Archives for category: Grit

Mike Rose opined a few years back about “grit” and its limitations.

This is one of those articles that is never dated.

Rose, one of my favorite authors, writes:


In a nutshell, I worry about the limited success of past attempts at character education and the danger in our pendulum-swing society that we will shift our attention from improving subject matter instruction. I also question the easy distinctions made between “cognitive” and “non-cognitive” skills. And I fear that we will sacrifice policies aimed at reducing poverty for interventions to change the way poor people see the world.

In this post, I would like to further explore these concerns—and a few new ones—by focusing on “grit,” for it has so captured the fancy of our policy makers, administrators, and opinion-makers….

Let me repeat here what I’ve written in every other commentary on grit. Of course, perseverance is an important characteristic. I cherish it in my friends and my students.

But at certain ages and certain times in our lives, exploration and testing new waters can also contribute to one’s development and achievement. Knowing when something is not working is important as well. Perseverance and determination as represented in the grit questionnaires could suggest a lack of flexibility, tunnel vision, an inability to learn from mistakes.

Again, my point is not to dismiss perseverance but to suggest that perseverance, or grit, or any quality works in tandem with other qualities in the well-functioning and ethical person. By focusing so heavily on grit, character education in some settings has been virtually reduced to a single quality, and probably not the best quality in the content of character. The items in the grit instruments could describe the brilliant surgeon who is a distant and absent parent, or, for that fact, the smart, ambitious, amoral people who triggered the Great Recession. (Macbeth with his “vaulting ambition” would score quite high on grit.) Education in America has to be about more than producing driven super-achievers. For that fact, a discussion of what we mean by “achievement” is long overdue.

But, of course, a good deal of the discussion of grit doesn’t really involve all students. Regardless of disclaimers, the primary audience for our era’s character education is poor kids. As I and a host of others have written, a focus on individual characteristics of low-income children can take our attention away from the structural inequalities they face. Some proponents of character education have pretty much said that an infusion of grit will achieve what social and economic interventions cannot.

Can I make a recommendation? Along with the grit survey, let us give another survey and see what the relationship is between the scores. I’m not sure what to call this new survey, but it would provide a measure of adversity, of impediments to persistence, concentration, and the like. It, too, would use a five-point response scale: “very much like me” to “not much like me.” Its items would include:

  • I always have bus fare to get to school.
  • I hear my parents talking about not having enough money for the rent.
  • Whenever I get sick, I am able to go to a doctor.
  • We always have enough food in our home.
  • I worry about getting to school safely.
  • There are times when I have to stay home to care for younger brothers or sisters.
  • My school has honors and Advanced Placement classes.
  • I have at least one teacher who cares about me.

My guess is that higher impediment scores would be linked to lower scores on the grit survey. I realize that what grit advocates want is to help young people better cope with such hardship. Anyone who has worked seriously with kids in tough circumstances spends a lot of time providing support and advice, and if grit interventions can provide an additional resource, great. But if as a society we are not also working to improve the educational and economic realities these young people face, then we are engaging in a cruel hoax, building aspiration and determination for a world that will not fulfill either…

Rose notes that the people Angela Duckworth studied were highly successful.

The foundational grit research primarily involved populations of elite high achievers—Ivy League students, West Point cadets, National Spelling Bee contestants—and people responding to a Positive Psychology website based at the University of Pennsylvania. It is from the latter population that the researchers got a wider range of ages and data on employment history…

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. This certainly doesn’t mean that people who are poor lack determination and resolve. Some of the poor people I knew growing up or work with today possess off-the-charts determination to survive, put food on the table, care for their kids. But they wouldn’t necessarily score high on the grit scale.

This is a very thoughtful article. I hope you will read it in full.

Reader C.H. Rubinstein eases into the debate about GRIT.

Oy, where have we heard this song & dance before?

Grit is something your mom used to yell about, such as when you were playing outside,

“Wipe your feet before you come in the house, or take your shoes off! Don’t get that grit all over my kitchen floor!”

Or, as my sister would presently yell, “Who got the sink all grit-ty?! Clean it up NOW!!”

