Can you teach grit?

It is obvious that we need to talk about grit. Some great conversations have been happening on the Edutopia post I wrote [“True Grit: The Best Measure of Success and How to Teach it“] about the current Grit research and how I’m bringing that research to my classroom.

Students shared in one sentence something that they had learned from our conversations and activities about grit. This one struck me as very wise and yes making life worth it requires grit.

Students shared in one sentence something that they had learned from our conversations and activities about grit. This one struck me as very wise and yes making life worth it requires grit.

Why don’t you just define grit?

As I wrote the article, I started flipping through research and rereading my Kindle notes from books I’ve read on this topic and one thing is clear to me – we know grit matters but we don’t really know how to capture it in a simple definition. Sure, some have tried, but I’m not sure it encompasses the original grit test that Angela Duckworth speaks of her in her popular TED Talk.

Can you get any more clear that this?

Can you get any more clear that this?

Can you teach grit if you can’t define it?

So, in my own classroom, we took the grit test, watched the video, and wrote our own definitions of grit (scattered throughout this post.)

But grit is not something you give. This is grits that I could scatter across my classroom like snow – it isn’t something you can eat or spray on them.

Time and failure are PART of achieving your goals. So few see this - we must get up when we fall down or we will never walk. We must continue on when we fail so we can fulfill our dreams and purpose for living.

Time and failure are PART of achieving your goals. So few see this – we must get up when we fall down or we will never walk. We must continue on when we fail so we can fulfill our dreams and purpose for living.

Grit is simple – it is developed by situations that require it. We all have tough in our life – but what do we do with it? Do we grit our teeth and push forward or do we fall back and lay on our floppy cushion with excuses in our mouths?

Grit is well named – do you grit your teeth? Do you have to have grit to overcome it?

As we talked about grit, I made one thing very very clear to my students: I will work hard to be interesting and engaging but I will never be easy. Never.

There is an element of rebelliousness in grit. As nelson Mandela said "It always seems impossible until its done."

There is an element of rebelliousness in grit. As nelson Mandela said “It always seems impossible until its done.”

The kids might “think” I’m easy because they are engaged in work  but if you see their faces as they work, you’ll see that they are engaged. You may even see a glimmer of grit there – I hope so.

Grit is not something you teach, it is something you allow to happen as you help kids climb the mountains in their lives and in their schools.

Take the #grit challenge on Twitter: help us teach grit!

Today I’m issuing the “grit” challenge on Twitter. Share your favorite quote or article relating to grit and follow the hashtag. We all need quotes to use to talk about this important topic. Even if you come across this post later – tag and share it anyway. Add to our collection. Talk about it on Facebook and wherever you are – it is  a conversation we need to have.

Can you teach your staff about grit?

Meanwhile, Edutopia has compiled a great set of resources on resilience and grit as these two concepts are closely related and indeed, hard to separate in a definition.

If you are a school leader, you could promote this discussion by sharing the Edutopia list and splitting them up with your staff for each person to read and come back and discuss.

Sadly, some may use this as an excuse to mean, harsh, and unbending – there is a difference between meanness and toughness just as there is a difference between persistence and obstinacy.

As with all non-cognitive factors, this conversation will be fraught with controversy and opinions. I think that some are just upset because something so important is so impossible to measure. We must come to grips with the fact that the most important things about education can never be measured for they are lived out in the lives of our students.

Let’s talk about grit. Can you teach grit? Discuss.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

35 thoughts on “Can you teach grit?

  1. You have some really wise students Vicki! You would accept it if someone said that the quotes on those post-its came from the mouths of fully-grown adults!

    This is interesting, I’ve never heard grit being discussed from an educational perspective before. I agree that grit is developed from situations but surely it can be positively influenced from class activities – even talking in front of your classmates will help students develop a type of ‘toughness’ which they will benefit from in the long run.

    I love this idea Vicki. Keep up the good work!

  2. In my book “On Character and Mental Toughness” I define mental toughness as the ability to keep your character under pressure. I also define the core Mental Toughness traits. These are skills I teach on a daily basis. I have been a public school teacher and coach for over 20 years. These #grit traits transcend athletics and academics. When we discuss 21st century skills, this every century skill too often gets left out. Keep grinding on grit Vicki! This is a rising tide which will lift all of our students!

  3. I don’t think grit is a skill that can be explicitly taught. Rather, it needs to be taught through continuous exposure to examples of people who are gritty. It is the teachers job to model for the students.

    I love the way you’re discussing grit with your students (edutopia article)! I’ll be eager to hear about the results!

