Teaching Grit

This post is by NCTL's Manager of Effective Practices, Roy Chan.  

Nine months ago, the New York Times asked its readers, somewhat rhetorically: Is failure the secret to success?  Note: while NYT claims the short answer to that question is ‘yes,’ they’re not suggesting that tanking your job will get you a raise or promotion.  As it turns out, answering ‘yes’ also has widespread implications on the way you look at schools: from broad philosophical principles about their role in society down to the nitty-gritty of how classroom teachers ought to give praise (recognizing student effort, not intelligence).  For years, researchers in the positive psychology and cognitive behavior fields (e.g. Martin Seligman, Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth) have argued that success is not merely the byproduct of greater talent or higher IQ; it’s also about how you respond to and persist in spite of failure.  According to some studies, the absence of current failures may actually increase your likelihood of future failures, and your response to, mindset about, and disposition towards failure are learned.  If failure is the secret to success—or more accurately, if failure creates the preconditions for which you can learn the qualities that ultimately raises your odds of success one day—you might ask, ‘how does someone learn to deal with failure in the right way?’  Well, some schools have taken a stab at this:  

   • At two expanded time schools, KIPP Infinity in New York and KIPP Philadelphia Charter School, students are exposed to values such as grit, zest, and self-control each day: in their classrooms, hallways, shirts, and—recently at KIPP Infinity—even their report cards

   • Two years ago, we measured the attitudes of students before and after their first year at three successful Boston area expanded-time schools.  In particular, we studied the percentage of students who believed that hard work would make them smarter or if no amount of work would make them any more or less smart.  The former is what Dweck terms ‘Growth Mindset,’ and the latter ‘Fixed Mindset’; according to Dweck’s research, students with a growth mindset are more likely to take on challenges and view failure as learning opportunities (i.e. deal with failure in the right way).  After just one year, the percentage of students at these three schools expressing a growth mindset increased by 17%.

   • At SIG schools that have effectively used additional time in their turnaround efforts, students who had once earned low grades and failed standardized tests are now achieving academic success—many for the first time.  When asked what’s changed, student responses typically indicate an increase in grit: their teachers don’t let them give up; their work is challenging but fun; and they know they have to work hard to succeed once they’re out of school.  ‘We define grit as perseverance and passion for long-term goals.  Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress,’ wrote Duckworth and Peterson in their study demonstrating grit to be a more accurate predictor of future success than IQ or talent.  Although a number of other changes (i.e. instructional quality, data use) have undoubtedly contributed to these schools’ turnaround as well, the shift in student attitudes cannot be overlooked.  

These examples demonstrate that expanded time schools are intentionally creating opportunities for students to learn these important traits and provide them with challenges to apply them (i.e. fail).  But we want to make another point too: the ‘failure is the secret to success’ notion has implications for teachers as well, namely their recruitment, placement, and retention -- we told you there are widespread implications.  Earlier, we cited Duckworth’s research on grit in predicting future success, but maybe grit has explanatory power as well.  Think for a moment about struggling teachers in some of the worst performing schools.  Here’s what they typically say about their students: they’re too far behind; they come from a bad neighborhood; this is a tough population to teach.  
Of course, there is some truth in each of those statements.  Our most troubled schools are often in our most troubled neighborhoods, and it would be foolish not to admit that the latter impacts the former in some way.  Although that challenge is great, we know it’s not impossible.  In recognition of that great challenge, wouldn’t we want students in struggling schools to be taught by those teachers who have the most grit themselves—to not only impart those skills onto his/her students but also to have the mindset to persist and persevere despite their own adversity and failures?  This idea is not particularly radical or even new; a number of notable names in education—including Martin Haberman, Teach Plus, and Teach for America—look for qualities such as persistence or perseverance in identifying effective teachers.  Unfortunately, their work accounts for only a tiny fraction of the efforts, resources, and energies devoted to strengthen the teaching profession.  If we believe that the secret to success is failure, we ought to go all in on it: not only look for these qualities in teacher hiring/recruitment, develop the curricula to explicitly teach those traits to our children, but also train teachers to respond to failure themselves—through programs and policies around preparation, placement, professional development, and retention.  The bulk of our current time, efforts, and resources are spent ensuring our teachers know what we want our students to know, but teaching them what to do when they don’t know may be just as, if not more, vital to their present and future success.