Grit

Published by Lori Pickert on August 5, 2009 at 05:04 PM

In recent years, psychologists have come up with a term to describe this mental trait: grit. Although the idea itself isn’t new — “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” Thomas Edison famously remarked — the researchers are quick to point out that grit isn’t simply about the willingness to work hard. Instead, it’s about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It’s always much easier to give up, but people with grit can keep going.

The hope among scientists is that a better understanding of grit will allow educators to teach the skill in schools and lead to a generation of grittier children. Parents, of course, have a big role to play as well, since there’s evidence that even offhand comments — such as how a child is praised — can significantly influence the manner in which kids respond to challenges.The Truth About Grit

The article goes on to discuss that while intelligence is important, it isn’t nearly enough — and increasingly the focus is on the personality traits that help people succeed and be happy.

Our old friend Dweck is referenced as well as the praise problem.

What say you? Can grit be taught in schools?

See also: The Only Thing That Matters

23 comments

Comment by Annika on August 5, 2009 at 05:45 PM

Well, I have my doubts that anything can be taught in school. Grit? I think you either have it or you don't. You can gain it on your own, but I seriously doubt it can be taught. Maybe by example, but when have schools ever operated that way? Er, except Montessori schools, but they tend to be more about the practical than the abstract.

Comment by Sarah Jackson on August 5, 2009 at 05:46 PM

Hmm... can it be taught? I would say yes, but not under the current methods of assessment, or with the lack of trust that kids will stick with projects and not just "be lazy". From my experience, students aren't working on projects for a long enough period of time to really experience that kind of perseverance. I would love to see academic research projects in schools, or projects like writing and producing a play, or designing and building a robot, or designing and executing a complex science experiment and writing up the results for publication, or any number of other deep, multiyear projects. In today's environment of broad survey education with yearly testing, there's no time to give to students to work on a real research project that is independent of an individual course, with meaningful faculty input. (inserting sarcastic voice here) Because if they're working on one major project, how will they find the time to cover all those facts on all those standardized tests? How will they prep for the SAT? How will we know at every moment in time exactly how our students measure up? What if they just waste their time and ours and don't do anything?

I think it can be done, but there would have to be an up-front leap of faith by teachers, parents and school administrators that students can accomplish a long term project that teaches "grit." Because I don't think most adults believe that most kids are capable of it. I know that when we talk about Annika's project work with people who are or have been teachers, the primary response is "oh, but she's different. She's so smart and self motivated. Most kids would just sit around and waste time." Until teachers and schools believe that all kids are capable of that kind of work, it just won't happen. They'll just never provide the opportunity in the first place.

Hopefully that makes sense. I am currently under the influence of benadryl.

Comment by Janet Uken on August 6, 2009 at 01:34 AM

Loved the article on grit! Hope all is well along Camp Creek!

Comment by Theresa on August 6, 2009 at 04:01 AM

Hmmm. Will this be the next excuse for why kids are doing so poorly in schools? They don't have enough "grit"? Scary thought.

Comment by Michelle on August 6, 2009 at 02:33 PM

I think that the best way to teach grit is 1. to allow people/children to become inspired, called to something, or excited. 2. to have them see it modeled for them. I think true grit takes place over too long of a period to be taught in one year in one classroom. Because, what I see as grit is having a goal and allowing it to develop and adjust as the person changes, yet continually pursuing it. I think in our culture that true grit is very rarely displayed. If a toy breaks we chuck it and buy a new one. If an item is desired we charge it. If a marriage fails we try a new one (I don't mean any offense. I know there are a good many people who work really hard at their marriages only to have them still fail.) In our culture of immediate gratification and entitlement true grit is rarely seen. In my opinion. I think that the other component that makes grit harder to have is lack of community. I think of the goals in my own life that I have been pursuing a long time, over 6 years, over 9 years, and how when I have the hardest time is when there is little or no support.
I think if we wanted to have grit taught in schools we would need our kids to have the same teacher all the way through elementary school (sort of like how waldorf does) and the same children. Also I think that we would need our schools to have children set goals and objectives for the school year and see how they are pursued and achieved. But, I think it would need to be tangible goals that the children set. Just my two cents.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 6, 2009 at 02:56 PM

i’ve been thinking about this, and we had an interesting family discussion about it this morning.

my first thought was — you can’t teach grit! you either have it or you don’t! but then, can’t we learn, through life experience, that sticking with a goal pays in the end, that effort is worth it in the long run?

annika asked, when have schools ever operated that way, and this is what i was thinking — say, back in the 1950s. in the 50s, if you lettered in your sport, it really meant something. if you were valedictorian, it really meant something. we went through a period of deciding that honor rolls made some kids feel bad, and i personally received a letter in high school for some academic thigamajig. extremely ironic since i couldn’t do three sit-ups.