    • Talking about it has been a powerful discussion. Some have honestly shared how they choose not to have “grit” with making good grades but may apply it to other areas of their lives. We just have to be careful not to associate grit into making every single student a carbon copy of one another – but the point about that your focus (i.e. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule is one item we discuss) – that focus and seeing how it breeds results is something we should be aware of. Most people in this world aren’t just “lucky” – they work hard so when they have the opportunity they seize it.
      Thanks for responding.

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      *Vicki A. Davis @coolcatteacher * Author, *Reinventing Writing *(2014) and *Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds*
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  4. Thank you for an excellent and thought provoking piece. As I read your article I tried to think to myself what grit means to me. And I wasn’t sure. Some days it may look one way and other days it may look totally different.
    I think I would define grit as a series of “a little bit more” moments. But here is the thing. When we are observing someone we don’t know how many of those moments have already have taken place up until that point. As leaders of teachers and children it is important that we are cognizant of our inability to know what has taken place “up until that point”.
    Water boils at 212 degrees fahrenheit and some of our students and our teachers arrive at school already at 211. We may not know what it has taken just for them to get dressed and get themselves to school.
    For some kids just getting to school is an accomplishment. And when the teacher scolds them for not turning in their homework it may take all the grit that child has left not to talk back to that teacher because they have been up all night taking care of their brothers and sisters and once again this morning when they got them on the bus. That is grit but just in a different form.
    Or, what about the single mom who is raising three kids on her own while at the same time staying up until 1am because she wants to try to make the Common Core State Standards just a little more exciting and a little more palatable. Simply making it through the school day without losing her temper because she is exhausted may be her way of displaying grit.
    Grit comes in all shapes and sizes, but as you mentioned in your piece, it is virtually impossible to measure and I believe almost as difficult to identify. But it is important! And we must realize that each person is fighting their own battle and each person is displaying grit in their own unique way.
    More than anything we must remember that grit, as I see it, is just trying to have a few “little bit more moments” than yesterday. We must always be there to support our students and staffs wherever they are and know that it is our job to help them achieve just ” a little bit more”.

  5. Vicki, you have certainly created some wonderful conversation with both this piece and the Edutopia piece! Grit can mean many things to many people, and I certainly had no idea how controversial the term was until I started researching it yesterday. There are many perspectives.

    I have a friend who is a hard scientist, and he is very enamored of the word “grit”. To him, I think “grit” means strength, no whining, stick-to-itiveness and resolve. It also means an ability to think beyond a current situation or failure. He values the ability to find creative solutions, with or without the support of others.

    If we think about William Perry’s (1970) stages of development – grit occurs at the highest level of privilege and functionality – Commitment to what one believes is right. Perry was quite criticized for the small sample size of his study, and the fact that the subjects were all white males who attended Harvard. The very word “grit” has a sound like biting on steel. It’s short, clipped, and mono-syllabic…indicating a no-nonsense word with little room for variation. My association of “grit” with the highest level of Perry’s scheme is my own – and I take responsibility for it :-). It is the connection that I make – and not one that anyone else (to my knowledge) has endorsed.

    But this is very different from Belenky et al (1986) who in Women’s Ways of Knowing created a different progression of intellectual development, of which the highest was constructed knowledge which focuses on the integration of knowledge from our network, and is markedly different from deciding who is “right” when listening to the network. Valuing all voices (Belenky) is far different from choosing which voice to value (Perry). Okay that was maybe a birdwalk, but I think it does have to do with some of the reactions people are having to the word “grit”.

    To me, grit has a bit of a different meeting. I believe that what general teachers believe is grit is a combination of resilience and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is very important to ongoing success and innovation in my own opinion. Some will argue we went overboard with self-efficacy in the 80s and 90s, creating a generation of students who felt good about themselves and their abilities without any real reason to do so. But that isn’t really creating self-efficacy, that is more creating a cushion, protecting children from natural consequences, and from the real impact of their actions and performances. Self-efficacy on the other hand has to do with setting real challenges, giving real and honest feedback about performance (Wiggins – Authentic Assessment) and helping students understand they can adjust, overcome, grow and achieve. This is very important to risk-taking – a person has to believe, based on reasonable experience and evidence, they can be successful.

    Resilience is of course very important. I have said before in committee meetings and in class- we either bend or we break. Understanding that even when our circumstances are dire we can survive, we do have support, and we can overcome eventually with support is key to my own understanding of resilience. Key to this is support. We have to have a strong support network, and we have to know when to rely on them. Not everyone has the support it takes to be resilient in my own mind, and in my experience. To ask those who don’t have support to be resilient is like asking someone with blonde hair to turn their hair gray. It just isn’t possible. Some people can find that support in themselves, some cannot. It isn’t good or bad. It is only human. There are times everyone needs help.

