George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

The Loss of Grit in Personalized Education

April 7, 2016 Updated April 6, 2016

Early this morning I was scrambling to get snowboots and gloves in the correct backpacks before shipping my kids off to school for the day.

“Ema, ema!”  I hear from the next room (this is what my children call me).

“I am thirsty and I can’t get a glass, they are too high,” my five year old yells out.

Lucky for him he has a three year old sister. “So go get a chair and pull it over and get a glass,” she tells him.

From the other room I was thinking to myself, ‘Now there is some grit in those children.’  My son was having a challenge--obviously not a major challenge but in the moment it was a struggle that bothered him—and my three year old had a solution.  I was thrilled not to be needed because I want my kids to deal with low-stakes challenging situations; I want him to struggle a little to get himself water; I want him to be thirsty until he finds a solution. These are the moments that can help him build grit without too much risk.

In my recent graduate class, I watched a video about personalized learning.  In the school that was profiled, kids walk into the classroom each day and their names are on a screen (much like a screen at a rental car agency).  The screen tells the kids where they should go to learn for the day based on their performances from the previous day and individualized goals for the learning today.

On the surface, this seems like a ‘no brainer.’ Apply immediate assessment, a few algorithms, and, “Voila!” we have the perfect learning plan to maximize the efficiency of school for each student so that no time is wasted. Each kid gets a “just right” plan for the day. Done. Sold.

But wait, what are we losing with this method?  In the race for efficiency and personalization, are we taking out valuable learning opportunities?

Some of the most valuable lessons I learned in school came from times I was uncomfortable. I can’t tell you how many valuable lessons I learned from sitting in the principal’s office for the 100th time after getting kicked out for bad behavior (probably because I was bored).

In the third grade, I learned what it means to ‘take the high road.’ It was hard for me to learn that it doesn’t always pay to be ‘right’  and it would have taken me many more years to learn this lesson had I not been kicked out so many times that year.

I can’t tell you how much I learned by being put into a 10th grade class as a 9th grader because I didn’t really fit into any class (the 10th grade class included). 

 Sitting in the 10th grade class I was really humbled.  I had never been in a class where I was so unprepared, and it helped me to lean on others for help and to admit when I didn’t understand.

There are lessons that we learn from not being in the right place, lessons that can’t be taught if everything is personalized, if everything is a customized  fit.

What is going to happen to the grit in our children as we move towards a more personal model of learning?  What are we losing in the name of efficiency and ‘better’ instruction? How will they learn to tolerate boredom, anxiety, and insecurity? While we don’t want to drown them in any of those feelings, learning to tolerate them a little bit—is something we must do.

I don’t think the answer is personalized instruction, and I don’t think the answer can be found in an algorithm.

We need to diversify our instruction.  No child should be the one who is always bored and getting kicked out of class, and no child should be the one who is always lost and struggling. We all need to have experiences being the big fish in the little pond and the little fish in the big pond. In the book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell tells the story of a man who has an IQ that is well above average (it is 45 points higher than Albert Einstein’s) but the man doesn’t have any ‘grit.’  When his college scholarship is revoked because his mother forgot to fill out a financial aid form, he moves back home.  He doesn’t fight it, doesn’t argue his case, he merely demurs and goes back home.  Gladwell contrasts him with Robert Oppenheimer, of Manhattan Project fame, who also has a very high IQ.  Oppenheimer managed to get the job of the Manhattan Project because of his charm, perseverance, creativity, and of course his intellect.  The same Oppenheimer tried to poison his tutor in college (he actually tried to KILL him) and ended up on probation with psychological monitoring.  He tried to poison his tutor and got off with only a proverbial slap on the wrist. Why?  Because Oppenheimer had ‘grit.’ He had the ability to use his intelligence, his personality, his moxie and combine all of that together into a package that would help him advance in whatever he tried to accomplish in life.  The difference between the first man and Oppenheimer is the grit that I want to ensure we are instilling in our students at school.  Intelligence and knowledge can only take a person so far in life.

So how do we teach grit?

Many people have written extensively in recent years about teaching children grit, including here (  Angela Duckworth encourages teaching children to have a growth mindest, to persevere, to fail forward.  There is no shortage of literature about how to teach children to be ‘grittier.’  This video ( is a great example to think about building grit into the day.   With the trend of personalizing everything from the daily schedule to the types of assignments children complete, are we taking away too many opportunities to build grit?   Are we detracting from the grittiness in education that we know is so crucial to children’s development?

I do not believe that every child needs to do the same thing at the same time.  I also don’t believe that children should be allowed to opt out of something they aren’t ‘good’ at or don’t like.  I think there needs to be a balance in school.  It is true that children are more likely to persevere if they are interested in something.  If they have a genuine interest in the outcome or the goal they will be more invested in the details. But many children have not yet discovered the full range of their passions.  How can we let a middle school student decide that she is no longer interested in science because she doesn’t like the Earth science class she has been exposed to?  How can we allow the fifth grade boy to decide he isn’t a ‘writer’ because writing is really hard for him?  These children need to be uncomfortable at school.  They need to be pushed to complete assignments that they aren’t ‘good’ at.  They need to struggle and fail in order to be stronger learners as they grow up. 

The boy from the video above who does the ‘sugaring’ on his own is incredibly gritty.  He has a passion for making syrup (or perhaps making money from selling his syrup) and he will go through the process to make sure his goal is accomplished even if he doesn’t enjoy all of the steps.

Many children are not like this.

Many children have great grandiose ideas about projects or inventions,  but when they are faced with the realities of making those dreams come true, they will just give up.

These are the children that need us, this is the work that we have to do as teachers.

We need to teach children to persevere through the times that aren’t a good fit.  We need to put them in situations that are mildly uncomfortable and boring and too hard and too easy.  We need to ensure that each child is given the opportunity to be the least experienced at something and the most experienced.  We need to ensure that in our classrooms no one gets to opt out because “this isn’t the way I learn best.”

I believe in adapting the experience for children, differentiating for their needs so that every child is learning in his favorite modality some of the time. I also think that this adaptation needs to include challenges and hardships, so that no child walks out of our schools without a fair amount of grit under her belt.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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