Why grit is a key component for success and how to instil this in pupils, from Kate McCallam.

Along with the four Cs (creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking), I believe there are other components necessary for an effective forward-thinking curriculum, including global citizenship, mental health, career-related learning and grit.

Background

The term ‘grit’ gained prominence in education with Angela Lee Duckworth. 1 Angela was a 7th grade Maths teacher, and, like many teachers, was trying to pin down exactly what and how to teach to achieve the best outcomes for her pupils. In doing so, she noticed that her brightest kids did not always perform the best and she wondered why. After a while, she came to realise that the most important factor in determining academic success was the presence of what she referred to as ‘grit’.

What Duckworth discovered was that her ‘average’ pupils with a gritty disposition consistently outperformed those peers with a higher IQ and a less conscientious attitude. She was so taken with this idea that she left teaching to become a psychologist and pursue the concept further. Her team of researchers visited many different settings, for both children and adults, where the work undertaken was very challenging, and posed the question: “Who is successful here and why?” The findings confirmed Duckworth’s initial discoveries in her own classroom. It was grit that separated the winners and the ‘also-rans’, not natural intelligence nor physical health. A resilient attitude was the predictor of success. The next question was obvious. Was grit a fixed part of our DNA or could it be taught?

Grit and growth mindset

Duckworth is a big fan of Dr Carol Dweck and her work on ‘growth mindset’. Through collaborative research, the two unsurprisingly proved that gritty individuals are more likely to have a growth mindset than a fixed one. Many leaders in education got on board with ‘growth mindset’ and the movement swept UK schools by storm.

It is a hugely positive initiative and when ‘growth mindset’ was introduced to schools, it was with the best intentions, but for me it can all feel rather trite. Grit needs teaching and modelling, day in day out, within the culture of the school and must be embedded in a curriculum that provides many opportunities for challenge and resilience.

Good examples of integrated grit are when resilience is woven into the fabric of the curriculum, like at Scarborough College, where a former Head actually introduced a subject named ‘Yorkshire Grit’ into his curriculum. The school explains: “In addition to their excellent academic credentials, pupils have made a difference in the world because of their ‘can do’ attitude, their resilience and their sense of humour. We recognise these traits in the landscape around us and in the natural energy inherent in Yorkshire folk. ‘Yorkshire Grit’ was designed to reinforce these characteristics.”

Duckworth believes that teachers not only need to teach grit and character to their children, they need to embody it in all that they do. Interestingly, she discovered that optimistic teachers were more likely to be gritty people and more likely to be happy outside of the classroom in their non-working lives. Both teacher grit and teacher life satisfaction were strongly connected to optimism and led to increased pupil performance.

So, we can deliberately ensure grit has prominence in our curriculum and staffroom and teach children to have a growth mindset. However, as Craig Barton points out in his book ‘How I Wish I’d Taught Maths’, schools need to proceed with caution. He points out that Dweck herself ‘concedes that much of her work on mindsets has been misinterpreted and misapplied in schools’.2 He writes of one of his Y9s leaving an assembly on mindset and saying, ‘It’s kind of hard to have a growth mindset when I keep doing sh*t on tests, sir.’ The child and Barton make a very good point. To be motivated and supported with the stamina necessary for Maths (and life in general), a crucial element is success. Nothing breeds motivation like success and, whilst we want pupils to rise to a challenge and show strength in adversity, it’s important to understand the role initial success plays in motivation. Barton explains ‘By emphasising the importance of mistakes in the mistaken belief that we can magically produce gritty, determined students with growth mindsets, we are in danger of overlooking the importance of success’. 2

Duckworth seems to agree with this. 3 In her 2020 TED talk, she explains that a feature of a gritty person is having the tenacity to withstand ‘deliberate practice’. Deliberate practice is focusing on the things you are not good at, or the things that are not much fun, and doing them anyway, day after day, in pursuit of a higher goal. This is a tough ask for many, so she advocates focusing on a child’s natural inclinations and passions and the things they are good at first, before tackling deliberate practice. It is the one activity highly successful people do a lot of, but we need to get our children to this point via mini successes.

Home/school partnership

School is clearly only one part of the picture. A child’s family culture has a great deal of importance in how a child perceives difficult situations and whether they are prepared to ‘stick at it’. Parents have a significant role to play here and there is a brilliant TED talk by education experts Rebecca Glover and Clemmie Stewart called ‘Does snowplough parenting remove grit?’4 Glover and Stewart call for parents to stop wading in and saving their children the minute they encounter distress or get into trouble They make an excellent case for parenting that instils grit and all the benefits that this brings.

If we are going to embed ‘grit’ into our curriculum, we most certainly need the parents on board and so explaining to them the scientific evidence behind ‘grit’ and the role they could play in supporting a school to instil it in their children could be transformational.

Parents need to understand that for children to be gritty themselves, children need ‘grit cheerleaders’ around them, people who won’t let them throw the towel in when the going gets tough and who remind them of others who faced challenges, just like them, and stuck with it.

5 measures to introduce

Get off to a gritty start: Start the year by explicitly teaching what grit is, by sending the message loud and clear that hard work, persistence
and passion matter for life. You will be setting a good classroom culture and strong work ethic. Using Duckworth’s scientific evidence and real-life examples, you can explain to children that natural talent is only one part of the picture. It is empowering; pupils will understand that they have control of their future success, but like all things worthwhile, it won’t be easy.

Role models: I appreciate, as Barton quite rightly points out, it takes more than a few posters put up in schools to introduce grit or growth mindset and it does, but my classroom posters did have a positive impact in promoting resilience. I had examples of successful ‘failures’ up in my room that the children often referred to, as did I. It’s reassuring and provides evidence you can’t argue with.

Outdoor education: This should be a top priority for all schools. Forest schools, outdoor adventure, team building etc. – children should be doing this type of activity frequently, not just on the annual residential. Different learning environments push children out of their comfort zones and thereby promote grit, helping kids come out of their shells and show you what they’re made of.

Extra-curricular activities: Duckworth’ s research found that a key indicator of university success was whether a pupil had ‘sustained an interest in something over many years’ and had improved or developed in that time. Grit can be encouraged and practised with hobbies and interests outside of school. Children should be encouraged and praised for consistent effort in sticking with that piano practice, chess club, volunteer work etc. and schools can not only notice and celebrate these achievements but promote them.

Character LAB: This is an online resource of which Angela Duckworth is the founder and CEO. ‘It is a non-profit whose mission is to advance scientific insights that help children thrive. ’ The playbooks for teachers are particularly good and you can head here for specific ‘grit’ resources.

There is so much to learn and to talk about. ‘Grit’ is most definitely a teaching rabbit hole, but I assure you, it is one well worth falling down.

References

1 Angela wrote a paper in 2007 entitled Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. She went on to present a TED talk on the same subject in 2013 (nearly 10 million views) and in 2016 turned her findings into a book and a New York Times best-seller.
2 How I Wish I’d Taught Maths – Craig Barton
4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_k8VFv2YbkY
5 https://www.ted.com/talks/rebecca_glover_clemmie_stewart_does_snowplough_parenting_remove_grit

Author

  • Kate McCallam

    Kate is assistant head at the British Section of the Lycée International in Paris. She is also a published writer and a proud trustee of Arvon, the UK’s leading creative writing charity. Kate also provides writing training and workshops.
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