True Grit: The Best Measure of Success and How to Teach It | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Scott Rigsby, the first double amputee to complete a the Hawaiian Ironman triathon

Can you predict academic success or whether a child will graduate? You can, but not how you might think.

When psychologist Angela Duckworth studied people in various challenging situations, including National Spelling Bee participants, rookie teachers in tough neighborhoods, and West Point cadets, she found:

One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn't social intelligence. It wasn't good looks, physical health, and it wasn't IQ. It was grit.

Why is Grit So Important?

Using the Grit Scale that Duckworth developed with Chris Peterson, they found that grit is a better indicator of GPA and graduation rates. (IQ, however, is very predictive of standardized test scores.)

Add to this the findings (from Bowen, Chingos and McPherson's Crossing the Finish Line) that high school grades have a more predictive value of college success than standardized tests, and you may just see a shift from standardized test scores to high school GPA by some college admissions officers. As GPA becomes more important, grit will become more recognized as a vital part of 21st century student success -- as well it should be.

What is Grit?

Some would argue that grit is inherent in Albert Bandura’s research on self-efficacy, and that resilience is also part of it. But you can’t just implement "character education" and think you're teaching grit. In 2008, the Character Education Partnership divided character into two categories: core ethical values and performance values. In my opinion, grit would be categorized as a performance value.

Can Grit be Taught?

Here are 11 ways that I'm tackling grit in my classroom and school.

1. Read Books About Grit

Read books, hold book studies and discuss trends. Measuring noncognitive factors like grit will be controversial, but just because we struggle to measure it doesn't mean that we can stop trying.

2. Talk About Grit

First, I give my students the grit scale test (PDF) and let them score it. Then we watch Angela Duckworth's TED video together and talk about the decisions we make that impact grit. Empower students to educate themselves -- they can't wait for educators to figure this out.

3. Share Examples

In my ninth grade classroom, January starts with a video about John Foppe, born with no arms, who excelled as an honor student, drove his own car, and became a successful psychologist and speaker while creatively using his feet. We also talk to Westwood alum Scott Rigsby, the first double amputee to complete an Ironman competition. These are gritty people. Life is hard, and luck is an illusion.

4. Help Students Develop a Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck from Stanford University teaches us that students who have a growth mindset are more successful than those who think that intelligence is fixed. (See David Hochheiser's post Growth Mindset: A Driving Philosophy, Not Just a Tool.)

5. Reframe Problems

Using stories and examples from Malcom Gladwell's book David and Goliath, we talk about "desirable difficulties." Students need perspective about problems to prevent them from giving up, quitting or losing hope.

6. Find a Framework

I use Angela Maiers' Classroom Habitudes as my framework. The KIPP framework specifically includes grit as one of its seven traits. Find one that works for your school and includes clear performance values.

7. Live Grittily

You teach with your life. Perhaps that is why Randy Pausch's Last Lecture and David Menasche's Priority List resonate. These teachers used their own battle with death itself as a way to teach. But you don't have to die to be an effective teacher. Our own work ethic yells so loudly that kids know exactly what we think about grit.

8. Foster Safe Circumstances That Encourage Grit

Never mistake engaging, fun or even interesting for easy. We don't jump up and down when we tear off a piece of tape because "I did it." No one celebrates easy, but everyone celebrates championships and winners because those take grit (and more). We need more circumstances to help kids to develop grit before they can "have it."

Tough academic requirements, sports and outdoor opportunities are all ways to provide opportunities for developing grit. Verena Roberts, Chief Innovation Officer of CANeLearn says:

One of the best ways to learn about grit is to focus on outdoor education and go out into the wild. Grit is about not freaking out, taking a deep breath, and moving on.

9. Help Students Develop Intentional Habits

Read about best practices for creating habits, because habits and self-control require grit.

10. Acknowledge the Sacrifice Grit Requires

Grit takes time, and many students aren't giving it. In their 2010 paper "The Falling Time Cost of College", Babcock and Marks demonstrate that, in 1961, U.S. undergraduates studied 24 hours a week outside of class. In 1981, that fell to 20 hours, and in 2003, it was 14 hours per week. This is not to create a blame or generation gap discussion, but rather to point out the cost of being well educated. We are what we do, and if we study less and work less, then we will learn less.

11. Discuss When You Need Grit and When You Need to Quit

Grit is not without controversy. Alfie Kohn has some valid points in his criticism of grit. So read and discuss the opponents of grit in class.

In particular, I agree with the point that there is a time for grit and a time to quit. There are times when it's OK to quit something that just isn’t within your range of talents, or when trying something different may enrich your life. Worthy tasks deserve persistence. But there are tasks that would be worthier in a different season of your life. There are jobs that should be left. Sometimes you have to let go of something good to grasp something great. Students need discernment to know when they need grit and when it may be a time to quit.

Educators Need Grit

Now we as teachers just need the grit to do whatever it takes to turn education around, and that starts with hard work and our own modern version of true grit. Teaching it and living it is now front and center in the education conversation.

