Ya Gotta Have Grit

Not in your oysters. Not in your spinach. Not between your teeth. The other kind of grit–TRUE GRIT, like the movie version.

Perseverance. Resolve. Determination. Stick-to-itiveness. Doggedness. Tenacity. Mettle. Backbone. Fortitude. Resilience. 

Maybe moxie–but not the liquid version–at one time the carbonated beverage favorite of Mainers. Moxie is “medicinal” in flavor, low in carbonation, and unpalatable, IMHO.

And then, there’s pluck. What a great word! I want to be remembered for my pluck.

It turns out that grit is great. As a matter of fact, there is a professor of social psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who is renowned for her work in grit. [On grit? About grit? With grit?] Angela Duckworth, Ph.D. is the go-to girl on grit.

I would have looked her up on Wikipedia, but they are down for the day in protest of anti-piracy legislation. [If you know me well, you may know that I have been a life-long fan of pirates and all things piratical, and that I take “Talk Like a Pirate Day”, celebrated annually on September 19, very seriously. I have my own parrot and eye patch. So there.]

So I had to go with what I could find.

Here’s what she says about her own research: “I study competencies other than general intelligence that predict academic and professional achievement. My research centers on self-control (the ability to regulate emotions, thoughts, and feelings in the service of valued goals) and grit (perseverance and sustained interest in long-term goals).  I am particularly interested in the subjective experience of exerting self-control and grit – and conscious strategies which facilitate adaptive behavior in the face of temptation, frustration, and distraction.”

Here she is speaking about GRIT on a Tedx video from October 2009 of Ms. Duckworth herself describing some of the research she has conducted. She explains her premise, shares some examples of grit and gritty people, and tells why she believes that grit is so important, and that it can be and should be TAUGHT.

Why does this suddenly interest me? Well, I caught a piece on NPR this evening about grit and Angela Duckworth’s work–on the way home from Dover today. After arranging to have the guys from AAA come rescue me. After locking my keys, as well as everything else (purse, phone, AAA membership card, for example) in my car at the Royal Farms gas station. Oy, vey. Thank you very much to Harry for allowing me to use the phone, tying it up for an entire ten minutes. And, thank you to Danny from AAA who arrived a mere ten minutes after I called the main dispatch service. I was damned impressed.

Back to Ms. Duckworth. I had no idea that she was so young. She describes herself as formerly “gritless.” She wandered around from vocation to vocation during her twenties–plenty of talent–plenty of smarts–but according to her criteria–low on the grit scale. She says that she would have made an excellent dinner table companion with lots to talk about. However, I believe that Angela has truly found her calling, and it is grit. 

This is not my first encounter with the concept of grit, nor with AD’s work. Her name has come up before in conversations with some DSEA staff folks who share my interest in teacher effectiveness. And I had already looked into her writings. She is connected with several schools, most notably a KIPP charter school in NYC that has taken her work and her objectives to heart. 

So what does grit have to do with kids, teachers, and teaching?

AD is big in the world of character-building and character education. I am not so sure how I feel about all this, but,…  Here is a piece where she makes some connections between learning, student success, high achievement, and GRIT. “The Nitty-Gritty: Self-Esteem vs. Self-Control.”   One interesting pull quote from the piece: “I find that parents today, at least those in a high socioeconomic bracket, never want to say anything critical of their children. Everybody has to be a winner. You take your children to a soccer game, and they don’t keep score anymore. They don’t want anybody to lose. Well, it’s a good thing for kids to lose sometimes. They see what it’s like to get up again. They realize it’s not the end of the world. The scholar Roy Baumeister began believing in self-esteem as a predictor of success, but he did studies and it isn’t. Self-control is.”

I disagree with the interviewer’s comments used as a set-up for the fourth question: “Educators for some time now have put a premium on self-esteem. Schools strive to help kids develop self-esteem on the theory that other good things such as achievement will flow from increased self-esteem. Which is more important, self-discipline or self-esteem, for being successful as a student?”

Do not hang that one on me or my colleagues! OMG. Some of us have fought for years against the tides of self-esteem. That concept, and the impassivity that it spawned, did not come from the teachers I know and love. It was universally mocked and reviled as a guiding force in public education. That damned movement set us back by decades.

I come from the generation who lived (well, back in the day we did) by the motto “If it feels good, do it.” The self-esteemers were satisfied with the idea “Johnny and Susie can’t do it unless they feel good (about themselves).”

EXAMPLE: I used to co-manage a Science Olympiad program for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners of each event got lovely medals on a colored ribbon to wear around their necks–attractive medals about the size of a 50-cent piece. The coaches from one district, which shall remain nameless, insisted on getting cutesy ten-inch trophies for every single one of their kids who particpated. The medals were high-quality and really quite nice, but the trophies outshined them. Most unfortunate and most unnecessary. The winners should get the prizes; the losers–those who do not win–should get a smile, a handshake, and a certificate of participation at best. Maybe ice cream on the way home.

AD is right. The feel gooders have done a disservice to our children. So, what is the value of grit?

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