The Boston Globe published this opinion piece questioning the validity of concepts like grit and resilience. 

Author Alissa Quart interviews Christine White, a woman who grew up in extreme poverty yet managed to build a successful career helping people who struggled as she did. But not by coaching them to have more “grit” and “resilience.”

Christine White, writes Quart, has written

a number of posts on on her nonprofit’s blog questioning this resilience refrain. She believes that when “we are obsessing about resilience it obscures the fundamental issues that people have, like a lack of privilege or a history of trauma.” When “resilience” is applied to at-risk kids, says White, it implies “the solutions reside within an individual and not their context: ‘resilience’ skews conversations away from equity.” The assumption is that having “character” will help traumatized people flourish — and if they don’t flourish, there is an implied lack of character.

“Ninety percent of resilience conversations would be better if the focus was, instead, on racial and economic inequities,” she wrote in correspondence with me.

But “resilience” and “grittiness” have become ubiquitous honorifics — likely to come out of the mouths of not only teachers but also therapists, urban planners, businessmen, and policymakers, all praising individual pluck.

Thanks to Angela Duckworth’s bestseller of the same name, “grit” is now a part of American school life: In New Hampshire, for instance, some grammar school students are taught “grit skills” by teachers who follow a “grit curriculum.” One grit lesson includes interviewing a neighbor, for example, who has shown grit and creating that person’s “perseverance walk,” outlining how they achieved their goals.

The terms have even spawned an industry of books, apps, and gurus:

There is a now even a grit and resilience industry.

“Resilience is knowing that you are the only one that has the power and responsibility to pick yourself up,” says Mary Holloway, a “resilience coach” and the creator of the “Boom Bounce Wow Resilience Method.” There are also dozens of self-help books promising to make you more resilient or more gritty, including one that promises to create resilience with the subtitle “How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness.” One of the biggest resilience bestsellers is “Option B” by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Apps have also gotten into the resilience and positive psychology game, with names such as ResilientMe and Happify. And there is even a “resilience planner” bearing the legend “Stay Resilient 2019,” which is currently sold out…

There’s also a growing — though much smaller — academic backlash to the term “resilience.” Critics note the focus on “resilience” can ignore the structural gaps of our economy, for example. Should we really be building personal capacities to triumph over, say, the “adversity” that is the current scarcity of public funding for education?

Call grit and resilience what they are: a substitute for the structural and financial changes that give people genuine opportunity to get ahead.

These terms are an effort to substitute “the power of positive thinking” for equity.



Nancy Bailey opened her mail and saw that Angela Duckworth was on the cover of the handout for Costco Connection, touting the virtues of grit and why every child needs it.

I had somehow hoped we had passed through the “grit” phase and moved on to something else. Probably, the fact that it is featured on the cover of the Costco flyer means that it is already passé.

Duckworth has has list:

Her grit goals for children include the following:

I am a hard worker.
Setbacks don’t discourage me.
I finish whatever I begin.
I don’t give up easily.
I am diligent.
I will never give up.
Numbers 3 and 6 might especially give us pause.

Nancy rightly notes that teachers have been instilling “grit” since time immemorial.

For starters, grit is a repackaged idea. If you’ve read “The Little Engine Who Could” by Watty Piper to your child, you’ve taught them to try their best. Many children’s books incorporate the idea of endurance. It’s a timeless virtue.

Teaching character traits like perseverance through children’s literature seems more meaningful, and enjoyable, than browbeating students to carry through on every task to prove their stamina.

Lots of good ideas here. Nancy warns about the “strictness” imposed by KIPP-style no-excuses.

It’s important to remember, that with grit and high-stakes standards, including Common Core, children are not always setting their own goals. They aren’t dreaming of passing tests. They want to do well on them, or they fear them, because it’s what adults tell them to do. They’re being set up to please adults.

That’s a huge problem with grit and what makes it disingenuous.

Paul Thomas considers some of the research verities that have recently been exploded, like “the marshmallow test,” “growth mindset,” and “the word gap.”