Become a Transformational Educator

Comments (28)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Hifi's picture
Character Education Researcher and Critic

There isn't a shred of evidence that grit can be taught or otherwise inculcated in children, no less the techniques that amount to no better than wishful thinking that you are experimenting with.

All I can say is watch out for unforeseen consequences because you don't know what you are doing. You could be making things worse.

Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher's picture
Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher
Computer Fundamentals, Computer Science and IT Integrator from Camilla, GA

Thank you for responding, however, I've cited a lot of links and information here and as a researcher, it would be more helpful to respond to the research that is quoted in the article. What do you say about resilience? What do you say about the growth mindset and that research? I actually argue that grit may have been around a while but another word is being used - what do you say about that. While it is easy to be inflammatory, it is important that we dialog with evidence and discussion, so I challenge you to return and respond. Thank you.

And yes, we all must watch on this. But as a teacher for 13 years, I've been around long enough and many of these things are part of what I've done a very long time. I've never seen negative consequences from helping children have a strong work ethic - of course it is balanced (some kids need to learn to relax) but this isn't born in a vacuum or a quite office but 5 and often 6 periods a day for 13 years.

Hifi's picture
Character Education Researcher and Critic

Vicki thanks for the response. It's too bad you felt you needed to characterize my comments as inflammatory. I accept your challenge.

Unfortunately, there is no research quoted or referenced in your article demonstrating that grit can be imparted by a school program (nor for any of the other 100 character traits that are variously and uniquely used in the industry, for that matter).

The closest was the U. S. DOE "draft" paper, Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century". In their conclusion on page 93, the authors support my position, "In this accountability-driven climate and in communities that place extremely high expectations on students, grit, tenacity, and perseverance may not always be in the students' best interest. For example, persevering in the face of challenges or setbacks to accomplish goals that are extrinsically motivated, unimportant to the student, or in some way inappropriate for the student can have detrimental impacts on students' learning and psychological well-being. Little systematic research has investigated this. Researchers need to explore the different reasons for demonstrating grit and what potential costs may be."

Regardless, I was not able to find any references to scientifically acceptable research ("systematic research", i.e. double-blind, measurable, etc.)

I am happy to provide you with some actual scientific studies though.

I. October 2010, a federal study, the largest and most thorough ever conducted, found that school-wide Character Education programs produce exactly ZERO improvements in student behavior or academic performance.

Reference: Efficacy of Schoolwide Programs to Promote Social and Character Development and Reduce Problem Behavior in Elementary School Children The Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. October 2010.

II. Here's one proving the unintended consequences of good intentions.
"In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard "Good sharing!" or "I'm so proud of you for helping," they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult. Generosity became a means to an end."

Effects of Rewards on Children's Prosocial Motivation: A Socialization Study - Richard A. Fabes et al., Developmental Psychology, vol. 25, 1989

Please also see the Wikipedia entry on Character Education, specifically the section on Issues and Controversies. Has lots of references to solid theoretical and evidentiary research.

Please allow me to challenge you, in good turn, to return and respond.

Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher's picture
Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher
Computer Fundamentals, Computer Science and IT Integrator from Camilla, GA

I will respond as best I can considering it is 1:24 am and I just finished grading papers. I have a couple of things I'd like to point out --

Read the article:
"Some would argue that grit is inherent in Albert Bandura's research on self-efficacy, and that resilience is also part of it. But you can't just implement "character education" and think you're teaching grit. In 2008, the Character Education Partnership divided character into two categories: core ethical values and performance values. In my opinion, grit would be categorized as a performance value."

I didn't advocate for character education, in fact pointed out that "character education is not grit." I also don''t think that praising for generosity applies to grit either -- there's quite a bit on HOW praise often has the opposite effect.

The purpose of the article is to point out that grit may have been around for some time -- i.e. resilience (didn't see a reply to that one) and isn't clearly known how to be taught. It also points out some of the current reading on it as well.

I'm a full time classroom teacher and had several of my researcher friends read this post before it went up because I know that it had to pass muster with researchers. I'm reaching out to them tonight to see if they will give me some input and also respond on this.

I do think that there are right and wrong ways to teach things but I also totally believe that often we have to help students understand who they will be before they can do.

I totally agree with what you quoted and I included that draft paper in the article for just that reason "Researchers need to explore the different reasons for demonstrating grit and what potential costs may be."

This is certainly something we must study and understand more deeply. To ignore the findings and discussions happening about this topic in education would be mistaken, but I'm not sure I'm understanding your arguments.

You're advocating not sharing with children the importance of persistence and grit when faced with a tough task? Learning is hard work and I've found that most work worth doing requires some grit.

Honestly, I'd rather be asleep right now but this is an important conversation - I guess it takes some grit to be a full time educator involved in this conversation and that grit wasn't instilled by having it easy as a child but by having hard tasks. It was also instilled by parents who talked to me often about persisting and having grit and determination in the face of struggle and hard work. So, while the research is working to figure out a scalable way to share and discuss this sort of topic - if it is discussed at all.