    So…that’s a long and maybe over intellectualized interpretation of what I think the core of the controversy with the word “grit” might be. I don’t disagree with developing “grit” in students; however, I do agree that we need to perhaps take Belenky’s structure over Perry’s (understanding that neither are perfect) and acknowledge that a network and the contribution of others is important over individual excellence. I am better because I can integrate the understanding of others into my own behavior, knowledge base and way of life – and I am who I am (and where I am) in no small part because of the network who has supported me.

    I know you believe these things because you live them Vicki! I am grateful to have you as a part of my support network, and I appreciate this opportunity to flesh out a little of what I think I am beginning to understand about the controversy surrounding the word “grit”.

    Lee

    • Lee, thank you for being a researcher and college prof who explains this and controversies so well. I knew when we chatted over email the other day to help me understand the controversies over grit that you would give insight that would give me lots more to read.I also appreciate and am thankful you took the time to write this on my blog publicly so others who have questions can see as well.

      Any time we use a word like grit it is going to be hard because each has a different view based on life experience. I hope anyone looking at this topic will always balance with loving each individual child where they are with love, support, and respect.

      Thank you for taking time to share in such a helpful way. I think that all who are debating this topic are doing so out of love for kids. Thanks for being a teacher to me. Vicki Davis
      @coolcatteacher

      • And thank you for being a teacher to me! It’s my pleasure and yes – our students should always come first.

  6. Persistence, tenacity, determination, perseverance – grit. I am happy with all of those. As long as someone doesn’t try to confuse it with “The ability to focus” And I am sure someone will. Because the first terms imply “grit” is something internal that we can work on, while “the ability to focus” implies it is somehow out of our control.

    I know most teachers reacted with shock and horror to the book and articles about raising kids by the Tiger Mum. But if you look closely, you will see that she is saying the same thing.

    To succeed is hard work
    To succeed you need grit
    Most kids don’t naturally have grit.
    You need to instil it.

    • I don’t know- the Tiger Mum thing is a bit over the top for me and the other tough part is the selection of goals. Who determines the goal? If it is grit towards a personal desire or goal that is one thing but when you are trying to be what Mom demands you be- that is where most iof us likely feel it is manipulation and coercion and a misuse of what we’re trying to teach. I see your point but of course, why you need grit and to what purpose is the grey area of human behavior and those issues are never simple ones.Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher

      • I agree that some of what the Tiger Mum says is way over the top – for example the “You have to learn piano or violin” is ridiculous.
        However if you come from a culture that has a pictographic based written language, you really have no choice about whether or not you will have grit. To learn Chinese for example is pure determination. Until you have seen first hand the level of persistence required to learn the characters, it’s hard for those of us from other cultures to even appreciate how difficult that is. “I don’t want to learn to write or read” is obviously not an option. The work ethic is so deeply instilled in Asian cultures that they don’t even think about it as a concept – it’s simply self evident to them.
        And the thing with grit is, once you have achieved something tangible through sheer hard work over a sustained period of time, you realize you CAN achieve anything if you work hard at it. This is the part that Tiger Mum refers to when she says that in being so tough on her kids, she actually builds self-esteem, not destroys it.
        I agree that choosing your own goal is important, but I actually think it’s not as important as it seems. How many people do you know that would like to play an instrument, or learn another language. And I am sure many of them start – but how many actually achieve it? When it comes down to it, hard work is hard work.
        I’m not quite sure what you mean about the “grey area” Vicki…I think it’s really clear. It’s about one of the only things in education that is. However I would suggest that “instil” is a better word than “teach” when it comes to grit. There are no “tricks” to learn determination, persistence, perseverance, grit. There is just doing it.

  7. What is Grit?
    I like the definition for Grit that I found in Wikipedia, “Grit in psychology is a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s passion for a particular long-term goal or endstate coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their respective objective.”

    I think that phrase “Non-cognitive” is an important consideration because it doesn’t link to high or lower order thinking. It has to do with the disposition of the learner. It is an affective trait.

    They also noted that “Duckworth et al (2007) defines Grit as a stable trait that does not require immediate positive feedback. Individuals high in Grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods despite experiences with failure and adversity. Their passion and commitment towards the long-term objective is the overriding factor that provides the stamina required to “stay the course” amid challenges and set-backs. Essentially, the Grittier person is focused on winning the marathon, not the sprint.”

    An interesting aspect of this realization is that millennials are known for their need for immediate feedback. Does that mean that they don’t have grit? If so, then how can they have achieved all that they have done?

