Why I Don’t Use the Word “Grit” in Education

This weekend, as I was trying to decide if I should get out of bed before 8:00 AM, I was sucked into a Twitter conversation about the use of the word “grit.” It was not what I was expecting on a Saturday morning, after a late night flight arrival home. Nonetheless, my friend and colleague, John McCarthy has a way of drawing me into thought-provoking tweets. He also pointed me to this interesting article in Scientific American on motivating students to work through challenges. While I’m not a fan of the word “failure” either, it certainly raises some interesting points related to my dislike of the word “grit.”

Since the word “grit” debuted in 2013 with famed psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, it has gained momentum in the educational sphere.  I will freely admit that I have not fully read all of Ms. Duckworth’s research; which I would assume is extensive in nature. However, I have never been a fan of the use of the word. Thus, the following Twitter conversation unfolded (with added information from the ability to extend my number of allowed characters!)

Me (@daylynn): Retweet of Dean Shareski’s photo of a toilet and quote from Steven Singer that read, “Whenever I hear the words rigor and grit, I think I’m about to scrub a toilet, not inspire a kid.” (I will save the topic of rigor for another blog post!)

John (@JMcCarthyEDS): Why don’t you like the word “Grit”? What could be used instead? (I love when John asks me to think! Do you have someone in your PLN that does the same for you? Are you doing this for your students?)

Me: “Empowered Learner.” Grit implies plowing through to finish a job. Empowerment=transformed sts through auth learning. (My goal in the classroom and when I work with teachers is to ensure that students are empowered. A task that requires grit does require students to stick with it. However, a truly authentic learning experience should be one in which students find the relevance for completion. There is a call to action that students want to answer. While the task should be a challenging one, the challenge is something for which the students eagerly await to tackle each day. It is a task that students take outside of the classroom walls and the assigned class period.)

John: I like empowerment as transformational. I wonder if perseverance or some word that means “I will not be stopped nor quit.” (Grit, according to Duckworth, is “perseverance and sustained interest in long-term goals.” Yes, students should have long-term goals. Teachers will have to work side-by-side with their students to help them set these goals and ensure they achieve them. However, a sustained interest is not always transformational. I have a sustained interest in binge watching a television series every few months. It isn’t transformation. It is merely a way for me to disengage from massive amounts of work that I’ve been shouldering. I have a sustained interest in completing a puzzle once I’ve started it. I will sit for hours and exhibit perseverance and even grit. However, finishing the puzzle isn’t transformational for me.)

Me: “Persistence happens in spite of discouragement. An empowered learner embraces obstacles as new challenges.” (Discouragement is something that I never want my students to experience. If a student is discouraged, they may give up, but for those that persist, they continue to plod through the task. An attitude of, “I must get this done” is often the case. However, if students are empowered through authentic learning opportunities, they embrace new challenges. New challenges are what keep them going and what fosters their love of learning.)

John: Might there be room 4 “&/both”? I see empowerment as the big picture, the essential idea. Other words address components. (Yes, empowerment should be a goal in the big picture planning of an authentic learning experience. However, in order to reach that goal, one must continue to adjust for challenges that arise. This is where embracing new challenges occurs and it is the job of the teacher, as a facilitator, to ensure that students are well-equipped to handle these challenges.)

Me: Content scaffolded as needed & process facilitated so students don’t become frustrated, but that’s not perseverance. (Students are too frequently left feeling they are “on their own” when teachers introduce a new “project”. Project Based Learning calls for student voice and choice. However, many teachers take this too far and create an environment that is so hands-off that students struggle. These struggling students may have “grit” and continue to persevere in the learning experience, however, they are not empowered in that instance. They may not reach their full potential. Thus, it is necessary for the teacher to determine, through ongoing formative assessment practices, what scaffolds and supports each student needs.)

John: From a coaching perspective, Ss need the big idea chunked into workable components? Empowerment is more than 1 thing. (Scaffolding leads to greater successes early and these early successes lead the teacher to be able to gradually release more and more of the process to the students. The more students find these successes, the more they are empowered as learners. Thus, empowerment as a learner happens throughout the process, as well as at the end. The overall empowerment feeling that permeates the conclusion of an authentic learning experience is a byproduct of a student’s call to action as they have answered the challenging investigation and provided justification for this call to action.)  

At this juncture, John asked me when my blog post would be published. Three days later, I’ve finished it. While Dean never chimed in on the subject, I would be curious to what his thoughts are and the thoughts of those of you who are reading this post. Please feel free to leave a comment or to send me a tweet! In the meantime, here’s a post from John Larmer at BIE and his take on grit.


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