Thursday, December 12, 2013

Let them eat grit: 4 reasons why grit is garbage

It is tempting to see education as the great equalizer that will allow children to overcome differences in background, culture and privilege. It would be convenient if poverty was not an explanation for poor academic achievement.

We all want children to be resilient and persistent in the face of challenges. However, as a teacher who already teaches children to develop a growth-mindset and resiliency, I am uninspired by pundits claims we just need more grit from students.

We know that affluent children who have opportunities and support to learn tend to out-score their less privileged peers. While there are outliers and exceptions, this is not up for debate.

Education systems around the world are being challenged to provide a more equitable system that allows all children, regardless of their background, culture or privilege, to be educated at a very high level.

When pundits call for more grit and resiliency, they aren't talking about all children. No one is demanding that high-scoring students show more grit. When people call for more grit they are talking about the low scorers -- and we know the low scorers tend to be children who are English language learners, special needs, living in poverty, suffering from mental health problems or are for complex reasons generally difficult to educate.

When we say that students need more grit and resiliency, we are really saying to these disadvantaged children that they just need to try harder. This is asinine for a couple reasons:

Firstly, children in poverty are often the ones facing the most challenges and are already exhibiting impressive amounts of resiliency. I teach in a children's inpatient psychiatric assessment unit, so I work with these kids daily. It's easier for children to "pull up their socks" if they own socks. These children don't need grit -- they need their basic needs met.

Secondly, too often the argument for more grit in children is an abdication of the system's responsibility to make things more equitable. I'm all for growth-mindset and resiliency, I teach it everyday, but they are not systemic solutions to inequality and inequity. Systems thinking tells us that improving education has less to do with characteristics of individual teachers and students and more to do with priorities of schools and school systems.

Thirdly, children who are a challenge to educate, whether they be English language learners, special needs, mentally ill, easily frustrated or chronically irritable, don't need to be reminded of our expectations or told to try harder. If we resign ourselves to thinking children just need more grit, we might be tempted to frame this as a motivation problem that can be solved with rewards and punishments. We need to move away from the mindset that says children will be successful if they want to and move towards the mindset that says children will be successful when they can. 

Lastly, for every time we encourage kids to not throw in the towel or to get back on the horse when they fall off, we need to reflect on the environments children are living and learning in and the tasks they are required to do. Sometimes the child's environment is abusive and neglectful, and sometimes the tasks required of them are developmentally inappropriate or simply unengaging and irrelevant -- either way, more grit might teach kids how to play a game stacked against their favour without teaching them how to change the game.

I've also found that the people who call for more grit from students tend to also be the people who claim we need to go back to basics -- to which I ask, "when did we leave?" Alfie Kohn writes:
The notion that our schools have strayed from the old-fashioned teaching that used to be successful is dead wrong on two counts. First, old-fashioned methods weren’t all that successful in the past either. It may not be easy for us to admit, but those methods caused countless people to give up on school and think of themselves as stupid. Even people who used to be successful students often don’t show much depth of understanding, much capacity for critical reflection, or a lifelong love of learning.
People who call for more grit and a back to basics approach tend to suffer from what Jamie Vollmer describes as Nostesia which "is a hallucinogenic mixture of 50% nostalgia and 50% amnesia that distorts rational thinking."

It's easy to call for more grit.

It's easy to cry that we need to go back to basics.

It's easy to blame the kids and the schools.

It's easy because it means we don't have to reflect inward - rather we just have to look outward. Challenging one's own practices and system priorities can be tough but nothing will ever change and schools will never improve as long as we place all the responsibility for change and improvement on students and schools.

13 comments:

  1. Hey Joe... Ok, so maybe my recent post http://bit.ly/1b6S05w wasn't as blunt as yours but I think we are sort of on the same page :-)

    When we hear people say "we need kids to learn how to lose" and "we need kids to develop grit" and all the stuff about the "real world".... The strategies that are thrown out there are often the ones that purposefully place students already challenged into arbitrary situations in which they are set up to lose... To fail... To fall... And this purposeful created condition is somehow supposed to teach our (struggling already) kids "grit". The conditions we create are important but they have to be done in a way that provides an opportunity to teach... and meet kids where they are.

    Mindset is key, resilience is key... For all students. What I hear from you is that we need to be careful that we don't try to overcome the challenges of societal inequity by simply forcing kids to try harder... obviously effort is so important but societal and educational issues are much deeper than that.

    Everyone wants a simple solution that will "solve" education.... Although I disagree with the statement "grit is garbage", I agree with the fact that the way it is being used as a silver bullet to solve deeper issues... Prevents us from moving the conversation to where it needs to go.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the perspective. Joe and Chris, you both make great points. Like Chris, I don't necessarily agree that grit is garbage, but I do agree it is often thrown out as a miracle cure to what ails society.

