Guest Article by: Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D.
Grit has been celebrated and critiqued by many in academic circles and the academic press, but the conversation has remained largely focused on the work and opinions of researchers. Less attention has been given to the day-to-day experiences of educators who are working to strengthen students’ grit and incorporate grit into classroom curricula.
Many students, particularly those from some of the most challenging circumstances, already possess grit. What they overcome everyday is a matter of great resilience. The key is to help students connect that and other forms of grit to meaningful academic work and develop that grit further within an academic and college readiness context.
Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at University of Pennsylvania, developed the concept of grit through research on the skills that help students succeed. In her TED Talk on the subject, she defined grit as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals” and said, “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” Paul Tough, the author of “How Children Succeed” and “Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why,” has also developed and popularized the concept.
Some have questioned the validity of the idea of grit. Many have claimed the research is impossible to replicate and that grit can never be measured. Regardless of personal opinion, the implications these opinions have on the classroom, as well as standardized testing, should not be ignored.
I believe in grit. I believe it refers to key non-cognitive factors such as resilience, persistence, and growth mindset, traits that are critical to students’ success. And, yes, I believe that teachers, tutors, and mentors can impact the grit of individual students. Rather than focusing students on sprints — short-term bursts of academic work and attention — we want to coach them to run the marathon of preparing for long-term college and career success and deferring immediate gratification for the value of that larger prize. The idea of grit can help us change that.
In practice, a key indicator of grit is students’ quit rate on difficult tasks. Students show grit when they accept error, even failure, as a necessary prerequisite to learning and progress. To understand each student’s level of grit, observe how long students maintain their attempts on difficult tasks.
Look at how many ways they try to solve problems. Do they apply multiple approaches to address a difficult question? On a math problem, this might look like laying out the information graphically or trying another method of arriving at the answer. On a reading passage, this could include annotating the text, taking notes on the most important aspects or looking up difficult words.
Students don’t develop these skills in a vacuum: teachers introduce them and encourage students to use these tools in their work. Teaching grit doesn’t require a new class or unit — it can be compatible with much in our current education system. At Academic Approach, we also believe in improving grit through tutoring and mentorship. The fact is that grit is an essential component in a broad range of academic activities, from success on standardized tests to engaging in project-based learning to successfully navigating the college admissions process.
A teacher can learn so much about a student from the way he or she handles setbacks. Setbacks are part of learning and part of life, yet we all handle them very differently, and we’re not necessarily taught how to do so most productively. For one of my most successful students, one of her greatest attributes was her growth-minded approach to setback. When she saw her first diagnostic test score, which was lower than she expected, she said, “Hmmm. That’s interesting. Let me see what I did wrong. I’m sure I can correct these mistakes with review.”
Instead of feeling defeated, she felt inspired. When she would wrestle with a difficult problem and still not be able to crack it, she would laugh and say, “Wow, this is a hard one; this if fun. I’ve got to figure this out eventually.” Instead of quitting, she would soldier on. When the going got tough, she really got going. She was always curious and motivated to grow, even — or especially — in the face of challenge and setback.
Through every step of her very successful journey, her growth mindset and positive embrace of setbacks were hallmarks of her success, and these attributes continue to benefit her as she navigates the challenges of her college curriculum and earns accolade after accolade along the way. Succeeding in high school and getting into college is tough work, but as anyone who has been there knows, the challenges don’t stop there. The grit and growth mindset that students like my student foster through activities like rigorous test prep benefit them in countless ways as they engage the challenges and opportunities of college and career.
The Future of Grit
So what happens after we accept the idea of grit as valid?
Dedicated teachers know that grit is fundamental attribute of the successful learner. Any teacher that understands this already holds him or herself accountable for grit. But while many teachers already understand and embrace the concept, whether they call it grit or use another name for it, school systems must continue to change to foreground the importance of grit.
Many schools are working to implement grit curricula, and these efforts need not replace or disrupt the Common Core or other existing assessment measures.
Most assessment systems involve the need for students to prepare as well as the ability to gather data that indicate students’ progress over time: these are the key components necessary to both encourage and assess grit. For example, the SAT suite of assessments, which now includes PSATs for students in grades eight through eleven, provides a track record of student achievement and growth. These scores (and specific improvements over time) can reflect growth in grit much as they reflect skill or mastery of the material. In addition, SAT and ACT tests are aligned with the Common Core, making preparation for them another tool in the toolbox for teachers to use to teach students how to approach rigorous and complex problem-solving.
Whatever research finds over time, the concept of grit is not going away. How can you incorporate grit into your classroom?
Matthew Pietrafetta, Ph.D. is the founder of the test-preparation company Academic Approach.