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Getting Gritty

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The latest and hottest education buzzword is Grit.

Consider Tovia Smith’s “Does Teaching Kids To Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead?”: “Around the nation, schools are beginning to see grit as key to students’ success – and just as important to teach as reading and math. Experts define grit as persistence, determination, and resilience” – it’s one of the hardest qualities to instill in people, and perhaps especially so in today’s American culture of extremes (where parents are often labelled as either helicopters or completely checked out, and where nearly all students are made to feel entirely risk-averse when it comes to their education (such that they are either labelled as uncreative test-taking machines or as lazy, dumb, and/or entitled brats)).

But still, it’s grit that has everyone up in arms in the education world right now, and it’s grit that has everyone scratching their heads as they try to find new means of supporting and encouraging grit-development in themselves and their kids.

Dr. Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant for being the first to coin “grit” as the next step, as that special mystery ingredient needed to better prepare new generations for the future. Much of Duckworth’s story and work is laid bare in Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. In How Children Succeed, Tough discusses not only Duckworth’s research, but also the work of other prominent grit-studiers like Dr. Walter Mischel of Columbia University. In particular, Tough is careful to explain Mischel’s (now famous) Marshmallow Test (it’s a fascinating chapter!). The marshmallow test is deceptively simple: In his test group, Mischel gives each child a single marshmallow and then tells them that they can either eat the one marshmallow immediately, or wait a few minutes and get to eat two marshmallows. It’s a test of delayed gratification, of self-control, and of being able to imagine a new, perhaps sweeter future. But there’s more to grit than having the willpower to delay gratification—grit also encompasses the ability to face down and persevere against mistakes, setbacks, and rejection.

Grit is also, in other words, the ability to accept failure as a part of life and learning, rather than as a source of shame or stupidity.

Take, for example, the ability to expertly play an instrument. Many people have this dream or desire, but very few have the ability. Why? Most people likely could become at least decent musicians if they chose to practice often enough—but that’s just it. The choosing to act. The deciding to act. The act of taking purposeful action.

While many people may go into music lessons with the understanding that mastering an instrument takes time and practice, few people have the ability to handle the kind of delay in gratification necessary to really put in all that time, and perhaps even fewer have the ability to then also persevere despite any and all roadblocks that might crop up: lack of natural talent, consistent mistakes that may feel embarrassing, not wanting to practice for feelings of embarrassment, not placing in a music competition, receiving bad reviews, etc.

Grit, as the popular argument now goes, may be the answer to these challenges.

After all, what is natural talent worth if someone’s not willing or doesn’t feel able to put in the work necessary to let said talent flourish?

As Jonathan Rowson, Scottish chess grand master, once wrote: “When it comes to ambition, it is crucial to distinguish between ‘wanting’ something and ‘choosing’ it.” (qtd. in Tough 130) –An idea that hits directly on Duckworth’s theories regarding grit and success: “The problem with self-control techniques like the ones that the most disciplined marshmallow resisters employed is that they work only when a child knows what he or she wants.” (Tough 64)

But how can we as teachers, friends, parents, and students begin to better foster this element of grit in ourselves and each other?

While there’s no hard and fast way to “teach” grit, people are coming up with some pretty interesting and inventive techniques for trying to foster this elusive trait. Here are just a few ideas to consider:

  • According to Vicki Zakrzewski’s “Two Ways to Foster Grit” (with Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, University of California, Berkeley): 1) “Teach students about the impact of thoughts and beliefs on their ability to succeed. Students who have created a habit of telling themselves that they are bad at everything and that failure is inevitable will have a hard time with grit.” And 2) “Teach students how to work with their emotions. … For example, when a student who holds the belief, ‘I am bad at math, therefore I am a bad person’ (a common belief amongst some students who fear failure) faces an obstacle, emotions such as fear, despair, or anger may arise so quickly that the student doesn’t have time to change his or her thinking to fend off the emotion. … To help these students, educators should first teach them to recognize and label emotional responses so that they become aware when their emotions are spinning out of control. They should then follow this with methods for calming difficult emotions.” (This really is a fascinating article. You can (and probably should) read the entire thing: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/two_ways_to_foster_grit)
  • Create safe spaces for you and your kids to learn, take risks, and make mistakes. Risks and mistakes should be thought of as simply a natural part of the learning process – not as a sign of failure, weakness, lack of talent, or stupidity. As Smith further explains in her “Does Teaching Kids To Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead?”: “One way to make kids more tenacious, the thinking goes, is to show them how grit has been important to the success of others, and how mistakes and failures are normal parts of learning — not reasons to quit.” –and Jason Baehr, professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University, agrees, stating that: “‘You can create a classroom culture in which struggle and risk-taking is valued more than just getting the right answer.’” You can also try talking with your kids about who their heroes are and how grit has helped those heroes succeed—perhaps an avid reader of Stephen King might look to the years when King struggled with rejection letter after rejection letter from publishers; perhaps a sports fan might look to some of the losing games his or her favorite players have endured during their athletic careers; and so on and so on.

Works Consulted:

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