(and, aside to annika, i have to say, i had to laugh about montessori teaching grit — that 4yo just dreaming of the day he would polish well enough to be allowed to move up to cleaning the glass pitcher!)

in order to encourage the development of grit, wouldn’t we have to return to an old-fashioned program that rewards actual achievement — and defines achievement as something that comes at the end of a lot of hard work?

the reason we dropped that old-fashioned program was because it created a system that tiered students by ability, clearly shaking out the achievers from the non-achievers, the straight-A students from the average students. is there a way to reward grit without calling attention to those students who don’t exhibit it?

sarah makes good points about the difference between long-term projects and “broad survey education” with standardized testing. of course, i’m pro-project, as we all know, and re: the multi-year projects that sarah proposed, i can say that in my experience, even when students do change projects from year to year, they continue to have a deep interest in their former project topics *and* draw numerous meaningful connections between past and present work.

and projects mean working on something — whether the entire topic or some aspect of it — that is actually meaningful to the student. can we teach grit — resolve, tenacity, a willingness to sacrifice in the short term to reach a long-term goal — without allowing students to follow their own interests?

(sarah, those comments people say about annika — oh, but she’s so smart, etc. — is exactly the kind of thing we heard over and over at my school. “well, your students must be smarter”, “your students are more well behaved”, “you must have more supportive parents or more money or a better staff…” it’s just a lot of excuses for not pursuing the type of education that all kids deserve.)

i think that you would have to, hypothetically, create a learning community in which grit could be developed. you have to “allow it to happen”, when mostly schools today are set up in such a way that individual kids’ long-term goals are not exactly relevant.

i didn’t mean this conversation to focus entirely on whether grit could be taught •in schools* — can it be taught at all? (say, at home?) again, there has to be an environment in which kids can exhibit and develop and recognize grit. they need to have passions and interests, time to develop them, and a host of attitudes that allow them to persevere when things don’t go exactly as planned. certainly parents play a huge role in whether kids become “gritty” at home.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 6, 2009 at 02:58 PM

theresa, yes, we used to be divided and tracked according to our IQ scores; presumably the next system will divide and track us according to our personality traits! (as exhibited at age 7, of course.)

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 6, 2009 at 03:36 PM

michelle, i think you make great points.

i do think a year is long enough to teach some lessons about perseverance — if you have a project-based curriculum. there has to be time to set a goal that is far off enough and work toward it; there has to be time to make mistakes that you can then overcome. too much of education today is bite-size — and there’s no time to spend discussing or thinking about what went wrong, no time to devise and try another approach. project learning is slow learning; i think slow learning can begin to develop those habits of mind that would lead to having grit.

your examples of our throw-away culture are spot on, i think. if the handle broke off a pitcher owned by my grandmother or great-grandmother, a new handle would be whittled out of wood and wired on. wooden bowls were patched. clothing was patched and passed down. expectations were different — toward marriage, too. things were expected to break or have flaws, i think, and no one was expected to throw them away. you made do or did without.

now we throw perfectly good items away just to replace them with a different style. (or maybe we take them to goodwill and feel virtuous — even though our needless consumption far outweighs any good works our 2007 ikea pitcher is likely to perform.)

we can say we admire certain traits yet we design an educational system that our children grow up in for thirteen years that rewards an entirely different way of being.

our posts crossed each other, but i said the same thing about children setting their own goals and having their own passions — how can we teach grit if we assign everything? why should children exhibit tenacity and perseverance to work hard toward *our* goals?

Comment by Dielle on August 6, 2009 at 06:49 PM

I don't know if it can be taught in schools. But my children are at home, not in school. I know it's something I encourage in them, and am so pleased to see developing. I don't think it's something you either have or don't. Life experiences, examples from people around us, and other possibly unquantifiable things definitely influence our "grit."

