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What’s wrong with grit?

Vicki Zakrzewski

Grit is all over the news these days — the “latest fad in schools, ” according to author Alfie Kohn. With research suggesting that grit is linked to academic success, many policy makers, school leaders, and educators are crossing their fingers that this might be the silver bullet needed to give a boost to struggling students. Scared_student_with_book

Yet a closer examination of the actual research on grit reveals that there are many missing pieces to the grit puzzle. And if we’re not careful, encouraging our students to be “gritty” or, perhaps even worse, grading them on their level of grit — as they do at KIPP charter schools — may do more harm than good.

Leading grit researcher Angela Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” In a nutshell, her research has found that students with high levels of grit are more successful in both academic and non-academic pursuits.

But there’s a lot more to grit then just identifying a goal and going for it. Before a school races to make grit a key factor in student success, here are a few important things to consider:

1. We don’t know how to teach it, and Duckworth is the first to admit this. So how can schools expect students to develop something that they’re not sure they can teach and students can learn, let alone grade them on it? It’s an unfair proposition for both students and teachers alike.

Part of the challenge is that it’s not known whether a person’s level of grit can change. Grit is understood by researchers to be a stable personality trait, possibly part of the trait of “conscientiousness.” What this means is that a person’s level of grit generally remains the same over time.

Yet while developmental psychologists agree that a child’s personality becomes more stable as he or she goes through certain developmental stages, research on personality traits in adults suggests that these traits may actually change gradually over the lifespan. However, much is predicated on other factors, such as environment, the process of identity development, and interactions with other people.

In other words, we can change — but the questions remain: when, how, how much, and how fast?

So without a deeper understanding of child development, it is unrealistic to assume we can teach a student to increase his or her level of grit in a math class over the course of a semester and then maintain that level for the remainder of his or her school career. And, unfortunately, most teachers and school leaders do not have a strong grounding in child development, as shown in a recent report on teacher preparation programs by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

Still, some researchers who are trying to figure out if grit can be taught suggest that we look at children’s motivation. This leads us to the next point.

2. Grit requires passion for long-term goals. Not a lot of students come to school with this in place. So the next question is whether or not schools can help students create these goals. And the answer is …  maybe.

Researchers who created a program to help students cultivate hope found that the first step was having students figure out what goals were important to them — not to their parents or their teachers. Otherwise, students had a hard time staying motivated to reach their goals.

And not just any goal will do. One study found that students who score higher in grit linked their personal goals (“I want to become an engineer”) with outcomes that benefit the greater good (“because it will help people”). This same study showed that helping students define what the authors called “beyond-the-self” outcomes at the beginning of a semester led to a higher GPA. Whether or not this meant that students raised their grit levels is unknown — again, the research is just not there yet.

But for students who may come into our classrooms with high levels of grit—and even for those who don’t–helping them shape their goals to serve more than just themselves may help motivate them to achieve those goals, especially when school seems tedious.

3. The interplay of grit and emotions. Grit involves two psychological resources: self-discipline and self-control, both of which require the ability to manage emotions and thoughts. Yet the research on grit rarely, if ever, mentions the importance of emotions — and this is where the dark side of grit comes in.

According to a U.S. Department of Education report on grit, “persevering in the face of challenges or setbacks to accomplish goals that are extrinsically motivated, unimportant to the student, or in some way inappropriate for the student may potentially induce stress, anxiety, and distraction, and have detrimental impacts on students’ long-term retention, conceptual learning, and psychological well-being.”

In other words, encouraging or forcing students to be “gritty” may, in some situations, do more harm than good.

Leading emotion researcher Richard Davidson tells us that emotions and cognition work together in a very seamless way to help us persevere on tasks. And yet when the going gets tough and emotions like fear or anger arise, many of us lack the emotional intelligence to know how to deal with those emotions.

Research states that there are two ways we regulate our difficult emotions: cognitive reappraisal or suppression.

Cognitive reappraisal means that we reframe the situation that caused the negative emotion. For example, a student who does poorly on a test may reframe the situation as an opportunity to learn from mistakes and improve. People who use this method generally have more positive emotions, closer relationships, and overall well-being.

Emotion suppression means just that: pushing away rather than dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions. Long term, this method of emotion regulation can lead to higher levels of negative emotions, anxiety, and depression. People who regularly suppress their emotions also have fewer close relationships and social support. And, pertinent to education, researchers have found that emotional suppression is higher amongst adolescents than adults.

This forces us to ask the question: Are students who demonstrate high levels of grit — particularly when pressured by parents and teachers — dealing with their emotions in a positive or negative way? And what about students with a history of complex trauma, who may use emotional suppression as a method of survival? What happens when schools grade them on their ability to push through their personal challenges to succeed academically without giving them the resources for how to do that? The research on grit does not provide any answers yet, especially considering that the majority of studies have only been conducted with high-performing students at elite schools.

It is up to parents and teachers to help students find healthy ways to manage their emotions, so that this potential dark side of grit does not rear its ugly head.

In the end, I doubt that grit is just a “fad.” Even though we may not know a whole lot about it yet, we do know that it plays an important role in helping us achieve what we want out of life.

But it’s only one piece of the puzzle of human development. Cultivating other qualities such as meaning and purpose, empathy, compassion, hope, forgiveness, and gratitude are also part of being human — and, given their long history, probably aren’t going away anytime soon.

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Comments to "What’s wrong with grit?":
    • Joyce Liu-Countryman

      I agree that there needs to be a lot more work done on the intersection of grit and emotion. It’s arguable that there are cultures where “grit” is embedded within their core cultural values, but I’m not entirely sure that ties to happiness or life satisfaction.

      So, high achieving? Perhaps. But higher overall life satisfaction? Not necessarily. At the end of the day, what is more important?

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    • Irvin Collins

      Thank goodness I’m not the only one who thinks the Grit project is suspect. As if our culture wasn’t stoked up enough on steroids over personal achievement already, the last thing we need in schools are more (misguided) notions promoting hyper-individualism.

      As the article suggests, perseverance (“grit”) is a trait resulting from a complex process of development, and it primarily arises from secure attachment and from receiving abundant support from adults and peers alike.

      What is called for at this time in history is affiliative and cooperative learning. Otherwise, there’s little hope in a world full of self-seeking individuals who are so full of themselves they have no sense of the Big Picture, which is how to work towards common goals of mutual prosperity and global sustainability.

      The biggest problem with American education is our obsession over personal success and achievement – in utter disregard for the welfare of others, our relationships and the environment. Therefore, further focus into what makes us more competitive and better achievers as isolated individuals will only make us more short-sighted as well as neurotic. What we require is increased collaboration and inspiration to make the world a better place for everyone.

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    • Wesley Todd

      I could not agree more, Zakrzewski. There is no “silver bullet” to boost struggling students but enormous effort and funds are devoted to finding it. Unfortunately, we rely on buzz words in our society to solve problems in general, which cheapens the experiences and thus the quality of education/learning possible from academic and nonacademic pursuits.

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    • AC

      The high school I attended was founded in the nineteenth century by the British in India, and it had the school motto “Perseverance Commands Success”. The recent interest in inculcating grit in school children reminded me of that motto.

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