Can Grit be Grown?

EdLeaders, Leadership, Learning

By Jonathan E. Martin

Can we grow grit in ourselves and others? And if so, how best might we do so?

Since grit grew to great heights of public awareness in the early 2010s thanks to a combination of magazine articles, best-selling books and TED talks, its significance has preoccupied many educators. Dr. Angela Duckworth’s research struck a nerve, secured her a MacArthur genius grant and launched a million conversations across the nation.

Many educators have appreciated seeing their common-sense beliefs being ratified by scientific research; many also have appreciated that the attention given to grit has led to an expanded recognition of the significance of character strengths and noncognitive skills in general.

On the other hand, some thoughtful educators believe we might be blaming students for their own lack of grit, trading in stereotypes of race and class, and/or perpetuating a Horatio Alger myth. Accordingly, it is essential we carefully weigh this counter-narrative in our judgments and actions when promoting grit.

But for some, the buzz about grit was only appetite whetting—drawing us in but not filling us up. OK, so grit is great—what do we do about that fact? Knowing its importance is barely half the battle: what we really need to know is how to grow it in ourselves and others.

Grow Your Grit From Within

Understandably then, readers are flocking to the recent publication of Dr. Duckworth’s first book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. At the time of this writing, it is the eleventh bestselling book overall on Amazon and second on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.

Dr. Duckworth is to be congratulated: her historical review and scientific research about this somewhat complex psychosocial construct is rendered in extremely accessible language and colored by warm personal stories. Convincingly she articulates the value of grit for success, provides illustrative examples and— most importantly— points the way for educators and others to understand how grit can indeed be grown in children and adults alike.

Tenacity matters so greatly because, as she explains, “effort counts twice.” To get to any significant achievement requires a multiplication of skill by effort, and to develop and master that prerequisite skill requires a multiplication of talent by (again) effort. So sure, talent is in the equation—but effort is there twice. Though the research mostly remains in the narrative’s background, her arguments are regularly supported with appropriate evidence where it exists, and she is careful to clarify when she’s going “off-evidence” to provide speculation.

So can you grow your grit over time? Yes, certainly.  Dr. Duckworth addresses this question forthrightly, citing important longitudinal research from Dr. Brent Roberts to the effect that qualities associated with grit “do, in fact, change” over time.

How? In a series of breezy and engaging chapters, she offers four core suggestions for how we might grow our own grit from within:

  • Interest:  People grittily pursue what interests them. But it is not as easy as saying “follow your passion.” One must carefully experiment, try various activities and try to stick to them for periods of time in order to discover where indeed your true interest lies.
  • Practice: This is the next element of strengthening grit–but it doesn’t mean just any kind of practice. Determined, intentional, goal-setting, progress monitoring, extremely effortful practice is required What’s known as “deliberate practice.”
  • Purpose: For many of her gritty exemplars, she notices the work they are so committed to is work on behalf of others—work for a public purpose and social good (though there are exceptions).
  • Hope: Drawing from her mentor Marty Seligman, she closes this section arguing for the value of optimism as part of the grit formula, and gives particular attention to the Dweckian “growth mindset” as an essential aspect of hope.

That’s what people can do for themselves.  So how can schools grow grit in students?

  • Ensure teachers teach in a way that is both demanding, inclusive of very high expectations for all students and supportive/respectful.
  • Provide highly engaging, greatly challenging extracurricular programs for all students (not only those who can pay for them).
  • Generate a so-called “culture of grit” through constant and consistent communication about the importance of tenacity, never giving up and the value and power of effort as greater than talent.
  • The most interesting example of cultivating grit comes from the champion-winning University of North Carolina’s women’s soccer team.  As Dr. Duckworth relays, its coach practices all the above strategies, and adds one additional approach, requiring players to complete a grit assessment annually.  She writes he “makes sure the entire team scores themselves on grit each spring so that they have a ‘deeper appreciation for the critical qualities of successful people.’ Returning players take the scale again—and again—each year so they can compare their grit now to what it used to be.”

Character Is Plural

As Duckworth moves toward her conclusion, she addresses the issue of whether grit stands alone its importance, explaining that “grit isn’t everything. There are many other things a person needs in order to grow and flourish. ” She organizes these things into three clusters:

  • Interpersonal (such as social intelligence);
  • Intrapersonal (such as grit and organization); and
  • Intellectual (such as curiosity).

 “In the end, the plurality of character operates against any one virtue being uniquely important.”

It is our responsibility as educators to strive to cultivate and develop this breadth of character and noncognitive skills in our students, given their great value, with all the strategies and systems available to us including improving instruction, promoting and training students in deliberate practice, helping young people find their interests and their purpose, supporting growth mindsets and more.

Additionally, we should follow Duckworth’s advice for assessing grit as part of the growth strategy. We can do so by using character measurement and assessment tools and techniques like those I’ve written about previously here at Getting Smart.

With the right assessments and the right practices, we can help students better understand themselves and these attributes, set goals for themselves, monitor progress and receive formative guidance from their coaches and teachers.

This post is part of a blog series on measuring SEL and non-cognitive skills produced in partnership with ProExam (@proexam). Join the conversation on Twitter using #SEL. For more in this series, see:

Jonathan E. Martin is Strategic Implementation Advisor to ProExam Tessera™ and an educational writer and consultant. Follow him on Twitter: @JonathanEMartin.


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