Ever since Angela Duckworth published research in 2007 showing a connection between a student’s ability to persevere on long-term challenges and his academic success, “grit” has become a buzzword in education. Some schools have even made being “gritty” a core goal of their educational mission. Working hard to achieve success is a narrative firmly rooted in American history, so it’s no surprise that helping kids stick to their learning appeals to many in education. But some question the research, claiming it has been accepted too easily without a proper examination of whether it’s a fair way to evaluate students.
“Is grit [about] getting the kids to do what I want them to do?” asked educator Becky Fisher at the EduCon conference hosted by Science Leadership Academy, a magnet public high school, in Philadelphia earlier this year. A group of about 50 teachers gathered to discuss these issues, and several expressed concerns that the grit narrative ignores many of the structural barriers that make it difficult for some children from low-income homes -- or those who have learning differences -- to succeed in school. Many educators questioned whether the current definition of grit is more about compliance than about possessing personal determination, particularly amid pressures on academic achievement.
“Kids are passionate about stuff,” said Fisher. “It’s incumbent upon me to grab that passion and find ways to connect it to the stuff the organization cares about.” Fisher, an educator at Abermarle County Public Schools, wants to help students find personal reasons to persevere beyond the canned (and transparently false to kids) line that doing well in school will lead to eventual success in life.
“If you look at the schools where grit is being pushed, it’s not in schools where kids look like me,” said Adam Holman, a Caucasian educator from Texas. When schools say kids aren’t succeeding because they don’t know how to persevere, it ignores the role teachers and schools play in helping to motivate and interest students in their academics, Holman said. In other words, it lets teachers off the hook for continuing to teach in boring ways that emphasize lecture and memorization and then blames children for being unable to see its value.
“Our kids that come from the most challenging home environments, I believe, bring the most grit to school,” said Pam Moran, superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia. “They’ve learned how to defend; they’ve learned how to get revenge; they’ve learned how to push back; they’ve learned how to figure out and problem-solve in some of the most intense situations.” But she acknowledged that many educators don’t see those life skills as evidence of grit. A student who turns her homework in on time every day is much more likely to be credited with grit, Moran said.