George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Trends

True Grit: The Best Measure of Success and How to Teach It

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.

Book Reading List:

Trend Reading:

2. Talk About Grit

First, I give my students the grit scale test 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.

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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
Adam Buchbinder
Passionate about teaching students with learning differences with empowerment, grit, and resilience

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.

Lymarie Carl Baldesco Raganit's picture

From this context I learned a lot. Thank you Ms. Vicki Davis for sharing your thought. :)

The best measure of success is that you as an educator can help each students to have a more productive way in learning information. You can surely change their views in learning an can help them manage their life or control their way of engaging their daily aspect in learning. Now as teachers just you must 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. As this steps this will surely bring your learner to learn more.

Lilith's picture

Thank you for the interesting article.

How do we help teachers to develop "grit" for their profession? How do we keep them in the classroom rather than letting them teach a few years and then go on for another degree that takes them out of the classroom? I am thinking of great teachers who became administrators, coaches, or psychologists.

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

Lilith: You pose a great question. I think being a great teacher for a long time in the U.S. is very difficult because of the contact time with students. Students/kids can certainly grind you down and the more time you have with them the harder is becomes. It also depends on your district's population. I think great teachers leave the classroom for a few reasons. 1. They want to lead and change what's going on at the top. 2. They need more money. 3. They burned out.

This year will be my 16th year of teaching. I've worked under a few admin and I have to say that the best leaders I've had were in the classroom the longest. The admin who were in the classroom for 3-6 years, in my opinion, didn't have enough time to really "get it."

I'll always be a teacher. I don't see my future in any other way. But of course things change. I think my "grit" in the profession comes from my connections with people who inspire me, not only in the classroom, but in the world---Friends, artists, authors, musicians, teachers. People who inspire me to work hard and teach in a way that best suites ME. I think thats the key. I know some areas of education in the world are very controlling. I think the more a teacher is able to keep his/her style and philosophies/keeping his/her humanity....the more teachers, great teachers, will stay in the classroom, where they belong, for a longer time.


Deb Stahl's picture

In response to Donna Volpitta's comment on 1/2014 (I had no idea this article was this old! LOL): I think this has as much to do with the early childhood experiences of Millenials as anything else. We're seeing kids who've spent more time in virtual lives and academics and less time in play-based settings than previous generations (and this is becoming more and more the case right now), where non-academic skills are best learned and internalized. We really need to look at how we can "allow" these skills to develop early on, rather than trying to implement them via SEL down the road.

I'm not sure that I agree that grit is a cognitive skill requiring high-level thinking; I see it more as a character trait that can be shaped and encouraged to grow. Impulse control itself is something that begins to develop even in preschoolers, given the right setting and guidance.

Deb Stahl's picture

I'd like to take the whole idea of "teaching" grit in a different direction for a moment, if I could: As a music teacher who works with individual students (usually elementary and middle school levels) and also with very young children (birth-5), I am becoming more and more aware of what young children are born with and what they tend to develop and learn and internalize naturally and organically in the earliest years. Hifi touched on it - the part where young children praised for generosity being LESS likely to share w/o extrinsic motivation is part of it (Alfie Kohn has written about this; see Punished By Rewards). Kids come hard-wired to be empathetic, to be generous, to have persistence, to be creative, BUT given the time and space and setting in which to do so. Play-based pre-school settings are harder and harder to find as parents are being encouraged to have children reading and doing math BEFORE Kindergarten; free play, where children can "grow" the skills they're already born with or "wired" to develop, is at a premium - and we're having to resort to SEL in an effort to make up for the loss of YEARS.

IME it's nothing more than a stopgap measure. My kid can read books about persistence until she falls asleep, she can have harder and more rigorous stuff throw at her in an effort to "toughen her up" (yes, life is hard, but a lot of time what doesn't kill you does NOT make you stronger but weaker - let's be real about that too), but that won't inculcate persistence IN her - she came hard-wired for it, and when I got out of her way, she showed me what that looked like (I blogged it all those years ago). Now that she's in 5th grade, though, a lot of it has been UN-done: by unrealistic academic and behavioral expectations at school, by neverending homework, by too little time to just BE, with herself or with other kids, to the point where if this year becomes a repeat of her 3rd-grade year (last year she had a wonderful teacher who worked with who she was and began to heal, thankfully), I will yank her before any more damage is done. I see it in many of her classmates as well (I used to substitute regularly at the school and know the kids; many live in our neighborhood and I teach a number of of them music privately), and hear stories from other parents, so I know I'm not alone in my observations.

I don't work with high-schoolers - my focus is on the youngest kids - so from my vantage point, your list of strategies seems contrived and artificial. I certainly wish you every success - I just hope that at some point, educational policymakers see what kind of damage they're doing by closing windows for non-academic learning in the early years.

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