Grit and Grittiness: A Personal Perspective
Summer has begun and, among other chores ignored during the busy school year, I am wading through a pile of unread journals I have received over the last nine months or so. Of course, when you have a stack, roughly a foot high, you don’t expect to read all of them cover to cover; I scan through them, pick out the articles that interest me, and ignore the rest. Early on in this project I picked up the September 2013 issue of Educational Leadership; this was a themed issue on “Resilience” and, quite honestly, I didn’t expect to find much in it of interest to me. However, the second article made me stop and go back to read in depth. It was an interview done by Deborah Perkins-Gough with Angela Lee Duckworth on her research on grit (Perkins-Gough, 2013).
Now, this article got my attention because, over the last year I have heard or read some discussions about “grit” as it pertains to education, and most of them were fairly negative. For example, I’ve seen this concept referred to as a new version of racism and classism, in other words, a new way of sorting and ranking kids. I read that the federal Department of Education was soliciting proposals to develop assessments for “grit.” The individual discussing this idea spoke rather disparagingly of it, and, frankly, I essentially agreed. First, I wasn’t sure that “grit” in education is quantifiable in the sense of being able to identify it on a standardized test. Second, “grit,” whatever that is determined to be, is not a cognitive trait that needs to be assessed. Third, this seemed to me like just an additional attempt of the DOE to get one more set of data points on American children to sell to Pearson or others to develop programs to sell back to schools to help them teach “grit.”
Acknowledging that the research on “grit” had not been part of my professional reading, and putting my pre-conceived thoughts aside, I read the article. Within the framework of Perkins-Gough’s questions, Duckworth did a good job of first defining what “grit” means in terms of her research. While the commonly-understood meaning of the word generally refers to “overcoming great difficulty” or “persevering in the face of tremendous obstacles,” Duckworth says it involves much more than that. The concept of grit includes the idea of commitment; “It means that you choose to do a particular thing in life and choose to give up a lot of other things in order to do it. And you stick with those interests and goals over the long term (p. 16).”
In response to a question about what had surprised her most in her research on grit, Duckworth explained that it was the finding that grit was more important than talent in a successful outcome. People with great talent but without grit often reach a plateau that they are content with and stop short of the best possible outcome, whereas people with perhaps less talent but with grit may achieve even more than the more talented, because they are committed to the absolute best possible outcome they can achieve. It was at that point that my reading ceased being an intellectual exercise and became very personal.
To explain the connection I made, I must provide some background. I was born with a congenital hereditary abnormality called Kleppel-Fiel Syndrome. The deformity occurs within the first eight weeks of gestation just as the spine and upper body organs are developing. While many children with this issue are affected dramatically with heart and lung involvement that leads to early death, its impact on my body was not so severe. The most obvious physical trait in my case is the fact that two vertebrate are missing in my neck, resulting in a short thick neck. Although I have an extreme scoliosis that results in my being very short-waisted, the deformity in the spine alternates in such a way that I am able to stand straight. Growing up, none of this interfered with my ability to run and play with my friends and do basically everything they did. As I came to understand my condition, I also realized that I was really quite blessed and I needed to make the most of what God had given me.
Flash forward to my junior year at college. My degree plan required four semesters of Physical Education, and by that point I had only completed two. Some of you remember, I’m sure, the days when on course enrollment day you took your schedule around to visit the tables that the various disciplines had set up in the student union and asked each professor to enroll you in the classes you needed. That was what passed for advising back then. So, I took my schedule and went to the PE table, and just happened to get the swimming coach. I think she was trying very hard to fill a class, because, when I told her I needed a PE course, she quickly recommended swimming. I smiled and said I didn’t want a swimming class. I had taken swimming a couple of times and I just couldn’t learn to swim. Wrong thing to say! She took that as a challenge. “Look,” she said, “if you take this course, I guarantee you I can teach you to swim.” I shrugged my shoulders, agreed, and went out to buy a swim suit and bathing cap.
