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Grit Happens in PBL

John Larmer

Editor in Chief at the Buck Institute for Education
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This year’s trendy new term in education is "grit." Love it or hate it, grit is being talked about on blogs and other social media, and Edutopia just released an excellent new video about it. No doubt there are people presenting staff development workshops about grit in schools around the nation, and companies are quickly producing curriculum materials to sell. Here at Buck Institute for Education (BIE), we are seeing grit show up in our PBL 101 Workshops, when we ask educators to list the qualities of an "ideal graduate." For sure, grit is happening in 2014!

Much of the sudden prominence of grit is due to the work of Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania who even has a "Get Your Grit Score" tool. Recent books related to the topic include Mindset: How You Can Fulfill Your Potential (2012) by Carol Dweck of Stanford University, and How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (2012) by journalist Paul Tough. All of the above offer much food for thought for teachers, parents, and education leaders.

What I see missing from the discussions of grit is, guess what . . . project-based learning.

Beyond Character Education

Grit has been known by other names in the past: toughness (that’s the John Wayne/Jeff Bridges cowboy type), or resilience, or perseverance despite challenges and setbacks. Current discussions of grit in education focus on the need for students to pursue long-term goals -- such as going to college or becoming a nurse -- and to hang in there when trying to learn challenging material in school.

I'm reminded of "character education" efforts when I hear how students can be taught to get, er . . . grittier (if that doesn't sound too much like what happens to my lunch on a windy day at the beach). It’s all fine, as far as it goes. Have students learn about people who showed persistence in the face of adversity. Ask young people to commit to long-term goals and write about how they intend to achieve them. Help them monitor their progress and reflect on how they are meeting challenges. Change the way we talk to students so that the emphasis is on working hard, instead of "being smart." Teach them to use Tools of the Mind that help control impulsivity, avoid distractions, stay focused, and manage emotions.

But in character education, the most successful efforts to help students become good people go beyond simply teaching them what it means to be good. To really help students become ethical, kind, honest, and so on, they must be asked to act that way, and held accountable for doing so.

Getting Things Done in the Real World

Similarly, to build grit in students, put them in situations that require it. Instead of asking them to show grit by finding ways to sit dutifully through years of meaningless assignments and boring instructional methods, give students challenging, long-term projects that call for grit.

Imagine how much grit it would take to do something like the Shrimp Project, where teacher Laurette Rodgers led her fourth graders on a multi-month quest to protect an endangered species. The students had to work with local ranchers on whose land a freshwater shrimp's habitat was shrinking, and win their support for planting trees and bushes along creeks. The students had to contact state legislators and persuade them to pass bills, and raise funds by selling t-shirts to local citizens. Imagine how much students learned about persistence and how to set and achieve long-term goals!

Even a less ambitious project -- say, to create a book about local history, or propose a solution to a community's traffic problem -- requires grit. No project is going to unfold perfectly. Students are going to face setbacks, decide they have to find new resources, rethink their ideas, or try a variety of solutions before deciding on the best one. A "fail fast" approach is needed in PBL – it's part of the process of innovation. Try something, see if it flies, then try again. Don't give up. Think critically about what you’re doing, reading, and saying. Confidently defend your work to a public audience. That's how to learn and demonstrate what it means to have grit.

Author's Note: The term "grit happens" came to me from BIE's Master Punster Alfred Solis.

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Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Grit is working at night when everyone is asleep, getting up early to write, sacrificing friendships and playtime for work, bouncing back from rejection and failure over and over again, running your mileage before sun-up, and getting through math class without breakfast.
Grit is not succeeding on your first try. Grit it taking your lumps, adjusting, revising, bouncing back, failing--taking your lumps, adjusting, revising, and then maybe succeeding. That's grit. But grit is a tricky weasel. I didn't feel "gritty" until my twenties. And that was just on the tennis court and hockey rink. My writing grit appeared in my late thirties.
Was I taught grit? I can't remember learning it, but I do remember the turning of the switch --That first successful tennis tournament win. Winning four matches, each lasting well over three hours and finally disregarding my physical size and reaching my hockey potential. My dad always told me, "It's not the size of your body that matters--it's the size of your heart." I live by this and instill the same thoughts in my son and daughter's psyche. I can already see that my daughter (3) has a bit more grit than my son (6). Why? Hmm... same parents, same discussions, same everything. Why? Can it be taught or just suggested? I do believe it's an inherited trait and I also believe that the individual has to "want it." The mind is a mysterious and complex entity not to be labeled or scored, in my opinion. Yes, we should encourage kids to work hard and they should be commended on working hard, rather than a silly dare I say a grade?
It's all mixed up. We want kids to exhibit grit, but still they're just a number in the end. Heck, teachers are just a number even when we (teachers) exhibit grit. At the end this school year, I was labeled with a decimal. My principal said, "You are a (insert decimal)" and I said, "Did you look at my notable accomplishments for this year?" He said, "No, I didn't have time."
This year I had a very special student. Fighting anxiety and lack of confidence, he achieved a black belt in karate. He dedicated himself, trained hard, doubted himself many times, and then succeeded. That's grit. He saw his goal clearly, worked hard, and achieved. He learned much more about himself in the process and training than taking the test. Even if he failed, he would have gained much more in the process than many other kids who never tried. I went to his black belt extravaganza and saw him perform in front of a hundred people. Amazing. A test will never see this or even come close to measuring this. He's just a number in school, but on the karate mat, he's a respected leader and human. That's grit. Karate will guide him through life, not a textbook or an adaptive computer test.