Comment by QueeBee on August 7, 2009 at 10:59 PM

Just wanted to say that I've been lurking and enjoying your blog!! Reading blogs like yours has inspired me to start my own... Thank you!-Kaecey

Comment by Nic on August 7, 2009 at 11:00 PM

Hi there Lori, I've been thoroughly enjoying your blog for ages, and today I felt like saying hi. I love this topic, and I also went back to the article you linked to about the problem with praise. I totally agree, and I have an interesting spin on that from my husband- an unexpected way that praise can cause damage.

My husband is very creative and very witty and quite quirky in his thinking, and when he was at school (boys' school), he was praised excessively for his artworks, (maybe the adults felt they had to compensate for their criticisms of his lack of academic achievement). Anyway, any time someone said to him that he should "do something" with his art, he resisted, he felt defiant, and he screamed on the inside "NO!!! Don't tell me what to do!" The result of all that was that for many years, he shut down that side of himself so that people would leave him alone and STOP praising him so much!

Now in his thirties, and we have our own children, he's learning to connect with his creative self again, and learning to really stick with things. He certainly didn't learn grit at school! Another reason to keep them home and kind of leave them a lone a bit...

thanks

Comment by Anna on August 8, 2009 at 05:31 AM

This is such an interesting discussion. I think that grit is shaped by negative experiences as much as by positive ones. Failure and fear play a role in developing that hunger in the belly that fuels resolve and determination. It's not just about following your passions and becoming absorbed in your work or a long-term project that is really at the heart of grit or "sticktoitiveness." I think it also is motivated by having something to prove, to yourself or others. Maybe I'm wrong, but for me it always helps to have something to push against.

But, I keep returning to the idea that much of what we call grit is an innate character trait. It's like ambition. Can you really teach ambition? That is not to say that grit can't be nurtured, especially by rewarding effort and teaching the habit of goal-setting, but I think that some people just have more of it by nature. Look at the differences among siblings. Maybe it has something to do with birth order, but there are wide variations among sibs who presumably get similar nurturing at home.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 8, 2009 at 09:48 PM

dielle, just like schools, i think families can encourage or discourage the development of different traits and habits of mind .. so it’s worth thinking about it, either way! :^)

and i agree with you that we have a tremendous influence on whether these traits are developed!

thank you, kaecey! :D

nic, i love your story — thank you so much for sharing it. (and thank you for your kind words about the blog!) re: your husband’s experience, i believe presenting a neutral environment — without a lot of influencing praise, suggestions, emotional reaction, etc. — can create a peaceful space in which children can develop and *own* their talents and interests. :^) thank you for commenting!

anna, interesting point. i actually just read an article (and of course now i can’t find the link) about how some people are motivated by adrenalin and some are shut down by it! if you benefit from something to “push against”, i’m guessing you are one of those who are motivated by it. :^)

i agree re: we can nurture grit — influence it, create circumstances in which it can be allowed to develop. and on the flip side, we can certainly create circumstances that would train a child away from developing grit (or certainly, at least, a long-term point of view). i’m still waffling on whether it’s an inborn trait; i suspect it is.

Comment by Bethe on August 9, 2009 at 09:48 PM

LOVE this post!! Grit - resiliency, and other traits of their ilk are so important for kids to development. I write about similar topics quite a bit. Excited to read The Truth About Grit and share it with others. Cheers- Bethe @balmeras

Comment by Alice on August 10, 2009 at 10:44 AM

Do you know any two year olds who don't have grit? I think the so-called 'terrible twos' are a great example of inborn grit. Newborn babies display plenty of 'grit' too.

The so called 'mother-bear' instinct could be another example of grit.

Lack of grit, rather than being innate, I would say that it is extinguished - rapidly or gradually, if at all, depending on how in tune we are with other people's wishes.

The so called 'easy babies' who give give up crying for what they want isn't forthcoming - the toddler who accepts the lolly in place of what they really wanted - the school child who learns what the teacher expects.......

Feisty children are full of grit - pity it is not widely recognised as a good thing.

Alice

Comment by Amy on August 10, 2009 at 12:57 PM

I sure hope so because I neither have it, nor do I seem to be able to get the idea across to my eldest...

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 10, 2009 at 06:55 PM

thank you, bethe!

alice, very interesting thoughts. this reminds me of an erma bombeck routine about "my child/your child" — where the other person's child would be stubborn, but *mine* would have "grit". ;^)

amy, i think you are too hard on yourself!

i was discussing this with my husband and questioning whether grit is a great attribute or simply a neutral one. for example, take the sample of the child mentioned in the article who drifted from one musical instrument to another rather than sticking with piano — mightn’t this child be just as happy and possibly happier than the child who practices two hours a day on piano forever? my family is a combination of happy drifters and single-minded gritties, and i don’t think grit is necessarily the key to happiness. of course, "society" and "educators" aren't concerned about what makes us happy; they are concerned with what makes us productive members of society who like to buy, sell, produce, and consume.

