Are we finally going to stop chasing grit?
Way back in 2014, I posted a provocative blog that started a tense and widely read discourse between several profoundly smart edu-leaders on Angela Duckworth’s mega-hit theories of grit. Several of my readers literally shouted that bending the knee to grit as the Holy Grail of student performance overlooked profound issues of equity. In short, they said, there are poor kids who do poorly in school and fail to get a good job, even though they have endless grit to just make it through the day and get to school; and there are wealthy kids who do great in school and get great jobs because they are born into safety nets that buffer the inevitable discomfort of grittiness.
This article by Jesse Singal is a must read for schools that jumped on the grit bandwagon. I know of many schools that, within a few months of reading or hearing Duckworth’s grit story, rushed to add “grit” to their core values or Portrait of a Graduate. They blindly bought into the dream; that there must be a silver bullet, a piece of code that we just need to insert into kids’ learning that will lead to widespread success. We collectively wanted to believe Duckworth because faith springs eternal. Duckworth’s grit fits perfectly into the great American ethos of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps”, except it leaves out those who don’t have boots.
As Singal describes, Duckworth’s grit story was probably never right, or if it was, it was not really new. She had found that sweet spot of seemingly instant success: repackaging something old with a really cool new name. Upon further study, the claim that grit “beats the pants” off of other success predictors is probably just not true.
I am not saying that Duckworth and her colleagues are completely wrong. I am saying that there may be as much evidence that grit is NOT our salvation as that it is. Duckworth may have, at some point, followed up her initial fame with a qualifying, “Well, maybe grit is not quite the magic potion we initially thought”, and if she has, please share so I can eat my portion of crow and re-share it widely.
For educators, the most important lesson is this: don’t chase new, shiny things. We have known for many decades, and probably much longer, the key ingredients to deep, meaningful learning; and yes, a dogged pursuit of goals even in the face of obstacles is one of them. We should always be on the lookout for a positively disruptive new learning strategy, but don’t rush to add something new to your core values until you have done a deep vetting of what it really means. And that means looking at the “new thing” from different points of view and lenses, not just the one that is getting all of the TED talk clicks.