) shares that one of the more common definitions of resilience is “positive adaptation in the context of risk and adversity.” Angela Duckworth a champion of the concept “grit” (2007) defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long term goals.” A fundamental distinction between resilience and grit is that resilience is a process; grit is a trait. A fundamental relationship between the two concepts is that grit, like other traits, is conducive to and/or an outcome of resilience.

To continue pushing the concept of grit as the magic bullet in education without an understanding of resilience, and how the two are related, we may find ourselves blaming the victim, which in fact leads to more harm than good.


Masten, A. (2014). Ordinary magic: Resilience in development. New York: The Guilford Press.

Duckworth, A., Peterson, C., Matthews, M., & Kelly, D. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087-1101.

Response From Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, EdD, is an associate professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. She is an affective neuroscientist and human development psychologist who studies and teaches about the neural, psychophysiological, and psychological bases of social emotion, self-awareness, and culture, and their implications for development and education. She is the author of Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience (forthcoming in November 2015 from W.W. Norton). Watch Dr. Immordino-Yang’s TEDx Talk on embodied brains and social minds here:

At the heart of this question about cultivating grit in our students is a deeper question about how we should define student success, which attributes we regard as most essential to achieving success, and how educational experiences support or undermine these attributes.

One morning this past spring I received this advertisement from my daughter’s middle school concerning Parent Night:

“Would you like to know how to impress colleges starting day one of 9th grade? Learn exactly what top-tier college admissions departments are looking for, how to distinguish yourself from the competitive pack, and how to hit the ground running your first day of 9th grade. The owners of [our tutoring company] are eager to equip parents with respect to: creating your Personal Brand; tailoring a high school class schedule to compliment [sic] your strengths; and understanding the SAT/ACT process. Please join us for a parent education night [at the public junior high school].”

If you teach or parent in a high-performing district, you have probably received similar announcements.

It can sometimes feel from the messages we receive that our children are commodities or products (“personal brands”) whose worth is determined by how institutions will judge them. We are advised to buy services that will help our children narrow their focus to known strengths so that they can out-compete their peers--to “hit the ground running” so that they can win the race.

Because we love our children and we want them to succeed, we become scared for their futures. We lose trust in our teens’ abilities to naturally grow, with our support, guidance, and love, into healthy, happy, and productive adults whom we can be proud of and depend on.

While it is great to have a plan and to be ambitious, our fear is fed by false values. Adolescence is a time of especially dynamic biological, intellectual, and social growth. As parents and educators of teens, our role is to provide the opportunities, guidelines, safety nets, and sounding boards that support kids in confidently, mindfully, ethically, courageously, and reflectively exploring new interests, activities, friendships, and identities. The experiences our children have at this formative age, under our watch but as they subjectively perceive them, are foundational for who they will be as adults. To be ambitious and future-oriented is admirable; to be ambitious and future-oriented at the expense of healthy development now is not.

When we advise kids to narrow to their strengths to optimize success, we are telling them to avoid exploring new ideas and opportunities in order to please other people. Even if those people are admissions counselors at elite colleges, we are sending clear messages that a person’s value lies in how others judge them, that life is a race to an endpoint, and that true joy and satisfaction come from out-competing one’s peers instead of from building meaningful friendships, collaborations, interests, and skills. Ironically, we also undermine kids’ creativity, flexibility, resilience, grit and academic success because we unwittingly teach them that failure means they aren’t capable and should switch course, that true success is acing standardized metrics rather than inventing new paths, and that truly successful people fit a standardized mold.

So, what should we parents and educators do to raise successful children amid these messages? Whether or not a child aims to attend an elite university, help that child to help him or herself work hard and stay self-disciplined in the face of both failure and success. Teach them that fear of failure or of looking foolish should never keep them from pursuing their passion--and that we won’t laugh if their passion turns out to be their passion-of-the-month. Encourage them to get outside of their academic comfort zone and to take time to explore new fields and ideas. (The world is full of examples of adults who have burned out because they chose their field based on others’ perceptions of their strengths rather than on their own interests, or because they were pressured to decide before they knew what their interests were.) Teach them to trust that they are capable of their own journey and responsible for making that journey happen. Remind them that their job now is not to impress colleges (or anyone, for that matter), but instead to take these precious and pivotal years to learn, develop, and flourish as a human being. With our support and their hard work, the rest, including the grit, will happen.

Response From Trevor Bryan

Trevor Bryan has been an art teacher in NJ for seventeen years. He specializes in using authentic interactions with art to teach skills essential to academic success. You can follow Trevor on Twitter @trevorabryan:

I do believe we should help our students develop grit. I think it is a concept that is essential to academic and life success. When I think about how to teach it, I think about two things.

First, I think that simply discussing struggle as part of the learning process is a valuable conversation to have on a regular basis in any classroom. I believe having these types of conversations can help create classroom cultures where it is okay to struggle because it normalizes struggle. This normalization of struggle can help all learners. It can make struggling students more comfortable asking for help when needed and it can encourage successful students to set goals which may be higher than they would normally set. Discussing and highlighting grit or struggle as part of the learning process also signals to students that the learning process is as important as or more important than the final grade.

The other way that I think about teaching grit in the classroom is the order in which it is taught. I believe many educators think about grit backwards. It seems that many believe that one teaches the concept of grit and then it can be applied to any difficult learning situation. From this perspective, if the student doesn’t meet the learning goal they are seen as not having grit. However, I think this perspective is fundamentally flawed. I believe that grit materializes when students and adults, for that matter, have clear goals that are meaningful to them.

