Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Real Secret of Grit

Grit is a great thing. Of all the various rhetorical footballs that get kicked around in education debates, grit is one that everybody loves. Reformsters love to talk about it, and nobody that I can think of in the Resistance is out there bad-mouthing it. Nobody is saying, "We need wimpier kids with less toughness and resilience. We need kids who will fold under pressure and buckle when things get tough." Well, at least not out loud or on purpose.

We do have confusion and disagreement about where grit comes from and how it works.

Grit is not self-esteem. Self-esteem is about what you think you deserve. Grit is about what you think you can handle.

All of our concerns, all of our worries, all of our fears, anxieties, distress about the future-- they all come down to grit. Every statement we make about a Bad Thing That Could Happen has an unspoken coda. "I might lose my job" or "The house might burn down" or "I might not get into college" or "I might get stranded on an ice floe with a brace of rabid arctic ferrets"-- every one of them is followed by an unspoken "and I wouldn't be able to handle it."

Think about it. All the things you don't worry about, you don't worry about because you know that you can handle them. "The point on my pencil might break," you say without fear because it's followed by, "and then I would sharpen it." But even good things like graduation and marriage can trigger stress, because they trigger the sme question-- "Can I handle what happens next?"

So building grit is about just one thing-- learning that the answer to "Can I handle what comes next?" is "Yes. Yes, I can."

Some grit proponents like to talk about it as a personal quality, by which they seem to mean that you either have grit or you don't. And some grit fans believe that grit emerges magically from the hard dirt of tough times. Just keep punching someone in the face, and if they have what it takes, they'll develop grit.

This is incorrect. Adversity can be part of the mulch from which grit grows, but it's not the whole part. It's not even the most important part (which is why some people who have had soft, cushy lives still manage to be gritty as hell).

The important part of developing grit is becoming convinced that you can handle whatever it is. Developing grit is becoming convinced that, "Yes. Yes, I can." is your answer. And most often our students get that convincing from another human being. And not because that human being keeps punching the student in the face. Every story of grit emerging from adversity includes one common feature-- a person who said, "Stand up. You can do this."

You develop grit in students by standing with them and saying, "You can do this."

Now, that can be tricky business. Different teacher-student combinations require different styles of interaction. In one case, soft, gentle hand-holdy support may be just the thing, but in another case being all soft and gentle may actually communicate, "You are weak and fragile and can't really handle this." Tough love, even when seemingly harsh, can be just the thing because it communicates, "Well, of course you can handle this. I'm so certain of it that I find it ridiculous to suggest otherwise."

You do not help students succeed by making them feel small. You help students succeed by helping them see themselves as bigger than their challenges. How you do that depends on you and the student you're dealing with, but the key is the focus-- helping that student be big. But you don't do it by making them small, by focusing your attention on all the ways they aren't enough. You do not make them gritty by smashing them down.

The concept of grit is too often used as excuse not to help, treating a challenge in life as a test to which grit is the answer, and if you don't have it, well, no cheating and it sucks to be you. But we have a responsibility to help others-- particularly young others-- develop grit. And sometimes we can do it in a moment. Neil Degrasse Tyson talks about the grit and toughness and resilience it took for him to grow up African-American with dreams of becoming a physicist. And he speaks glowingly about how the great scientist Carl Sagan met him, talked to him, and cemented the idea that he could absolutely do it-- that he was just as big and tough as his dreams. Sagan made him feel big enough.

That should be the goal for all of us (and not just teachers)-- to help others be big enough. If we want grit to grow in the garden, we have to tend it-- not just walk away and insist that it somehow grow itself.


  1. Martin West and the gang at Fordham Institute/Education Next have already tested "grit" in Boston public schools; they used a very poor questionnaire… it is a fad, a fuzzy concept, and has no operational measurements that are reliable and valid. Martin West and crew got money through Gates for their study and it went direct David Driscoll to "bluesky" what NAEP should do as a measure of our students. Parents OPT out… do not allow schools to test your child's personality.

