George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Scaffolding Grit

It starts with integrating passion-based learning into your classroom.

Three teenage female students looks at a computer tablet together.
Three teenage female students looks at a computer tablet together.

Often when I look at how to help students, I think back on my own journey as a student. When challenged to teach students to trust that the effort of persistence is worth it, I think back on when I myself figured it out. And do you know what I came up with? The only times I showed grit as a student were when I was interested in the topic and wanted to get through a challenge. Even now, I only score a 3.5 out of 5 on Angela Duckworth’s Grit Scale quiz. So the reality is this: Sometimes I have grit and sometimes I don’t.

I would argue that without passion or interest in a topic, grit is difficult to cultivate in oneself, and even harder to teach. It can feel nearly impossible to convince students who haven’t been on this planet for very long, who haven’t been around life’s block often, that the effort of persistence is worth it. To do so, we need to ensure that our teaching taps into topics or processes that students genuinely feel.

From there, having helped students feel authenticity, we can aid them in recalling what persistence felt like. We, the teachers, are in charge of helping students recall academic muscle memory.

Therefore, to put students on the road to persistence, it becomes necessary to help them find those topics that will inspire them. We have to help students to find their passion, and with this realization comes the argument that our schools must focus not just on the Common Core State Standards but on the student standards of interest, hobby, and meaningful learning.

In the past, middle and high schools provided classes that interested students as a means to trigger engagement. However, elective classes, field trips, and lunchtime and after-school clubs are the first victims on the budgetary chopping block. As a result, it falls to teachers to bridge the gap between required topics and passion-based ones. Once we can do that, we can deconstruct the process a student went through and apply that process to our standards-based courses as well.

Strategies for Bringing Student Interests to the Classroom

So what can secondary teachers do to help bring a passion-based learning focus into the classroom?

Utilize project-based learning. PBL as a learning strategy focuses on meaningful learning punctuated by student choice. Projects are grounded on driving questions based on student inquiry. Students can decide on the artifacts that can best show their learning. Allow student input whenever possible.

Bring in a variety of experts. Don’t put everything on your shoulders. Bring in experts from outside the classroom to introduce students to new concepts. This includes face-to-face speakers, guests via video chats, and virtual field trips.

Find allies in other stakeholders. Remind families that they have a role to play in helping students find their passions beyond the school day. Some families could use some help understanding how their free time as a family may have a direct impact on their student’s persistence in the classroom. Send out emails to families about upcoming local events. Encourage families to play a part in their student’s passion-based learning.

Laying the Groundwork for Grit

Let’s face it: Not everything we ask students to do will be interesting for every single kid. The real trick comes from leveraging what a student felt when they were interested in the topic. What can a teacher do to help motivate the grit in her students and, thus, create the start of a journey to trigger persistence even when a topic is not a child’s cup of tea?

The answer is in reflection. Help the student to think back on a time when they showed grit, and help them reframe that success to apply to other topics as well. Help them reflect on the process, not just the product. Ask them questions like these:

  • Remember what it felt like to follow through with the assignment?
  • What was your journey through the lessons?
  • What thoughts in your head got in the way of completion?
  • What voices cheered you on from start to finish?
  • Can you visualize those voices?
  • How might you control or change those thoughts that get in the way?

Hoping our students develop grit isn’t too much to ask, but we can’t blame many of them for not having it yet. After all, until I found my own passion, I may have followed through, but that didn’t mean I had grit. So keep talking about persistence with your students. And encourage families to expose students to a variety of activities. Continue to bring a variety of activities into the classroom as well.

Because students spend a good amount of time constrained in classrooms, they may lack inspiration from what’s out there. So it’s hard for them to know just what might be inspirational. Have faith that a student is merely a work in progress and will one day find those interests and passions, even if it’s beyond their time with you.

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Dr. Kendra Strange's picture
Dr. Kendra Strange
Achievement Consultant | Curriculum Specialist | School-turn-around & Advanced Academics

The concept of scaffolding grit is an achievement game changer. The ideas are reminiscent of the theory of effort based achievement, in that with enough effort from enough stakeholders (including the student) ALL students can be successful.
Kendra Strange Shaffer

Tara List's picture
Tara List
Science Teacher

I love these ideas. I work in a very low income/low attendance district and its difficult for students to persist and show grit. Engaging lessons are important, but not the end all.... This really helps to break down the process more and give some other ideas.

Beckett Haight's picture

I had to wrestle with the idea you expressed about having to have passion or interest in a topic in order to get the grit situation going. My immediate reaction was that those times when you aren't into something are the situations in which you really need the grit.

But alternatively, I read your blog post as a break from updating my teacher website, working on current updates and looking at notes I took in an old memo pad three years ago, and that makes me think maybe this is grit, holding onto my passion to share the resources all these years later.

But maybe getting through updating 23 IEPs is not grit, it's just buckling down and doing your job?

I am still wrestling, but your ideas have me on the ropes....metaphorically speaking.

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert - Gawron
Middle school teacher by day, educational author/blogger by night

I think what I am grappling with is my admission that follow through is not the same as grit. As you say, you are doing your job. Salary, grades, etc...don't necessarily indicate grit but do indicate motivation. What we need to do is identify true grit (h/t John Wayne) and help cultivate that. Thanks for commenting! - Heather

Trina Browning-Niznik's picture
Trina Browning-Niznik

I am a firm believer in igniting the passion in students, as well as using Project-Based Learning to do so. We are not going to inspire and motivate our students to develop GRIT by standing at the board telling them what they need to know and only give them one option to learn the content. What I have found with the Z Generation students is that they want to research and learn on their own, to some degree. THEY want to be the ones to research a subject, talk about, take it apart and discuss it some more. If we just ask our students, they are much more interesting ideas most of the time then we, the experts, do. Cultivate their love of learning by allowing some options and letting go of the "Sage on a Stage" idea. Being a learning Coach is much "cooler" and lots more fun!

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