He might have added “grit” to the list of recently debunked nostrums. Christine Yeh of the University of San Francisco wrote a terrific piece in Education Week last year titled “Forget Grit. Focus on Inequality.” She is right, of course. If a child is hungry, grit won’t fill her tummy. If she is hungry and homeless, grit doesn’t change the objective facts of her life.

He writes:

“It may well be true that everything you know is wrong, but that doesn’t mean it must stay that way. Good intentions and missionary zeal must be replaced by greater philosophical awareness and the sort of skepticism a critical lens provides.

“This is not about fatalism—giving up on research—but about finding a better way forward, one that rejects programs and blanket ideologies and keeps our focus on students and learning along with the promises of formal schooling as a path to equity and justice, not test scores and compliant students.”

It takes courage to think for yourself, especially in a culture that values compliance and conformity.

Congratulations to Carol Dweck of Stanford University for winning the first annual Yidan Prize, which is a prize of $3.9 million. She won for her work on “growth mindset,” which I tended to think was akin to “The Little Engine Who Could,” who climbed a difficult mountain by saying “I think I can, I think I can,” and he did. That was, as I was growing up, the optimistic spirit of the 1940s and 1950s, as seen by a child.

I like what Dweck said in Hong Kong as she received the prize. She told her Chinese hosts to get rid of the “cram culture” that is common in their schools.

From the South China Post:

“Children’s learning should be joyful and focused on understanding and inquiry – rather than the drilling that Hong Kong schools have become known for – a renowned psychologist, recently in the city to receive the world’s biggest education prize, has said.

“Professor Carol Dweck’s remarks come as the city’s government prepares to announce whether a standard test often associated with high-pressure rote learning will continue next year.
Dweck, from Stanford University in the US, was in Hong Kong last week to collect the inaugural Yidan Prize for Education Research, for her groundbreaking research on the power of the “growth mindset”, based on the belief that intelligence is not fixed and can be developed over time, given the right approach.

“The prize was started in 2016 by Charles Chen Yidan, co-founder of mainland tech giant Tencent. It comprises one award for education research and another for education development. Each laureate receives a gold medal and HK$30 million (US$3.9 million)…

“After years of research, Dweck – whose findings have been implemented in countries such as the US, Norway and Peru – found that children with a “fixed mindset” would worry whether they were smart and would succeed in life and stop caring about learning. Those with a “growth mindset”, she found, could joyfully learn and develop their abilities.

“But Dweck noted that the concept was not about telling children to work hard, which is common in Hong Kong, where many parents view academic success as paramount to their children’s future.
“Chinese culture is already telling children to work hard. That’s not growth mindset because they’re working hard for the product, not for the growth or the joy of learning,” she said.

“The professor also warned against “tiger parenting” – referring to demanding parents, particularly in Asian cultures, pushing their children to attain high grades using methods such as relentless drilling.

“She said these students could be extremely anxious, and feel worthless and depressed if they did not succeed at something.

“She said the “growth mindset” should instead be about focusing on understanding, questioning and thinking, and results would follow after that.

“The Hong Kong government is expected to announce in the next two months whether the Primary Three Territory-wide System Assessment will continue next year. Originally designed to enhance learning and teaching by providing the government with data to review policies, the assessment has become associated with a drilling culture in Hong Kong.

“This has led parents and educators to call for the test to be scrapped, ending the pressure it puts on pupils, and for the curriculum to be reviewed as a whole. The government recently began a review of primary and secondary school curriculums.“

Carol Dweck could be a huge force in prodding the authorities in China to renounce the cram culture, and that would benefit the world. She just might help to save the next generation from the Testocracy.

Congratulations, Professor Dweck!

We know that Trump likes to get away to the golf course every weekend, preferably at one of his own resorts. He is not used to working long days, every day.

Neither does Betsy DeVos. Probably, when people are so rich that money is never an issue, they fail to develop the habits and grit needed to put in a full day’s work, every day.

Matthew Chapman, a video game designer and science fiction writer from Texas, discovered that Betsy doesn’t like to work very hard. It is just not her thing.

