Ever since Angela Duckworth published research in 2007 showing a connection between a student’s ability to persevere on long-term challenges and his academic success, “grit” has become a buzzword in education. Some schools have even made being “gritty” a core goal of their educational mission. Working hard to achieve success is a narrative firmly rooted in American history, so it’s no surprise that helping kids stick to their learning appeals to many in education. But some question the research, claiming it has been accepted too easily without a proper examination of whether it’s a fair way to evaluate students.

“Is grit [about] getting the kids to do what I want them to do?” asked educator Becky Fisher at the EduCon conference hosted by Science Leadership Academy, a magnet public high school, in Philadelphia earlier this year.  A group of about 50 teachers gathered to discuss these issues, and several expressed concerns that the grit narrative ignores many of the structural barriers that make it difficult for some children from low-income homes — or those who have learning differences — to succeed in school. Many educators questioned whether the current definition of grit is more about compliance than about possessing personal determination, particularly amid pressures on academic achievement.

“Kids are passionate about stuff,” said Fisher. “It’s incumbent upon me to grab that passion and find ways to connect it to the stuff the organization cares about.” Fisher, an educator at Abermarle County Public Schools, wants to help students find personal reasons to persevere beyond the canned (and transparently false to kids) line that doing well in school will lead to eventual success in life.

“If you look at the schools where grit is being pushed, it’s not in schools where kids look like me,” said Adam Holman, a Caucasian educator from Texas. When schools say kids aren’t succeeding because they don’t know how to persevere, it ignores the role teachers and schools play in helping to motivate and interest students in their academics, Holman said. In other words, it lets teachers off the hook for continuing to teach in boring ways that emphasize lecture and memorization and then blames children for being unable to see its value.

“Our kids that come from the most challenging home environments, I believe, bring the most grit to school,” said Pam Moran, superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia. “They’ve learned how to defend; they’ve learned how to get revenge; they’ve learned how to push back; they’ve learned how to figure out and problem-solve in some of the most intense situations.” But she acknowledged that many educators don’t see those life skills as evidence of grit. A student who turns her homework in on time every day is much more likely to be credited with grit, Moran said.

The most troubling critique of Angela Duckworth’s work contends that it stems from the eugenics movement, whose proponents believed positive human traits were biologically hereditary. Sir Francis Galton is credited with coining the term eugenics; Duckworth cites him in her research.

Duckworth says her work has been taken out of context. “I’m sorry my work is perceived in that light. It certainly isn’t intended as such,” Duckworth told Education Week in an email response. “I don’t believe we’ve ever written a single word that would suggest we are ignorant of structural problems, including poverty.”

BUT RESILIENCY IS A GOOD THING, ISN’T IT?

While several educators have raised concerns over the way grit and perseverance have become a catchall explanation for why some kids struggle in school, others still find it valuable.

“We’re losing sight of what Duckworth was trying to bring to light with this research,” said Pennsylvania-based educator Ryan Quinn. “Resiliency is an admirable trait that I would want any student in my class to have.” Many other educators in the room could point to a time when pushing through challenges and sticking to a project that didn’t come naturally yielded positive results. But part of being resilient may be knowing when to give up on things, too.

The grit narrative doesn’t erase what many educators see as the bigger problem: The current education system doesn’t give students a clear reason to be persistent. On the traditional A-F grading scale, kids move on to the next subject whether they’ve learned all the information or not, and that provides little incentive to persist.

That’s why leaders in Albemarle County are trying to flip the paradigm. Rather than asking kids from the most difficult backgrounds to just try harder, they are trying to bring creative, kid-friendly spaces into their schools that aren’t tied to academic success. They believe that if they create a feeling of abundance in school, kids will have the breathing room to try, fail and persist.

“I want our schools to be a kind of agar that grows kids who think creatively, that work together,” Moran said. “And if we are really growing that, we are growing resiliency at the same time.”

“We think it’s the abundance that gives people the place that lets kids find their route to grit writ large, and that’s resilience,” said Ira Socol, the educational technology and innovation team leader in Albemarle County. They’ve tried to make libraries places where kids can hang out, lounge, eat and drink. They’ve built makerspaces and hackerspaces and even put a recording studio into a high school that all students can use, regardless of how they are doing academically.