On the first day of swimming class, the coach had us all get in the shallow end of the pool and showed us how to do the jelly fish float, where you put your face in the water and grab your knees. She had us do it one at a time and tapped us on the back when she was ready for us to stand back up. When she came to me, I did as instructed. When I stood up, she looked at me and said, “Well, now I know why you can’t swim. You can’t float! You sink!” Later during class she explained to me that my body is so compact, it is not buoyant. “I can teach you to swim,” she said, “but it will be hard.”
“Do you want me to drop the class?” I asked.
“No!” she said almost vehemently. “I want you to learn to swim. You can do it, but you’ll have to work harder than everyone else in here to do it.” She explained that in order to stay on top of the water, I would have to be moving constantly. As long as I kept moving my arms and legs, I could generate enough buoyancy to stay at the top of the water. Wow! It was a relief just to understand why I had never been able to learn to swim. But I had to decide if I was up to the challenge. Did I want to work that hard just to get a grade in a swimming course? I decided that I did; I wanted to be able to swim just as everyone else could.
For the rest of the semester, I worked my butt off in the pool for every class. First I learned to simply stay afloat; then I learned to stroke and kick from a few feet out back to the edge of the pool. What the coach didn’t realize was that, since my chest capacity is smaller, I had to breathe harder and faster than others would have to keep up the constant movement. On class days, I was exhausted by the time class was over. Nevertheless, by the end of the course, I could swim the width of the pool and back on my own and I could jump off the diving board on the deep end and swim to the edge. It was a major accomplishment for me, and I had indeed had to work harder and put out more effort than anyone else in that class.
As I read Duckworth’s interview, this whole episode came back to me. My experience in swimming class was clearly an example of both definitions of grit she discussed. I had overcome a seemingly impossible obstacle to learn to swim, which is the most common definition. But I had absolutely no talent for swimming, so I couldn’t have done it without my own commitment to making it happen, which is the essence of the second definition. But something else occurred to me as I pondered this. If my coach had not expressed absolute confidence that I could do it, I would never have tried. I think this piece is the “teaching” part of grit. It’s the wisdom on the part of the teacher of knowing how to build and support that confidence in the students.
Near the end of the interview, Duckworth discusses the idea of teachers teaching grit to their students. She believes it can be done by patterning such teaching on Carol Dweck’s growth mind-set work. But she recognizes this is still theory, with no research yet to support it. I know from experience at least one coach who knew how to do it for me, and I suspect there are many other teachers doing this kind of critical non-cognitive teaching. However, I am still doubtful that we need assessments to determine which students have “grit” or not, so we can implement canned programs to develop it. Can we teach teachers how to teach grit? I doubt it, not to scale, anyway, the way the corporate reformers want to do everything. I think it has to be built around a sense of efficacy on the part of the teacher who communicates to his/her students absolute faith in them and does it in such a way that s/he makes believers out of them. I had no doubt that Coach could teach me to swim if I were willing to put in the time and effort. I’m quite sure Coach never took a course in Teaching Grit, but I wish we had more teachers like her.
Epilogue: After all the effort I put into that swimming course and after accomplishing what, to me, seemed initially like an impossible task, I was sure that I would get an A. No, I got a C. The letter grade I got reflected the quality of the swimming I could do, not the amount of effort I had put in or the progress I had made. I couldn’t argue with the facts, even though I wanted to. It taught me a couple of things. First, nobody is good at everything; I was an A student in most things, but I was a C student in swimming. It gave me a good deal more compassion for my own students who could never be star students in academics no matter how hard they tried; I will never be an Olympic swimmer. Second, it made it abundantly clear to me that the way our grading system is devised and implemented is fundamentally flawed if our goal is really to develop the grit required for our students to reach the best potential outcome. Interestingly enough, in the same issue of Educational Leadership is an article by Thomas Guskey entitled “The Case against Percentage Grades” (Guskey, 2013). I haven’t read this one yet. I’ll get back to you…
Guskey, T. R. (September 2013). The case against percentage grades. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 68-72.
Perkins-Gough, D. (September 2013). The significance of grit: A conversation with Angela Lee Duckworth. Educational Leadership, 71>(1), 14-20.