He writes:

“In her short tenure of office, DeVos has dismantled protections for campus rape survivors, rolled back support for students with disabilities, and gutted relief programs for victims of for-profit student loan scams.

“However, while not rolling back important civil rights policies, it seems that what DeVos enjoys doing most in her day-to-day duties is … absolutely nothing.

“A FOIA request and subsequent report by the watchdog group American Oversight, aptly titled “Unexcused Absences,” revealed some startling numbers on how often DeVos simply doesn’t show up for work:

An analysis by American Oversight found that during that period — which stretches from February 8th to July 19th — DeVos only completed a full day of work 67% of the time.

“The report found that over those five and a half months, DeVos took 15 days off, 21 half days off, and 11 long weekends — during a time period that included 113 federally mandated work days.”

What kind of a message is DeVos sending to students and teachers? A large part of the job is showing up. Although considering what she does when she shows up, maybe she should stay home more often.

This is a heartening story about the schools in Wine Country in California, which just suffered through horrifying fires.

Educators who lost their own homes were back on the job, to make sure the children had a safe space.

This is what educators do.

“Principal Teresa Ruffoni greeted students at Crane Elementary School in Rohnert Park on Monday morning, their first day back in class after a series of deadly fires burned through thousands of homes in neighboring Santa Rosa and in other cities and towns across the region.

“What Ruffoni didn’t tell the children was that a week earlier she had grabbed a few of her most vital belongings and fled from flames that would soon consume her home in Hidden Valley Estates, a hard-hit subdivision in the hills of northern Santa Rosa.

“She was too focused on the students, and navigating an extraordinary period for education in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties…

“Amid the chaos and uncertainty, district administrators and teachers have been scrambling to get schools back open, knowing it was a critical step to bring a sense of security and normalcy to children traumatized by the destruction.

“That’s why on Friday, Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified Superintendent Robert Haley gathered the entire district staff in a school gym.

“Do you want to try and reopen Monday?” he asked.

“The answer, he said, was a solid yes.

“I looked up, and front and center was a teacher with a smile on her face,” he said. “Her house burned down, but she was ready to help her colleagues get kids back in school.”

“Ruffoni, despite possessing only a hodgepodge of mismatched clothes grabbed in the dark of night, was ready to go, too.

“It felt like the right thing to do, Haley said, to help the whole county move forward.

“For many of our students, the place they feel safest other than at home is school,” Haley said. “The adults they trust more than anyone other than their parents are their teachers. That’s why we’re here today.”

Just when you thought we were done with discussing, debating, and dissecting grit, the New York Times publishes an article about those “character strengths” that affluent children seem to have more of. Thomas Edsall writes about the subject here.

While there are substantial numbers of low-income children who have strength of character, the measures used continue to show that income and whatever is measured are correlated.

Attempts to develop educational strategies to promote the development of noncognitive skills are still in the beginning stages. Many experiments are being conducted in high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods where the challenges in developing noncognitive skills have been most acute.

He goes on to cite James Heckman, Angela Duckworth, Paul Tough, and others who have written about the non cognitive skills that lead to success. Citing a researcher, he says that “noncognitive skill levels rose significantly not only as family income grew but also as the mother’s education level rose. In addition, children in continuously married two-parent families did better than children with single parents.”

What precisely is being measured?

Edsall sees a political angle to these issues, namely, Trump’s claim that Democrats and liberal policy is responsible for not teaching grit, perseverance, and character:

What is to be made of all these findings?

First, the spectrum of noncognitive skills and character strengths are a major factor in American class stratification. Whether these factors are more or less important than extrinsic forces like globalization, automation and declining unionization remains unclear, but changing family structures are evidently leaving millions of men and women ill-equipped to ascend the socioeconomic ladder.

Second, neither religious leaders nor practicing politicians nor government employees have found the levers that actually make disadvantaged families more durable or functional. As a corollary, the failure of government efforts to affect or slow down negative developments has left an opening for conservatives to argue that government interventions make things worse.

For liberals and the Democratic Party, the continued failure of government initiatives to achieve measurable gains in the acquisition of valuable noncognitive skills by disadvantaged youngsters constitutes a major liability.