    I think we need to teach kids to be resilient, have grit, or as my 7th grade social studies teacher called it, intestinal fortitude. But that will look different for every kid in every situation.

    My son kind of figured it out earlier this year. Here's my post about it. http://teachfromtheheart.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/extrinsic-motivation-through-the-eyes-of-my-son/

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  3. Great post, Joe. I'm with you 100%! We need to stop looking at the pieces of the puzzle and start looking at the whole picture.

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  4. Thank you very much for this post. When you write, "[M]ore grit might teach kids how to play a game stacked against their favour without teaching them how to change the game," what do you mean?

    I understand that you would like to address systemic issues and to change systemic problems, but I'm unsure how best to help students "to change the game."

    Thank you again.

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  5. In my experience, resiliency needs to be fostered, modeled, encouraged. It takes years to build capacity. You cannot DEMAND a child be resilient...Thank you for exposing the hypocricy of these 'deformers' who want to educate kids on the cheap, so there are more profits for their buddies.

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  6. As a person who started teaching in 78 and only recently retired let me say that we went from installing special ed to help struggling students, thru gifted and talented (the cream doesn't always rise to the top) to No Child Left Behind which seemed to be a concept of lets make sure everyone gets an A. NCLB PUSHED MEDIOCRITY BECAUSE IT HAD TO DIP DOWN TO REACH THOSE WHO COULDN'T OR WOULDN'T MAKE THE BETTER GRADE. As we got closer to demanding a passing score from every pupil in every school, republicans finally realized that the only way for that to happen was to dumb down the curriculum. As we kept reaching and exceeding each goal demanded of NCLB the tests were changed and passing scores changed and any excuse to make our kids look bad and teachers look worse was used to poo poo public ed.
    Then we get a democratic administration nationally and lots of republican state administrations. What a shambles. Race to the top means competition for money to improve education's accountable, not education of students.. STUPID!
    Politics has gotten us so far from professional input in our educational system that the state department here in Oklahoma doesn't even listen to university professors if they disagree or criticize poor decisions.
    We need to have normed tests again and use them to find out which students are behind or ahead and let teachers determine grades and graduation qualifications as they are trained to do. Let parents, teachers, and students have input in a student's passing or failing. Trust universities to know if a person is qualified to teach.
    REQUIRE PEOPLE WHO MAKE DECISIONS FOR CLASSROOMS TO BE QUALIFIED TO DO SO.

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  7. I agree that saying kids need to have more "grit" and try harder runs the danger of being a cop out for poor instruction. For me, this illustrates the importance of adaptive instruction and mastery-based instruction…approaches that provide an approach that allow every child to be successful. Thanks for the thoughts!

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  8. I understand and agree with your perspective. Grit is being used as the new snake oil cure all for education - it isn't, nothing is. But, that is not to say that grit isn't needed. I teach in a school that is affluent - upper middle class. They are high scoring and in many ways privileged. But, a lot of times, especially when we ask them to do things that are very complicated, or to really think about things, they quit.

    No - gritis not a universal solution to every education issue, but the kids need it.

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  9. I just watched the TED video [1]. Dr. Duckworth only briefly touches on grit for low-income kids in the talk. Her main point appears to be that given an equal playing field, presence of grit is a coinciding factor with success. Her call to action is that we should learn to measure grit and validate this observation.

    I see nothing wrong with this point or with her talk.

    I agree with you that motivation is not the problem for low-income children. Until their basic necessities are met, they can't achieve academically. I don't think Dr. Duckworth was suggesting that grit was the solution to low-income achievement, just that grit could be an indicator for success among low-income students.


    [1] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/ted-talks-education/speaker/dr-angela-lee-duckworth/

    ReplyDelete
  10. I just watched the TED video [1]. Dr. Duckworth only briefly touches on grit for low-income kids in the talk. Her main point appears to be that given an equal playing field, presence of grit is a coinciding factor with success. Her call to action is that we should learn to measure grit and validate this observation.

    I see nothing wrong with this point or with her talk.

    I agree with you that motivation is not the problem for low-income children. Until their basic necessities are met, they can't achieve academically. I don't think Dr. Duckworth was suggesting that grit was the solution to low-income achievement, just that grit could be an indicator for success among low-income students.


    [1] http://www.pbs.org/wnet/ted-talks-education/speaker/dr-angela-lee-duckworth/

    ReplyDelete
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  13. Thanks for all the great ideas! I started tutoring one little boy who is starting second grade but reading at a kindergarten level. He's in public Educator, so he has to keep up the pace. I enjoy working with him. Maybe I'll get a few more as the school year goes on.

    ReplyDelete

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