Every few years, a new fad pops up in education. Those of us who’ve been in the field for some time can tick off a long list of “hottest new things” that turned out to be not so hot after all and have now been relegated to the scrap heap. But no worries, there’s always a new bandwagon just turning the corner, and if we hurry, we can still hop on!

One of the hottest fads in recent years has been “grit,” popularized by Angela Duckworth’s book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed. Both of these authors, and many others out there in education, not only tout the importance of perseverance in achieving all kinds of lofty life goals, but actively advocate for the promotion of grit as a character education goal to teach our students.

Well…let’s pump the brakes on that just a bit. Before schools spend a great deal of time and money on teacher training in how to nurture grit in their students, they should probably dig a little deeper into the issues–positive and negative–surrounding grit. If they do so, they might not be so gung-ho.

The Upside of Grit

First, let me be clear: I do believe that grit has an upside, if employed the right way (read on to find out what I believe the right way is). And you certainly don’t have to take my word for it. Many famous people have weighed in on the importance of perseverance and hard work in helping them achieve their success. Here are just a few quotations along those lines:

“Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish.”
-John Quincy Adams

“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”
-Marie Curie

“Football is like life–it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority.”                                                                                                                                            -Vince Lombardi

And I could easily have given you 50 more quotations along those lines. So, it’s undeniable that many people who have achieved great success in their chosen fields credit determination, hard work, and perseverance (grit) as one of the primary reasons for that success.

It’s therefore no surprise that educators, who are tasked with the job of developing their students into capable, successful young adults, might look upon grit as that next “magic bullet” that just might do the trick.

One thing I like about this line of thinking is that it seems many people in education are waking up to the fact that academic success is not the result of cognitive ability alone. The many varied “character education” pushes taking place currently, in addition to widespread interest in growth mindsets and grit, all atest to the fact that educators are ready and willing to use any idea out there that might help their students succeed.

And I applaud them for that. But while grit holds a good deal of promise, let’s not allow ourselves to get carried away. I always find it helpful to look at both sides of any new fad in education and try to see both strengths and weaknesses as clearly as I can before recommending it. And when I look at grit critically, I see a number of very troubling issues (besides the fact that the reseach supporting it is questionable, but there’s no time to get into that in today’s article). Let’s take a look at a few of the possible problems.

The Downside of Grit: 3 Reasons to be Cautious

OK, if grit is as important for success as people like John Quincy Adams, Madame Curie, and Vince Lombardi say it is, why shouldn’t we push hard to develop this quality in all of our students? Well, I’m not saying we shouldn’t, but I am saying that we should only promote grit under certain conditions. Let me describe some of these conditions and my reasons for urging caution:

1. Not Everything is Worth Doing with Grit

Let’s start with a discussion of goals. Why? Because having the right goals is the the biggest key to whether grit turns out to be a good thing or not. Let me explain:

To start with, we need to acknowledge that people pursuing bad (as in dishonest, underhanded, or even evil) goals often display just as much grit as do people pursuing good goals. We’ve all seen stories about robbers who, once caught, confess that they’ve robbed dozens or even hundreds of homes before getting caught. That’s persistence. In schools, we all know at least one kid who’s constantly causing trouble and seems to work very hard at it, despite all the people doing everything they can (admonishing him, lecturing him, punishing him, setting boundaries, etc., etc.) to get him to mend his ways. That’s persistence.

So, we need to acknowledge that grit is not necessarily a good thing and that not everyone who’s working hard is pursuing something worthwhile. Like many personality qualities, it can be applied to either good goals or bad goals. When applied to good goals, it may be a very positive trait. When applied to bad goals, it can be a serious negative. It’s like charisma. When applied to good goals, charisma helps to pursuade people to take action and to get things done. When applied to bad goals, however, it can also pursuade people to take action–of the wrong kind. Charisma, after all, is a trait possessed in abundance by the leaders of gangs, cults, and terrorist groups–as is grit.

So grit, like charisma, is neither good nor bad in itself; it’s only good if it’s used to pursue good goals.

A second issue concerning grit and goals has to do with enjoyment. We have names for people who pursue a goal with dogged determination but derive little enjoyment from that work. When we’re talking about an adult who slaves away at a job he doesn’t enjoy just because he feels he has to do so in order to make a living, we call him a workaholic or a wage slave.

In school, things can be a bit trickier, as there’s certainly some material in the curriculum that students need to learn that doesn’t hold a great deal of interest or enjoyment for them. Nevertheless, asking students to constantly demonstrate perseverance while working on tasks they don’t enjoy is just asking for trouble. Instead, we need to find as many ways as possible to make our curricular goals coincide with students’ interests and passions. We can do this through personalized assignments, choice, independent studies, etc. If a student is allowed to pursue goals she enjoys, getting her to display grit in the pursuit of those goals is a much easier task.

I’d like to make one other point along these lines. When we constantly ask students to persevere toward goals that are really our goals for them, but which they don’t see as being their goals, we send the message that the only reason for working hard is to please others–the very definition of conformity. With the world changing as fast as it is, we need to be developing creative, flexible thinkers who can generate their own ideas and work hard to develop them. If we push grit as a character trait our students should develop, then only allow them to apply grit to our goals, we’re developing a whole generation of conformists, not creative thinkers.