For instance, a student who has the goal of getting into an Ivy League college is likely to work hard in any and all subjects because they see each class as being part of the larger goal. However, a student who is determined to write novels might work really hard in ELA classes but not be as interested in working really hard in math or science if these classes can’t be linked to their goal. Therefore, I believe a huge part of the equation of teaching grit is to help students create meaningful learning goals. Matching a “Just Right” learning goal to a student will allow them to go through a process which requires grit and then enables them to understand what grit is and how it feels. This is going to be different for every student and I believe that helping learners create or find goals that allow learners to maximize their interests and capabilities is an essential role of today’s educators.

Response From William Dikel

William Dikel, MD, is a consulting child and adolescent psychiatrist who specializes in assisting school districts in addressing the needs of students who have mental health disorders. His book, The Teacher’s Guide to Student Mental Health, is a practical guidebook for teachers, school administrators, and other school personnel, providing pragmatic information that leads to successful educational interventions for these students:

All teachers want their students to succeed, and one of the most important factors that leads to success is that of what we call “grit.” Grit is the character trait of motivated perseverance to achieve long-term goals despite encountering stumbling blocks of adversity, challenges, and failures. In fact, grit is a better predictor of success than talent or IQ!

Teachers can help students develop this quality by providing opportunities to work on extended projects, by fostering their ability to delay gratification, and by helping them understand that frustration is not an emotion to avoid but rather a natural phenomenon common to most long-term projects. Most of all, teachers can foster this trait through example, by demonstrating their commitment to their profession in their ongoing interactions with their students. Through patience and perseverance with difficult teaching assignments, and by treating all students with respect and high expectations, teachers become effective role models for the commitment and perseverance commonly known as “grit”.

Unfortunately, many students appear to lack grit when, in fact, they have underlying mental health disorders that interfere with their ability to focus, maintain their efforts, and persevere in the long term. One in five students has a mental health disorder, so it behooves teachers to understand the nature of mental health disorders and their manifestation in the classroom and to utilize effective teaching methods for students who have these disorders. Students who have ADHD may be unfocused, disorganized, and distractible, having great difficulty in sustaining long-term efforts. Students who have major depression may have poor concentration, low self-esteem, decreased energy, and generalized sadness. Students who have anxiety disorders may be preoccupied with symptoms stemming from traumatic events, internalized obsessions and compulsions, phobic avoidant behaviors, etc.

These students may have great strength of character, but their mental health disorders have symptoms that interfere with their ability to be successful in life. Seeing these students as lacking in “grit” only adds insult to injury; one would not reach this conclusion for students who have chronic medical conditions that interfere with their ability to reach long-term goals. Teachers’ awareness and utilization of effective classroom interventions for students who have mental health disorders will help their students draw on their character strengths and develop the foundation for success in their lives.

Responses From Readers


Yes, we can help our students develop “grit,” but we can’t teach it. Grit is the desire to complete a difficult task, plus the belief that you can do that. Teachers can help students by offering them the opportunity to move out and upward from what has been taught, suggesting ways to do those things, and providing guidance andsupport during the process. But they also have to convince students that a job is worth spending time and effort on and that they are capable of doing that job.

We all have grit under the right conditions, and we all lack it under the wrong ones. One very interesting example of grit is the recent escape from a prison in New York state. The criminals involved spent months digging a path to freedom, flattered and cajoled prison employees to assist them, work through the late hours of the night on a regular basis, and rehearsed their escape several times. Ultimately, they were caught and one was killed by the police, but that ocurred after the actual prison escape in circumstances that they had not planned for or practiced.

Of course,the example of grit I have just given is an ugly one, but grit is not always beautiful. Long, hard, dedicated effort and the belief that you can complete it successfully is not always a good thing. It all depends on the purpose of the person involved.


Teaching grit to young people who throughout their lives (from toddlers to young adults) have been told that they’re “the best” at everything they do and who receive awards and trophies for simply participating, grit is very difficult to understand.

Then throw in so much pressure from school districts, administrators and curriculum leaders to level the field so that all students have “success” in “honor” level courses (i.e. dumbing down), it becomes clear that teaching “grit” is almost impossible. No one is supposed to have to struggle=no grit.

So should we teach grit? Yes. Can we. I just don’t know. p.s. I love teaching, so I’ll do it with or without teaching my kiddos grit.

Regina H. Paul:

This question has two distinct parts: one is about curriculum and the other is about instruction. Curriculum--or the what of learning--is the responsibility of the school board: Should we help our students develop grit? In an ideal world, the school board--as representatives of the taxpayers, including parents, of course--sets/approves the learning goals for students. Nothing the school board does is more important. School board members should debate and discuss what students should learn, with help from administrators and teachers, of course. Now, not every school board does this; but every school board should.

I have worked with literally thousands of school board members across the country during the past 30 years, and I am quite sure this particular debate would be short. Yes, they will say, we should help our students develop grit.

I recently worked for several years with parents at a high school I co-founded in New York City. We had a “Character Rubric,” which we used to judge student growth on important personality traits related to later college and career success. “Is diligent” was our version of grit. I never talked with a parent who thought that was a bad idea. So, parents will vote “yes,” too.

The other part of the question--if so, how?--is about instruction, the how of teaching. That is the province of the professionals--administrators and teachers, who are trained and experienced in how to produce desired learning . So, professionals, this is where you take over.

The answer to the first part was easy. I am sure the answer to the second part is more difficult, but clearly worth figuring out.


I think one of the best ways to teach students “grit” (as opposed to telling them about it or doing the usual character-building exercises) is to place them in situations that call for it - like project based learning, where they have to work for an extended time solving a challenging problem or exploring a complex, open-ended question. I wrote a blog post about this.

Thanks to Barry, Andrew, Sara, Mary Helen, Trevor and William, and to readers, for their contributions!

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