    • Great points here, Leigh. The tough thing is that some have called to task and say that somehow grit is being used to harm or excuse bad behavior or not attending to the needs of those who are disadvantaged. This is a tough one and because it is noncognitive and really pretty much impossible to measure, it is going to cause controversy associated with any character trait we try to encourage to others. The problem is that most people use the dictionary of their own lives to interpret such character traits and whether they are admirable for success in society. I love what you’ve written because I thing it is an excellent description of a trait that is very hard to describe. I’m not clear yet on how grit is different or inclusive of resilience. Just not sure.

  8. I am a college student going to teach Elementary grades. I loved this article about Grit. I had never heard of this in those terms. I also looked up a little bit more about it and I liked the definition given by the Merriam – Webster dictionary, “Grit – firmness of mind or spirit; unyielding courage in face of hardship or danger.”

    • Thanks Kaylee. There is a lot of discussion around this word. As with any non cognitive “character”-type term- there is controversy and yet it comes back to the fact that often the most important things taught in the classroom are not in a book.Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher

  9. As a lifelong educator, researcher on resiliency development, empowerer of humans, and believer in the power of resiliency, I sugest that when we speak of “Grit” we must consider that it is our collective responsibility to strive at all levels of our educational communities to provide environments for students that are calm, supportive, encouraging, thoughtful, planned, which provide opportunities for students to ignite their latent capabilities to be resilient. I have begun to bring forth the idea of “Transformational Resiliency” which denotes just this, a purposefully designed environment where students are afforded the opportunities to be resilient, develop responsibility, and build positive relationships with others. Some might argue that this is an impossible task, however, I would argue that this task is absolutely achievable, and is necessary in order for our students to actually develop, grow in peace, and enhance their personal abilities and capabilities. For so many children who have experienced trauma, difficult family situations, poverty, etc., we must understand that they are not lacking “grit” as they have survived so many difficulties already. It could be that these children actually have an internal grit which has helped them to survive, yet may not have had an opportunity to tap their latent resiliency. I put forward the notion that no matter the socio-economic situation a school is located, no matter the content area of the teacher, and no matter the grade level, it does become essential for a teacher to consider the social-emotional health of his or her students, and then plan accordingly to indeed provide high rigor, as they focus on developing healthy human beings.

  10. Hi, I’m a psychology student and a professor of mine raised some important issues about grit, I think. One point he made is that grit is correlated at .77 with a personality trait called conscientiousness (which has one of the most solid bases of alll psychological measures), which is usually described as
    the tendency to follow through with commitments, uphold responsibilities, prefer orderliness, stay organized, diligently work at tasks, and be productive and reliable. Pairs of any one given psychological test completed twice by the same person only tends to correlate with itself at about .75, so if conscientiousness and grit correlate that high it is almost certain that they measure the same thing. And we’ve known that conscientiousness predicts performance for the past few decades, and we also have no evidence-based methods for teaching conscientiousness. In a sense that’s what parenting and schooling have been trying to do since time immemorial.

    I think it is wonderful that students and teachers are becoming interested in opening a dialogue about the importance of persistence, motivation, hard work, etc. and I think that many students will profit from what comes out of those dialogues. But I worry that most will not significantly boost their own “grit” or conscientiousness, but merely their sense of needing more of it but not seeming to be able to get it. I worry for the student who drew the picture you shared here, for the many ways which believing “you only get one shot in life” can lead to a premature conclusion that he or she has blown their only chance in life in the wake of a bad decision/life-event.

    I don’t “know” that grit is a fictional idea or identical with conscientiousness, though it appears likely. Regardless whether you agree with that, it is simply a fact that it correlates that highly with conscientiousness, and so the issue remains: how do we teach good work ethic and perseverance? I wish we had a good answer to that question, but I haven’t seen one so far. I don’t say this to criticize you, I get the sense that you care deeply about children and their education and are willing to open up new dialogue that may enhance their learning experience, and so with those interests in mind I wanted to share these issues here with you because I deeply value education and learning myself, and want to see school become a place where more can truly grow and thrive.

    • Let me quote from here: “Grit is not something you teach, it is something you allow to happen as you help kids climb the mountains in their lives and in their schools.”

      And of course, the personal definitions of grit were just dialog jotted on a post it note and not to be all encompassing mantras of life. I wouldn’t read too much into the definitions of grit written by my ninth graders except the were wrestling with a conversation that needed to be had.

      But your point about conscientiousness is an excellent one, thank you for making it. It needs to be part of the conversation. Thank you. Which studies are you quoting? Thanks. Vicki Davis
      @coolcatteacher

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