The Gritty Classroom: Understanding Grit


You’ve probably heard of Angela Lee Duckworth and her studies on grit: “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals”.

Duckworth found that grittier students were significantly more likely to graduate, and that the qualities to do well in school (and in life) include having stamina, sticking with goals, and persisting for a long period of time to fulfill these goals.

These findings may sound simple and common-sense enough, but what may involve more introspection is determining how educators perceive grit being dispersed in a class of students.

Any teacher can confidently say that a classroom is filled with students of varying levels (and types) of motivation, self-confidence, grit, or focus. Some students may consistently pursue excellent grades to reach their potentials as future senators, while other 7-year-olds may live life with a more laissez-faire attitude.

Regardless of how our students may arrive to the classroom, educators must assume that every child is willing to work hard for something. Motivation, in-and-of-itself, isn’t exclusively found in some people and not in others. It’s what motivates us that may vary, and within an academic setting, it is the educator’s role to present all students with a variety of opportunities to express this motivation in the form of grit.

For example, imagine that you were enrolled in a business class that should cover the basics of the field. But if the class spent all year covering just accounting, odds are that not all students would be impressed (or motivated) all year round. Some may even decide that business is not for them, and drop out of the class altogether.

But if the class were to cover accounting, marketing, product development, sales, customer experience, human resources, and a variety of other subjects that make up business, this course would be relevant to many more students and offer them a wider range of opportunities to work hard to understand and excel in the subject.

In the same way, children are inspired to work harder - and longer - for subjects and assignments that are relevant, interesting to them, and explore their own curiosities. Being gritty is a personal matter.

Here are some practical application tips for how educators can help students express grittiness without necessarily pausing to teach about grit:

  1. Reaffirm that there are multiple methods to get to the right answer. Little Johnny may have used negative numbers to solve the equation “9 minus 2” while Little Annie used her fingers to come up with the same answer. If Annie were still in the process of mastering her number sense, then counting on her fingers demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of numbers for her. By recognizing that a variety of methods can be used to achieve a successful output, educators can validate that learning is a personal challenge and achievement.

  2. Allow students to challenge themselves with open-ended questions. Instead of simply asking what 10 bananas minus 3 bananas is, challenge students to create a method or mechanism to stop clever monkeys from stealing 3 of your 10 bananas! Leverage kids’ natural creativity to allow them to challenge themselves and their own thinking by providing open-ended questions. These questions should allow students to both demonstrate understanding of the subject and define their own scopes of achievement.

  3. Encourage the class to create personal goals. What may be a stroll in the park for Suzie may be a climb up Mount Everest for Janie. Teachers can model goal-setting by creating one goal they’re willing to share with the class (“To learn 10 new words by the end of the month”) and one personal goal they’d keep to themselves.

  4. Lead with STEM. Engineering is a powerful tool for building grit. Engineering, by nature, requires iteration, problem-solving, and shaking off the dust and trying over and over again. Along with adopting engineering, create a class culture that replaces the concept of “failure” with “iteration”, and encourages students to search for ways to make their work even better.

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