2. Working Hard on a Problem that Resists Solution isn’t Smart

Another problem with grit has to do with flexibility of thinking and intelligent application of effort. When we ask students to be problem-solvers, we set challenges for them and do what we can to support them to solve the problem. And when they struggle, we can certainly coach them to be persistent and work through the challenges. When the problem is of a type where there’s only one best approach, or when the problem is one to which we already know the answer and we’re just trying to help students apply that best approach to arrive at that known answer, that’s one thing.

But what about more open-ended problems (as so many real-world problems are)? If there are multiple possible pathways to a solution, or multiple possible solutions to a problem, and the student is struggling because he’s stubbornly trying to apply an approach that’s not working, what then? Is perseverance in such situations a good thing? Hardly. Continually trying to apply a poor approach to a problem is what my grandmother used to call “pig-headedness.” (If you’re not familiar with the term, take my word for it, it’s not a good thing.)

What we need to teach students to do when in such situations is to stop persevering, search for a new approach, and try that approach to see if it yeilds better results. Knowing when to stop banging one’s head on the wall is a very important life skill–at least as important as grit.

3. Grit is Being Vastly Over-sold as a Solution to Poverty

Finally, many people out there are pushing grit specifically as a solution for students in high-poverty schools, and I think they’re being exceptionally naive, if not downright disingenuous. Sure, given the right goals and under the right conditions, grit can help anyone be more successful, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. But all these people selling grit as the missing factor for poor students’ success are off base in at least a couple of major ways:

-First, they seem to be assuming that poor people lack grit, which would seem to be highly insulting to the many hard-working poor people in this country. If there was an easy way to compare the levels of grit possessed by the average person from different socio-economic levels, my guess is that the average poor person who succeeds displays more grit than those from the levels above them who do so. They almost have to, given the extra challenges they face.
-Second, these people ignore how the challenges faced by the poor tend to diminish the effectiveness of grit. As educator Mike Rose states (Rose, 2015), “It is hard to finish what you begin when food and housing are unstable, or when you have three or four teachers in a given year, or when there are few people around who are able to guide and direct you. It is equally hard to pursue a career with consistency when the jobs available to you are low-wage, short-term and vulnerable, and have few if any benefits or protections.” These are not excuses; they’re simply facts.
-Finally, this focus on grit as the be-all and end-all for poor students (“Just work harder, son, and you can achieve anything you want!”) keeps us from focusing on the real problems of inequality that exist in our society. Find better solutions to the hunger, housing, and transportation issues the poor face (just to name a few), and I bet you’ll see many more students from disadvantaged backgrounds display grit and succeed.

What Matters More than Grit?

One of the measures I like to use whenever judging the usefulness of a teaching strategy or a school-wide professional development focus is to think about it in terms of opportunity cost–that is, what do we have to give up in order to pursue this course of action? And when viewed in this way, grit comes off looking even worse than I’ve laid out so far.

For example, Duckworth and colleagues conducted one study where they interviewed 190 exceptional spellers who participated in the National Spelling Bee (Duckworth et al., 2011). They found that the very best spellers spent more time than less successful spellers in isolated deliberate practice. How much time they spent grinding away at this type of study correlated highly with eventual success in the spelling bee. Nothing surprising there.

But the study also looked at several other factors. For one thing, the researchers asked the young spellers how much time they spent on leisure activities such as pleasure reading. It was found that the grittiest, most successful spellers also spent the least time on leisure activities. Participants also completed the Big Five Inventory to assess the trait of “openness to experience” (e.g., “I see myself as someone who has an active imagination,” “I see myself as someone who likes to reflect, play with ideas,” “I enjoy a complex mental life”), and the researchers report that students who rated more highly on openness to experience performed worse in the spelling bee. Finally, the most successful spellers also rated their study time as more effortful and less enjoyable.

To me, the most surprising outcome of this study wasn’t any of the results (which seem to be pretty much what anyone would expect), but rather the conclusions the researchers seem to have drawn from it. They chose to play up the relationship between grit and spelling success, as evidenced by their choice of wording for the title of their article–“Deliberate Practice Spells Success: Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee” and downplay the other findings.

Perhaps we should be asking if grit displayed toward a goal of dubious importance (spelling obscure words, many of which they will never use again in their lives) is really as valuable as spending some of one’s time enjoying leisure activities, being open to new experiences, and living a complex mental life. In fact, there are many other personality traits that we could be working to instill in our students that might be of more value than grit–for example, curiosity, empathy, and creativity. When we focus so much on the single trait of grit, the opportunity cost can be very high indeed.

I hope you’ve found today’s article thought-provoking, or at least interesting. If your school has been focusing heavily on grit, I’d love to hear from you. What results have you seen–positive and negative–from this focus? Shoot me an e-mail at info@teachingthatsticks.com and let’s talk

Sources

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  New York, NY: Scribner.

Duckworth, A. L., Kirby, T. A., Tsukayama, E., Berstein, H., and Ericsson, K. A. (2011). Deliberate practice spells success: Why grittier competitors triumph at the National Spelling Bee. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(174). doi: 10.1177/1948550610385872.

Kohn, A. (2014, April 6). The downside of “grit”: What really happens when kids are pushed to be more persistent? The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/downside-grit/

Rose, M. (2015, May 14). Why teaching kids to have “grit” isn’t always a good thing. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/05/14/why-teaching-kids-to-have-grit-isnt-always-a-good-thing/?utm_term=.ae92148fd2a7

Strauss, V. (2015, July 11). U.S. government to collect data on “grit” levels of students. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/07/11/u-s-government-to-collect-data-on-grit-levels-of-students/?utm_term=.3f711aa4a03d

Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.