Does The Grit Narrative Blame Students For School's Shortcomings?

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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.

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The most troubling critique of Angela Duckworth’s work contends that it stems from the eugenics movement, whose proponents believed positive human traits were biologically hereditary. Sir Francis Galton is credited with coining the term eugenics; Duckworth cites him in her research.

Duckworth says her work has been taken out of context. "I'm sorry my work is perceived in that light. It certainly isn't intended as such," Duckworth told Education Week in an email response. "I don't believe we've ever written a single word that would suggest we are ignorant of structural problems, including poverty."

BUT RESILIENCY IS A GOOD THING, ISN’T IT?

While several educators have raised concerns over the way grit and perseverance have become a catchall explanation for why some kids struggle in school, others still find it valuable.

“We’re losing sight of what Duckworth was trying to bring to light with this research,” said Pennsylvania-based educator Ryan Quinn. “Resiliency is an admirable trait that I would want any student in my class to have.” Many other educators in the room could point to a time when pushing through challenges and sticking to a project that didn’t come naturally yielded positive results. But part of being resilient may be knowing when to give up on things, too.

The grit narrative doesn’t erase what many educators see as the bigger problem: The current education system doesn’t give students a clear reason to be persistent. On the traditional A-F grading scale, kids move on to the next subject whether they’ve learned all the information or not, and that provides little incentive to persist.

That’s why leaders in Albemarle County are trying to flip the paradigm. Rather than asking kids from the most difficult backgrounds to just try harder, they are trying to bring creative, kid-friendly spaces into their schools that aren’t tied to academic success. They believe that if they create a feeling of abundance in school, kids will have the breathing room to try, fail and persist.

“I want our schools to be a kind of agar that grows kids who think creatively, that work together," Moran said. "And if we are really growing that, we are growing resiliency at the same time."

“We think it’s the abundance that gives people the place that lets kids find their route to grit writ large, and that’s resilience,” said Ira Socol, the educational technology and innovation team leader in Albemarle County. They’ve tried to make libraries places where kids can hang out, lounge, eat and drink. They’ve built makerspaces and hackerspaces and even put a recording studio into a high school that all students can use, regardless of how they are doing academically.

“We gave these kids a music studio and it changed their lives,” Socol said. “We didn’t ask them to do well in math, science, reading first. We just gave them a place we thought they’d love.”

One student (the one with the Brooklyn Nets hat in the video below) loved recording music so much he’d come in early and stay late, so he could use the equipment. That meant he was in school all day, and by default, he started to do better academically.

That’s exactly what Albemarle County is trying to do. “Our goal is to provide all kids -- not just the gifted kids -- that kind of access, so we are changing curriculum and pedagogy,” Socol said.

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The idea is to tap into what makes kids tick, the things that make them unique and, by identifying those passions, help students to develop persistence around the things that really matter to them. This puts greater control of defining grit in the hands of the students.

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