“We gave these kids a music studio and it changed their lives,” Socol said. “We didn’t ask them to do well in math, science, reading first. We just gave them a place we thought they’d love.”

One student (the one with the Brooklyn Nets hat in the video below) loved recording music so much he’d come in early and stay late, so he could use the equipment. That meant he was in school all day, and by default, he started to do better academically.

That’s exactly what Albemarle County is trying to do. “Our goal is to provide all kids — not just the gifted kids — that kind of access, so we are changing curriculum and pedagogy,” Socol said.

The idea is to tap into what makes kids tick, the things that make them unique and, by identifying those passions, help students to develop persistence around the things that really matter to them. This puts greater control of defining grit in the hands of the students.

Does The Grit Narrative Blame Students For School’s Shortcomings? 5 May,2015Katrina Schwartz

  • Monica Murphy Alatorre

    Hi Katrina, this is a great topic. See this post as well, from Harvard professor Jal Mehta: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/learning_deeply/2015/04/the_problem_with_grit.html

    • Katrina Schwartz

      Great read! Thanks for sharing.

  • Sunset Progressive School

    Yes! We agree completely. Yes, life is hard and the ability to stick with things is necessary – but why are we throwing our kids at 5 into something that they will learn eventually anyway. They need to know how to dig deep, feel passionately, and feel safe so they can fail and get back up again without shame.

  • Deena Wickliffe

    Nothing alone will solve the bigger problems we have in society but the one thing that is gone from the kids I see after 22 years teaching is they have no perseverance and passion in many cases. Those are the ones I focus grit and perseverance curricula add ons with… The others have their own issues. Anything we can do to make changes in what we are doing is not worth dismissing. I am a very educated person as are most teachers. Let us decide who this will work for and who needs other methods of support and skill sets. I am so tired of people other than those that do the job judging the research. Everything is theory until we try it and Duckworths findings have helped me to address a serious issue for some of my students. An issue that just might change their life if they get a hold of some enthusiastic and supportive methods of support.

  • Dan McConnell

    While schools need to alter structure and approach to meet changing, it will always be well-trained and gifted educators constructing experiences for students in a pedagogically sound way. There is no datified/digitized, cheaple delivered, make schools the scapegoat, reformy way to diminish why we need real teachers. “Grit” doesn’t make students responsible, it is merely on more of the PR privateer words used to escape their own responsibility for preparing a more equitable society that pays and values workers and minds over speculation and connections.

  • Ian Kilpatrick

    I think that one of the problems with the “grit” narrative comes from people not understanding what the term grit means. Like Schwartz said, some schools are making grit a core education value, yet there is no concise definition of what it is. Most agree that grit is about resiliency, but how can a school really measure resiliency? There is no standardized test for grit, and even the superintendent of the Albemarle School District stated that there is a confusion over what grit is between the teachers. Some think grit is when a child consistently turns in their homework and does well in school while others tend to view it as a child who is able to cope with school despite a tough upbringing.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think that resiliency and grit is great to have in someone. The Army even uses resiliency as one of its nineteen core
    leader dimensions. And that might be great for adults in the Army, but when grit is emphasized as a core value in school, educators and administrators might shift the blame of low test scores and bad performance in school. The blame will go from poor teaching practices
    towards students with low grit, and this could lead to a fundamental failure in the school system.

    One other big issue with grit is that it does not make up for a failure in the teaching system: currently, there is no clear reason for a
    student to be persistent, according to Schwartz. Due to the A-F system, kids can move on to the next subject without truly learning, which is in part why kids can get stuck behind their other peers. I applaud the Albemarle Schools for trying to shift this by adding programs that aren’t tied to academic success that allow the kids to try, persist, succeed, and even fail. Providing all kids with these types of programs that identify their passions, like the recording studio and hackerspace, will benefit kids greatly and allow schools to get a better sense of the students’ grit and resiliency.

  • “Does The Grit Narrative Blame Students For School’s Shortcomings?”
    Yes. That is why it is so popular among the corporate elites; it is the best way to create a compliant workforce.. Duckworth’s “grit” = compliance. It requires that “they” put effort into what those in power consider important. It kills creativity and critical thinking. Eugenics is the perfect historical comparison.

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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