Two years ago on this site we had a “lively” discussion about the nature of “grit” as then popularized by Angela Duckworth, a word that has seeped quickly into the lexicon, mission statements, and even the teaching programs at a diverse range of schools around the country. The point-counter point of “grit”, in summary, comes down to this: is grit something that can be taught, and are there powerful and inherent socio-economic and racial biases that must be considered when we set grit as a goal?
These are big questions, and Paul Tough has the credentials to really weigh in. He is a powerful counterweight to Duckworth, who essentially makes the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” argument that is easy to understand and plays into the traditional American mythology that success is a product of hard work. Educators who actually value research and broad-based studies must read and consider Tough’s article in The Atlantic, where he cites detailed work based on modern neuroscience, as well as evidence from school and student-based studies.
I won’t try to reprise the arguments here; the article is a must read. I will emphasize that Tough concludes that pedagogy and process that help students from highly stressed, impoverished backgrounds to raise their academic performance are similar to those that independent schools and wealthier public schools are moving towards. Bottom line: good learning is good learning. Students who have all the grit in the world just to get out of bed and make it to school each day don’t need more grit; they need teachers and learning environments in which they find belonging, support, and confidence. I would urge all school communities to deeply consider work like that cited by Tough before allowing words with profound meaning to drive mission and value in unintended ways.
Did you read the op-ed by David Brooks on this? I love his sentence that “grit lies downstream from longing.” When students enjoy what they are doing, hard work is simply a natural by-product. I think so much of this conversation is cart before the horse.
Here is the Brooks piece which is worth every sentence.
Thanks, Ted. Brooks repeats what many of us believe: that grit is important, and also that things like grit are more important that grades. I think there is little disagreement on this amongst thoughtful educators. Here is where I think Brooks and other miss the point, and where Paul Tough and others really need to be heard. There is an entire cohort of students who have tons of grit, the kind it takes to survive in poverty, to get out of bed and find food each day, and make it to school through streets where kids get robbed and shot all the time. These kids have tons of grit; they don’t have what Ira Socol and others call “slack”. David Brooks and you and I have lots of slack, and kids who grow up to read and think like us had enough slack in our lives to be able to think and talk about grit. This does not mean that grit in not important for all; but I think it really means that we have to question at what point and to which audiences grit is the most important thing, as Duckworth claims, or something much more relative to the starting points of the students.