“Got Grit?” Great on a T-shirt, not so good in a gradebook.

Screen Shot 2014-03-20 at 12.46.49 PMI am new to the “grit” movement.  I have recently reviewed the TEDtalk, read the initial research, and scrolled through various blogs and articles describing the movement (just google it).  Grit isn’t just about perseverance in the pursuit of a goal in which they are passionate, but the idea of a “growth mindset” over the idea that intelligence or ability is “fixed”.  At a gut-level I am 100% for encouraging students to persevere in times of struggle, and supporting students in developing their confidence as they face challenges.  I don’t think anyone can argue with the idea that resilience is a desirable personality/character trait and that scores of successful people cite their ability to overcome obstacles as a key to their success.  I think most modern educators don’t believe in “fixed” ability, we challenge students and encourage them to “keep at it” and success will be revealed.  I don’t hear too many educators supporting the idea of a fixed mindset (although I would not doubt that there is a belief that some students have certain strengths and weaknesses – but they are malleable).  So, this new buzzword of grit seemed like a no-brainer.  Of course we want to teach and encourage grit in our students.  My consensus (and that of many respected educators based on my Twitter feed) was:  Grit is good.

During my commute to work, I heard one of two different stories on NPR about schools integrating the “grit” concept that left me shocked.  It seems a particular school and program is trying to teach grit to students, however their approach may be overzealous and potentially negative to students.  Without rehashing the entire story, the basic premise is that to teach grit, the school and its teachers create an artificial obstacle or challenge that students must overcome (almost like a washout course in college).  Along the way, the mantra of “growth mindset” and “grit” are common, but the basic positive regard for students seems to be deliberately hushed.  The teachers and leaders actually avoid confidence boosting statements like, “You are a smart kid”, they discourage the usual positive comment as “dirty words” in favor of the new language of grit, “failure is success”.  This story struck me as a decent idea gone awry.  Grit is even part of the gradebook!  Alfie Kohn also has expressed concerns about the approach, also mentioned in a different NPR story.  His concerns go beyond the obvious issue of student self esteem and confidence, but into the broader frame of the teacher/school psyche.  Essentially, placing the responsibility exclusively on the learner, instead of placing the leverage on a teacher and their teaching strategies and designs for instruction, “They don’t have enough grit to make it in my class” or “They are learning grit with that failure”.

Grit is good.  I still believe in it, I still talk about it with students, I still cheer it on and emphasize a “growth mindset” when students run into obstacles or make mistakes (probably every student, almost every day to some degree).  However, I think that schools with high expectations, rigor, and an enriched curriculum should have ample opportunity to exercise grit without artificially manufacturing failure lessons.  Heck, adolescence alone provides a rich landscape of challenges for encouraging and strengthening perseverance and confidence.  A final concern is that the moniker of “Grit” could shift responsibility away from the teacher and good instruction to become a justification for being comfortable or even complicit with student failure.  This is more of a cautionary tale about taking an idea too far than a condemnation of an idea that makes great sense on a gut-level.

So, I’ll buy a t-shirt, I’ll say it when a kid inevitably “hits a wall” socially, emotionally, academically, or even psychologically.  But I will still tell them that they are great kids, I will still tell them to have confidence and that they are smart, creative, intelligent, hard working, ethical, honorable, etc….  I don’t think I will ever be able to intentionally sabotage or “set them up” for failure.  Sure, setbacks are part of the journey of life and growing up, but it is not a job of a teacher.  Good teachers are too busy for that anyway.

-Matt Parker

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