“Grit” has become a staple of school leadership discussion, due in large part to Angela Duckworth’s best selling book. I just helped a school compose a remarkable vision statement, and grit is mentioned as an essential outcome for their students. Have we swallowed this argument whole a bit too quickly? Does it resonate with us, particularly American parents and educators, because we want to believe that personal grit drove each of us to a differentiated level of success? Have we questioned what grit means to those who grow up in a vastly different condition than our own?
Ira Socol is one of our true educational thought leaders because he is a brilliant and creative thinker, AND, unlike many who write books or give speeches for a living, he works in schools. He has researched the idea of grit and written two long blog posts (Part 1 and Part 2) that I think would make powerful reading for any school faculty, leadership team, or parent community. Ira suggests that grit is not a measure of resilience, but of conformity:
Let’s be clear. What Duckworth, Tough, even Davis are referring to is essential to traditional school success. But the word they are seeking is not “grit” – as I said before, the kids they want to give “grit” to are the “grittiest” kids on earth – that’s how they’ve survived – the word these “grit proponents” are seeking is “compliance.” They want kids working hard at what they themselves value, which is, apparently, “white middle class conformity. “Grit,” school leader Dave Meister says, “is simply a term by which the privileged try distinguish their behavior from those they define as unworthy.”
Ira proposes that the differentiator that we seek is not grit at all, but almost the opposite, what he calls “’slack’ – the moments when necessity is not the sole driver.” It is the margin of safety provided to the relatively well-off or well connected that is not available to those for whom every hour or every day is a mountain of steep challenges. Ira proposes that:
… “slack” and “abundance” are what our “at risk” children need: “They show that abundance allows people slack, space that doesn’t force anyone to consider trade-offs. Conversely, scarcity removes slack. In moments of abundance, then, people behave differently than in moments of scarcity. The consequences for people in poverty are much greater, then, than the consequences for people in affluence.” In my understanding of “slack,” “Negative Space,” not the SLANT concepts of KIPP nor the “misery index” of Duckworth, is the path to opportunity. “This is really about allowing students to breathe.
I may not object to Duckworth and “grit” as strongly as Ira does, but he and others he cites make strong points. During my annual student trip to the Philippines a couple of years ago I wrote about how children there are vastly more resourceful in meeting basic living needs than their wealthy American or over-schooled Chinese counterparts. They demonstrate the natural grit of about 4 billion people on the planet who live in poverty, a set of conditions that are buffered from the lives of the other 3.5 billion by some degree of slack.
Children are not born in need of grit; that is obvious to anyone who has spent time in impoverished communities anywhere around the world. Many American children have their grit buffered or removed. Cathy Caprino, writing in Forbes, identifies parenting behaviors that cripple children’s abilities to become effective leaders: sheltering our children from risk; rescuing them from failure; giving every kid a trophy, win or lose. Many of our schools, particularly those which serve higher income populations, are guilty of these same behaviors; in fact they are demanded of our schools by the parents they serve. I have no data to support it, but I am pretty sure these behaviors are more prevalent in families with higher income levels, with more “slack” in their lives.
While I have not studied this as deeply as Ira and those he cites, I think there is a unique balance that we seek, and that schools can and should play an important role in achieving that balance. Clearly there are American children who need to be re-taught about grit, to be put in experiential environments that recreate more natural conditions where grit provides a meaningful advantage, not to achieve conformity as Ira fears, but to find that sense of inner resilience and drive to persevere that many Americans mistakenly feel is more powerful here than in other cultures. Grit that leads to creativity is good, but kids won’t discover or re-discover their grit if their lives are full of canned, risk-free outcomes.
And yet there are many other children, in all countries and cultures, and perhaps even a majority of American children, who do not need a dose of Duckworth’s grit in schools; they get it when they wake up every day. For them, schools can and must provide them some slack that they won’t find anywhere else. When I go to the Philippines and get out into the farming communities, I never tire of seeing children, dressed in clean, pressed uniforms, walking a few miles down a dirt or muddy road to school. Their school is just a concrete room with a book or two, a chalk board, and a teacher, utterly inadequate by the standards of the developed world, but those students find a bit of slack in that school, six hours a day for a half dozen or more years when they are not working in the fields. For some, that slack time leads to high school and a job, or maybe a college degree and a better job and a family that wrestles with middle class parenting dilemmas like who gets a trophy, rather than who gets to eat. With the indisputable research on the decreasingly accessible middle class dream, is there any argument that more students need more robust “slack” in their lives?
Big ideas deserve and require big discussion; thank to Ira for opening my (our?) eyes to the other side of this big idea. Let’s have the grit to NOT swallow a great-sounding idea without beating it up a bit, and let’s be thankful that we have the slack in our lives to be thoughtful educators.