This liability played a role in the outcome of the 2016 election. Throughout the campaign, President Trump repeated comments like this one:

The Democratic Party has run nearly every inner city for 50 years, 60 years, 70 years, and even more than 100 years they have produced only poverty, failing schools, and broken homes.

This and related charges will continue to dog Democratic candidates in 2018 and 2020 unless progressive policy advocates can find ways to more effectively highlight and capitalize on the ample supply of character strengths evident everywhere among America’s poor. This is extraordinarily important.

Advocates for the disadvantaged must also highlight and capitalize on the many demonstrably effective antipoverty solutions already well known to the academic, research and nonprofit communities. Without better funded and better crafted organization and advocacy on behalf of the poor, the propaganda and accusations now emanating from the right will ineluctably reshape the law of the land — and once institutionalized, such “remedies” could prove staggeringly difficult to reverse.

In my book Reign of Error, I responded to these claims, one by one. First, pointing out that test scores and graduation rates are at an all-time high, and dropout rates are at an all-time low. Then by explaining patiently that poverty takes a toll on children and families. They often lack decent health care, decent housing, and safe neighborhoods, which affects school performance and motivation.

Trump plans to take a wrecking ball to America’s public schools. He has no ideas, and his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has only one idea: to promote alternatives to public schools. Did people like them succeed because they have grit? No, they were born rich. Trump was born on third base; DeVos at home plate.

Joanne Yatvin is a retired teacher, principal, superintendent, and literacy expert in Oregon.

Topping the national news several months ago was a story about two dangerous criminals escaping from a high security prison. For several months they had devoted themselves to preparations: persuading a woman prison employee to get them the tools they needed and agree to drive them away when they got outside the prison walls, digging a route to the outside of the prison from their cell, and working late at night to avoid attracting notice. When their preparations were finally complete, they also went through several rehearsals before carrying out their plan. Unfortunately for them, they were captured only a few days after their escape. Their promised driver had broken her promise and left them without a plan or an opportunity to practice any new tactics to reach safety.

What interested me about this story was that men who had wasted so many years of their lives in crime rather than seeking education or legal jobs were able to plan so well, work hard, and show so much patience in carrying our their escape. They certainly showed “grit” when the goal was important to them and the stakes were high.
Another story of grit is told in one of my favorite movies, “Cool Hand Luke”, which is about a man arrested and imprisoned for a minor crime. Because he is smarter and more independent and resourceful than his fellow inmates, he is continually singled out for punishment and public humiliation. Yet, he endures everything and continues to defy prison rules and trying to escape. Finally, he steals a prison truck and drives a long distance before hiding out in a deserted building. Unfortunately, the prison officials manage to track him down and set fire to the building. In the end Luke chooses to take his own life rather than surrender. Yet, by losing his life he also wins: he will never go back to prison and no one can punish him ever again.

Although Luke is gone at the end of the movie, his lessons of “grit” inspire other prisoners to follow his example and stand up for themselves against prison cruelty. Although the movie shows so much harshness and sadness, its ultimate message is one of hope.

In both the real prison escape and the movie’s story, I found lessons about “grit” not understood by the experts now calling for teaching that skill to students in the classroom. Not tyrants, prison guards, nor teachers can teach grit. Human beings—and most animals– develop grit only when they are so dedicated to reaching a particular goal that they will push on through obstacles, rejections and repeated failures.

As a teacher and principal I often saw ordinary students develop grit on their own because the conditions in the classroom were right. Their teachers taught lessons that were interesting to young people and offered opportunities for self-chosen projects, collaboration with classmates, and innovation. And because the kids had already tasted success and satisfaction in previous classroom activities, they believed they could stretch themselves even further this time. Yes, the work was harder than before, but it was doable, and in their eyes the goal was worth the extra effort. They had already developed grit and could use it. And they believed in themselves.

Education should be a dynamic experience for all students. It’s not preparation for college or the workplace, but a laboratory for exploring who you are and what you want to do; for trying out your interests and talents in a safe place and for sifting out the gold buried in the sand of school subjects. It’s also a place to develop grit because you believe you can.