Grit Is Not (Necessarily) A Virtue

I’m currently studying in the field of education. This is an interesting area in that everyone agrees that it is important, yet there’s so much variability in its delivery and outcomes. Even in the brief time that I have read about and visited schools so far, my encounters have ran the gamut from inspiring and heartwarming to infuriating and depressing. The system muddles along with so much that needs to be improved.

A while back I saw this short TED talk where researcher Angela Lee Duckworth spoke on the importance of grit to success:

To summarise:

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

As with most TED talks, it is slick and persuasive. I remember silently assenting to this obvious and important truth. The implication for education is clear: we need to teach grit to children so that they can be more successful. Sounds about right?

Not so fast. A couple of weeks ago I was going through the archives of Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer who is an outspoken critic of the testing culture in schools. I came across an article, “Grit: A Skeptical Look at the Latest Educational Fad,” that gave me pause. Kohn makes several arguments against grit, including, for example, that it may be pointless (and even harmful) to persist with something, and that grit unduly focuses on the “how” at the expense of the “why” (e.g., fear, approval seeking, genuine interest, etc.), which may be the more important consideration.

For me, Kohn’s most noteworthy objection to proponents of grit goes to the heart of their conception of students in the education system. Proponents of grit place the emphasis on young people’s inner character—their grit, resilience, perseverance, and so forth. However, Kohn argues that the more we focus on these personal qualities, the less likely we’ll question the big picture, including problematic policies and institutions. For proponents of grit, underachievement is to be explained by internal character flaws, such as “failure to exercise self-discipline”, rather than structural issues such as class and privilege which in reality play a significant (and often determinative) role in economic outcomes.

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Perhaps, as Kohn points out, the problem is not with kids who are lacking in their stick-to-itiveness. Perhaps they tune out because what they’re asked to do is not particularly engaging or relevant. There are educational reformers who are on a mission to make pedagogy more constructive and imaginative, and less focused on memorisation and testing. Kohn notes that for Duckworth and other proponents of grit, they look at the status quo and ask: How can we get kids to put up with it?

When you put it that way, grit doesn’t sound so flash anymore, does it? Grit is nice. Grit is important. But we can and should also do more to change a broken system rather than simply get kids to adapt to it.

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