Leadership Skills and Implementation

Why Grit is NOT the Magic Answer

By Jennifer Gunn

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!

If we teach kids to be gritty, there’s nothing they can’t do!

Hard work and determination is all you need!

If I can do it, so can you!

But wait, all of this motivational rhetoric assumes a level, unbiased playing field. It assumes everyone is beginning at the same starting line, and it dangerously denies the existence and effects of privilege and bias, sending a false message to students that mere persistence is enough to overcome any obstacle. Despite the popularity of Angela Duckworth’s book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and her accompanying Ted Talk with over 14 million views, grit may not be the end all be all for academic achievement. Read on to see why grit just isn’t enough for students to overcome systemic barriers such as poverty and inequality.

Duckworth’s concept of grit

Former NYC teacher-turned-psychologist, Angela Duckworth, brought the concept of grit to our collective conscience with her Ted Talk in 2013. She defines grit as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out. Not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality.” She tested her grit theory at the United States Military Academy (a.k.a. West Point) where she gave new cadets a series of 12 statements, including things like “I finish what I start”. Her results successfully predicted who would finish the training and who would quit.

Duckworth contends that grit can be developed and that impulse control has a lot to do with success. How people process the feelings associated with frustration, failure, and setbacks, she says, determines if they will persist. Successful people tend to push through and persevere through these feelings, while others quit. Duckworth argues that if we help people understand that persistence leads to greater success, we might just make them more successful.

The grit bias

Merriam-Webster’s definition of grit is: “Unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.” Those who challenge Duckworth’s grit concept say that it fails to recognize privilege as a factor to success. Linda F. Nathan, author of When Grit Isn’t Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise lists assumptions people make in the name of grit which mask inequalities.

These five assumptions are:

  1. Money doesn’t have to be an obstacle.
  2. Race doesn’t matter.
  3. Just work harder.
  4. Everyone can go to college.
  5. If you believe, your dreams will come true.

In her book, Nathan argues that “Americans tend to believe in meritocracy: If you are smart and a go-getter, you’ll be successful. But it doesn’t always work that way.” The five assumptions listed above don’t account for the biases, barriers and lack of privilege faced by students of color and those living in poverty.

While learning to persist and develop long-term focus on academic tasks aren’t bad ideas, what’s troubling is the oversimplification of grit as a means to success, and its failure to account for the injustices and hurdles faced by low-income students and students of color. Says Nathan, “My point here is not to blame the individual but rather to examine the web of inequity that can entrap young people, especially those living in poverty.”

What’s troubling about Duckworth’s work is its assumption that American students aren’t already in possession of mighty grit. David Denby’s “The Limits of “Grit,” published in The New Yorker, criticizes the short-sightedness of Duckworth’s research, noting that “If we suffer from a grit deficiency in this country, it shows up in our unwillingness to face what is obviously true—that poverty is the real cause of failing schools.”

Student grit already exists

Duckworth ends her Ted Talk by saying: “We need to be gritty about getting our kids grittier.” But many argue that students of color and those living in poverty don’t lack grit at all. In his opening keynote at the EDxEDNYC Conference, Dr. Chris Emdin (author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education) said that “Young folks of color in urban spaces do not lack grit” — a statement met with cheers and nods. He went on to implore the audience of educators: “Do you know what grit is? Grit is coming up from the hood and showing up to school every day… The issue is not the absence of grit for young folks of color. It’s the inability of the schools to allow them to activate that grit around educational attainment. A teacher cannot activate existing grit if they’re following a script that does see that the grit exists.”

So the question is not how we “teach” grit to students, but how can we face poverty and everything it reaches, disrupt inequalities and work with the immense and deep well of grit that already exists in our students. We can start by eliminating the “bootstraps” narrative that can be characterized as a convenient pathway out of poverty that doesn’t require any effort on the part of the privileged.

“A real harm can come from romanticizing poverty as a character-building experience, says Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post. “If privileged classes see poor children as potential role models for their own offspring, they risk losing sight of the enormous harms caused by a childhood without high-quality housing, health care, nutrition, and education. The grit discourse does not teach that poor children deserve poverty; it teaches that poverty itself is not so bad. In fact, hardship provides the very traits required to escape hardship. This logic is as seductive as it is circular.” Circular and flawed.

Grit & singular focus

Another perplexing part of Duckworth’s version of grit is that it requires a level of singular focus that discourages children from experimenting with interests and passions. In her 2013 paper True Grit, she says that “grittier individuals, by staying the course, may sometimes miss out on new opportunities.” The philosophy here is that students should focus on singular long-term goals, instead of experiencing and trying new passions. “The kid who sticks with one instrument is demonstrating grit,” she told a reporter. “Maybe it’s more fun to try something new, but high levels of achievement require a certain single-mindedness.” It’s a bit unclear how this is really news. Sure, if someone practices and pursues one thing continuously for a long time, they’re more likely to become good at it. But does that mean that singular focus is the only or most valuable path toward success? What about experience? What about the journey of learning and iteration? What about experimentation?

Grit & student compliance

Furthermore, Duckworth’s grit seems more in line with developing compliance in the classroom than fostering true learning. In his article “Grit: A Skeptical Look at the Latest Educational Fad” author and progressive education proponent Alfie Kohn notes that, “Duckworth has insisted that grit allows people to meet their own goals, but the focus of her research, particularly with children, is on compliance.” This includes things like how to get students to pay attention despite a task being boring or getting students to pay attention to the teacher rather than daydream. “In her recent research, she created a task that’s deliberately boring, the point being to devise strategies so students will resist the temptation to do something more interesting instead,” Kohn says. “It’s critical that those of us who don’t share Duckworth’s values — and are committed to changing the system rather than just making kids adapt to it — maintain a healthy skepticism about that campaign.” Moreover, with the recent movement toward teaching 21st century skills and the push for developing creativity and adaptivity in students who are strong critical thinkerstinkering experimenters, and innovators, compliance hardly seems the path worth walking.

There is no silver bullet

While Duckworth’s work on grit isn’t without some merit, it truly assumes and leaves out so much. To those who swing along with the pendulum of buzzword and education fads, consider this: There is no silver bullet to education success. There is no magical answer. Perhaps it’s time that we shift our language and focus not on solving a so-called “education crisis,” but to tackling our nation’s “poverty crisis.” Maybe the problem isn’t in the classroom or with the teachers or the students, but in the systems that perpetuate inequality. That sure seems like a good place to start.

More on grit

The Limits of Grit

Grit: A Skeptical Look at the Latest Educational Fad

When Grit Isn’t Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Is ‘grit’ overrated in explaining student success? Harvard researchers have a new theory.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

The problem with teaching ‘grit’ to poor kids? They already have it. Here’s what they really need.

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also cofounder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation, and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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