As a classroom teacher, it is something that is just there and is something we do talk about sometimes. It isn't something I "praise" per se but it is something we discuss and are aware of. It makes a difference -- my school has consistently won many state championships, literary events, and beyond and grit and determination is part of what we teach. We perform very high for the size we are and I think that part of that is the work ethic we instill - not through barbaric rote means but just living it out day to day.

I'd be interested in understanding and knowing if you think this topic should be ignored in schools b/c I'm not sure that any teacher can ignore the fact that many subjects are hard and it is often the willingness of students to persist that helps them grasp it.

Thank you for taking the response. I can see much better your thinking. It makes me very happy when people like yourself add to the dialog in meaningful ways. This is one of the values of Edutopia - putting the important conversations out there for the world to join in and discuss. Thank you for taking the time to care enough to share your views. You have my respect and gratitude.

Lee Graham's picture

I enjoy Bandura's research on self-efficacy, personally and see this as an avenue for helping students to see the impact that perseverance can have. As I help students develop the skills that mean they can actually complete a complex task, I also model the completion of the task (hard work and all) and provide the appropriate supports to help them to complete the task. I also enjoy Wiggin's take on feedback. Compare what students intended to do with what they actually did. As I have students create an online course, I have them - near the end of the process - apply the Quality Matters rubric to their peers' course. This allows them to very clearly see how what they intended isn't always realized, and they can self-adjust to make certain that the impact of the product is what they intend. This is certainly a volatile topic Vicki! I think that we are all operating from the perspective that we want children to be successful in their lives, and as teachers, we want to do our best to support that success. I think through careful implementation of new strategies, and close monitoring of the impact of the strategies on students (it is important that we insure that our own performance has the intended impact as well!), often through an Action Research framework, we can insure we do not harm our students, and instead act as much as is humanly possible in their best interests. Thank you for having the courage to tackle this complex topic!

Colin Osterhout's picture
Colin Osterhout
Graduate Student, University of Alaska Southeast

The Daniel Pink video on motivation's primary drivers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose was excellent. I've had his work on my reading list for a while and those topics have definitely been in evidence in my own career path over my entire life. I enjoyed Angela Duckworth's video as well. Both excellent watches and have served to give names and labels to what I've been feeling for a long time, thank you for sharing!

Hifi's picture
Character Education Researcher and Critic

Thank you for your thoughtful reply Vicki.

The bottom-line here is can you build grit via a program in public schools? "The honest answer is I don't know," Angela Duckworth.

Just like gravity, we suspect that something we can associate with grit exists, but there is little if any theory about where it come from. My suggestion is that testing hypotheses about such things doesn't belong in the classroom. Worse for grit is that unlike gravity there is no standard of measurement. So do ever know if anything improves it?

What we know does work is training and practice. We can measure a deficiency in math skills; we can measure an improvement in those skills as a result of a math program. Even better we can compare the results of one program to another.

G.W. Bush, of all people, said, "the adoption of public programs should be results-based." Duh!

BTW, you might be interested in knowing something about me. I am the author the Wikipedia article on Character Education. What qualifies me? Nothing, except that I was driven to take the substantial time to research, write, and maintain it in order to thoroughly debunk the Character Counts! program that my district got sold on, and in turn sold to their constituents. (Wasn't grit, it was aggravation. )

Coachpatrickv's picture

Vicki. Thank you for such a great post on grit. I reference it often in the work I do on goal setting. Along with proper planning and practice, grit is essential for durable goal achievement. I would also suggest the importance of the pygmalion effect in helping kids to develop grit. First, we need to let them know that we believe they are capable of more. Best wishes. Patrick Veroneau

gberry's picture

I believe it is not the role of education to teach students "grit". That is the role of parents. The problem with our educational system is not the teachers; it is the parents. Students come to the educational system unprepared to be taught. They do not have respect for the educational system. They do not want to put in the effort, yet expect high results. They take no responsibility for those results and blame his/her failures on everything else. All of these habits were learned at home and teachers are expected to break and/or retain what was taught to them by their parents and without the support of the parents. When they are unable to, just like the students, they blame the educational system and the teachers.

Adam Buchbinder's picture

As a current educator and a former student who struggled with learning challenges, my grit was instrumental to my academic and career success. Grit is something we can develop internally with concerted volition. Grit is built upon struggle and circumstance. Grit transcends unlikely odds. We should all aspire to increase our grit and find ways to implement it in our teaching.

Some folks have suggested that grit is difficult to measure and standardize. Both of these are true statements; but by avoiding teaching resilience and grit only because it's hard , we deprive our most vulnerable students of their greatest social and academic weapon. If our mission as educators is to provide equality of opportunity to our students, than we must implement grit into our curriculums and we must do it now.

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