Yes, PBL situations show grit. It's a long-term real situation. I collaborate with a few colleagues on a service-learning project called Jeans for Teens. The clothing store Aeropostale and host a competition every year to collect jeans for homeless youth. You can read about it and join here:

My students take the responsibility to donate their own jeans, talk to family members and friends, write letters, and spread the word any creative way they can.

PBLs require grit and 21st Century skills on a daily basis. Totally!

Thanks for the blog post!


Kevin Hewitson's picture

Achievement is about "grit", about trying again and overcoming set backs but what about learning? Doing more of what has not helped you learn is unlikely to yield any different results. Whilst a growth mindset will help in such cases braking the link between ability and ability to learn we need something more. We need to make a link between our learning needs (not styles) and our learning environment. We need to understand that if we are able to manage our learning environment to meet our learning needs then the process of learning is enhanced. I call this concept "Learning Intelligence" or LQ. It involves a range of skills, attributes, attitudes and behaviours all of which can be explored and developed. LQ brings together concepts such as mindful learning, growth mindset, grit, PBL etc into a unified approach to learning. I have written extensively about LQ both from the perspective of the teacher and learner.

You will find the first of over 30 articles about LQ here:

I hope you go on to read about LQ and the design process:
and the link to creativity:

Please feel free to contact me through my blog if you want to explore LQ.


Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Great points Mike. There *are* two versions. The former (in which the best way to have grit is to be affluent, white and live in a stable home) drives me batty. The latter (in which we model, teach, and support the kind of reflective process and inquiry driven learning which develops executive function) is a really powerful tool.

Unfortunately, we only have the one word in play right now. In these conversations, I'm often reminded of the immortal words of Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

MikeMcRaith's picture
Middle School Principal in Vermont


The folks that criticize grit do so from a primarily economic point of view. Correct me if I am wrong, but they do not like the idea of telling economically disadvantaged students to "just be gritty". Its viewed as another version of "pull yourself up by the boot-straps". I believe they feel that there are societal structures that require serious change, and they are concerned that the "grit movement" will distract leaders from the real structural changes necessary to build a more equitable society. And I have heard criticism of teaching students self-control (often associated with the grit research and researchers) as being more about compliance than learning.

I have spent a lot of time working with grit and the related research this year. I feel like there are two versions of grit in the education world. The first version is the pop version. Its the version I see on this particular post and the version I see Alfie Kohn and Ira Socol criticizing. It seems to me that people hear the word "grit" and they assume that the research behind it simply says, "try harder", and you will "do better". I think people jump to that conclusion because many educators are attracted to that idea. Most of us see students who lack motivation. Many of us just wish they would try harder! So we hear grit, and we assume we know what that research and what all the fuss is about. But after really digging into the topic, I assure you, there is much more to it.

In summary, I think the second version of grit, the one that digs much deeper, is about executive functioning. I believe the research is discovering a particular trait associated with achievement (note I didn't say success), that is a function of a healthy developing brain. In that view, providing students from chronic stress scenarios (often students from violence and poverty, but not always) with the opportunity to grow a part of their brain (executive functioning) that is often stunted in chronic stress (see the work of Eric Jensen or Laurence Steinberg) is really about equality not compliance. The research shows that those with self-control and related executive functioning skills (i.e. grit) achieve well by all sorts of measures from all sorts of demographics. By ignoring schools' opportunities to develop these skills (particularly good opportunities in early ed, transitions, and early adolescence due to increased brain plasticity), schools would be perpetuating inequality. Does teaching grit replace the need for structural change and increased equity in our society? Absolutely not. But I don't know any researcher claiming that it will. In fact, since writing his book, Paul Tough has coined a phrase in response to this critique, he calls it the adversity gap. In this he explains that he is not suggesting that students from chronic stress need more adversity (!), but he is saying that students on the other end of the gap might need some in order to practice the executive functioning skill of grit more often.

And in regards to PBL or Student-Driven learning. PBL often engages students more than traditional schooling. Which is why I am big proponent of it. It often leads to more real work than the compliance content cramming most of us grew up with. It often gives students the opportunity to practice grit, which is great as well. But I would argue that if you are working with students from chronic stress, PBL will not address their executive functioning needs. In those cases PBL is just another mode of learning that students can't access deeply. When students develop executive functioning skills such as self-control and yes, grit, then they can access any type of learning...and hopefully that type of learning is PBL often is.

Takesha88's picture

I love the thought of Grit! It's very beneficial long term. I developed grit as an athlete but I would've loved learning this in school. I chose to support grit mainly because I see students giving up in my school the first time they encounter a bump in the road. They are frustrated with a math problem and now they hate math. Instead of pressing forward, they complain. That's not a winner's attitude. Most victories are found after multiple failures. They should know and understand this early in life. Perseverance is a part of life.

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