  2. self esteem is insufficient ; we need to know more about the student's academic self concept; this is entering into the psychological aspects and parents need to be assured that anyone measuring these traits has sufficient training and experience; with tight budgets the school psychologists have been removed.

  3. Another great post! Your posts affect me like John Stewart on The Daily Show. You put into words what I intuit but can't quite put my finger on.

    Let me add a thought to your post. Helping students consider that maybe "Yes, I can." is but a first step. It is necessary but not sufficient to boost grit. In the end, they have to succeed! It is experiencing genuine success that ultimately builds grit. Others can help create doubt in their "No, I can't." mentality so to make room for the "Yes, I can." thought to sprout. But without experiencing success, genuine successes, that "Yes, I can." thought will not take root. Hence, it is crucial that, if and when a student fails, we keep encouraging them to try again, and again, until they succeed. That is, teachers need to be patient and persistent with their students; and to do so requires time. It is also crucial that teachers set the appropriate challenges before students. If a challenge is too easy, it is not genuine success even when the student overcomes the challenge. If a challenge is too difficult, then the student will be unable to succeed.

    I taught middle school math to the lowest academic performers in a Title 1 school. It was the hardest job I had ever had. And before teaching middle school, I had worked 20+ years as a software engineer and earned a PhD in educational technology, so I wasn't a stranger to hard work. I had also worked in a number of manual intensive jobs (washing dishes, stocking in a warehouse, etc). Still, teaching middle school was, by far, the most physically and intellectually demanding job I had ever had. But, it wasn't the intellectual and physical demand of the job that broke me.

    What made me quit was something far more insidious, something that took me completely by surprise, something that I was totally unprepared for. I could not escape the feeling that I was part of a barbaric system that was doing terrible harm to my students. I felt like the executioner of an inhumane system that systematically molested our children intellectually and psychologically. Back then I could not exactly put my finger on it, but your thoughts on grit gets to heart of it.

    A teacher cannot help students develop grit and self-efficacy, especially for students like mine who had experienced chronic "failures" in their academic careers, without the ability to exercise patience and persistence and the ability to set appropriate challenges before them. Today's schedule-driven standards-based curriculum (and my district mandated that we cover a month-by-month content standards) systematically prohibit teachers from exercising patience and persistence and setting appropriate challenges for their students. In so doing, the system engenders ever more experiences for students like mine that instill in them the "No, I can't." belief.

    Today, teachers who teach students like mine are caught in a moral dilemma; they are forced to be the executioner of an insidious curricular regimens that systematically stamp out all grit in their students. I think many dedicated teachers leave the profession like me, not because the job is hard (they knew this coming in), nor because the pay sucks (they knew about this, too), but because they sense that they are being forced to do something horrible to their students. It is this moral dilemma, one which many beginning teachers may sense but unable to articulate, that take them completely by surprise, that they find themselves completely unprepared for, that leave them feeling hopelessly helpless, and break their spirit to persevere. That is why, I think, so many teachers feel, despite investing in years of training at substantial financial cost, despite years of dreaming about dedicating their lives to their students, they must leave their chosen profession after a few years of practice. And that is why when they leave so many of their hearts are full of tears and ache for the students whom they have fallen in love with.

  4. Dear Peter, What a great post. When I speak of issues of resiliency development, supporting and engaging students, providing a positive purposeful and intentional environment for students to grow, I focus on the personal interaction of teachers:students, parents: children, society:all students, and the importance of each interaction we have with all of our children.

    As you have captured, the essence of the relationsip matters, and it can be very different depending on the people involved, the circumstances and the goals of the individuals involved, and yet, as people, it is so important to connect, build that relationship, provide mentoring to support the journey that the student is on, and help them to see that there may be many ways to get where they are going.

    Another take on grit would to be able to recognize that so many of our students become very "gritty" as they proceed through their lives, as adversity issues such as of poverty, broken homes, homelessness, lack of food, etc., are challenges that so many face on a daily basis. I concur that with caring, compassionate, empathetic adults in these children's' lives real success is possible