Comment by Cristina on August 12, 2009 at 03:25 AM

I apologize if I'm repeating. I didn't have time to read through all of your thoughtful comments to this one. There is a good reason why grit can't be taught in the schools. The mindset of schools is success at any cost. To establish "grit" you need to have a safe environment in which to fail. If a child is afraid of punishments (extra homework, getting left back, etc.) failure will not be an option for him. Also if he is afraid of letting down his teacher or school. Thomas Edison succeeded because he put a positive spin on his failures.

Lori, I am hosting next week's Carnival of Homeschooling and I would love to have an article from you. Think about submitting.

Peace and Laughter!

Comment by Amy C on August 12, 2009 at 03:55 AM

I've been chewing on this since you posted it. I have a naturally ***gritty*** child and school was not our first choice. It turns out that they are a great match.

In the discussions I have with all the teachers in B's school they often refer to his drive as his ace in the hole - they tell me that it is this one trait more than any other that in their 30 years of doing this (they're a tight group of old-schoolers) that predicts "success" for their kids (and by this they mean acquiring language and communicating in general with "the population"). They tell me some have it and some don't. They nurture it like a precious pearl. It reminds me that not only is it a treasure, but to feed it myself - because it wears me out, quite honestly, and so it is nice to remember that it has tremendous value.

I am going to bottle his grit and sell it. I think there is a ring of it in the bathtub right now.

Comment by Sharna on August 16, 2009 at 04:58 AM

My grandmother might have called it gumption. Whatever you call it, it absolutely can be fostered. That doesn't mean that everything taught will be caught. I have a son with a learning disability and his grades while average are hard won. I have a daughter whose straight A's are achieved without any effort. My son in his disadvantage has found an advantage-perseverance. My daughter's natural ability has not taught her about pushing through... I wouldn't wish his LD on anyone but what a gift he's found in it-even if at 10 is completely unaware of it.

Comment by grit on August 19, 2009 at 09:06 PM

well did someone just punch me in the face.

absolutely. grit is about NEVER GIVING UP.

Comment by Holly White-Wolfe on August 30, 2009 at 01:07 PM

I do believe that grit can be taught, although in a school setting it is likely to take one dedicated teacher. I am striving to teach my son the value of initiative, experimentation, practicing, and other skills that I believe add up to grit. Our family also does not use the term "good job", but rather we strive to observe what we see our child doing if we say anything at all. For example, if he figures out a puzzle we might just say - "Look at how proud you are!" or "You completed the puzzle!" This is also an intentional part of developing "grit" as internal satisfaction is a good motivator for persistence!

Another secret is letting our son try all kinds of things from a very young age. He's been "cooking" (at least stirring) since age 6 months, gardening since he could sit on my lap and help pull weeds, and so much more! He feels very grown up and purposeful doing these things. He also helps make the bed (pillows have been his job for a long time) and now even folds the socks and wash clothes at just 3.

Check us out at http://sono-ma.blogspot.com

Comment by Mary on September 11, 2009 at 02:56 PM

I think this discussion is greatly needed and very interesting. I understand that our perceptions are colored by our experiences, but I don't think a discussion of whether our children's generation has grit comes down to a discussion of traditional schooling or homeschooling. Yes, mychildren go to school outside the home. I don't think the method of our children' education determines whether they have grit, staying power. I would hope that the family, in my case my husband and I and to a lesser extent siblings and grandparents, would be the greatest factor in this matter. However, I do think that there is an inherent quality. In a sense, I gues the matter raises similar issues to the nature or nurture debate.

I think parents, not schools, are the greatest stumblinng block to our children being passive and unmotivated. We want so much for our babies, not just material possessions but experiences and accomplishments. Parents often do too much for their children, holding them back, propping them up, swaddling them in a cocoon. I know I do. Sometimes it's easier to do something for my children than watch them struggle and possibly fail. Luckily my husband holds me back and encourages me to let go.

Also, I think this issue is just as relevant to our generation as it is to our children's generaltion. There are too many thirty year olds still living at home and letting mom and dad take care of things for us to not share this opinion.

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