Saturday night and I headed out to one of my favorite joints for beer and pizza. Carb nirvana after a long day filled with all of the things that stack up and make a day off not so off.
So there I am, jobs well done, with my tall one, and a nice thick book and all is right with the world. Until a kid walks by my table in a tee shirt with the words, “Got Grit?” shouting out above his school logo.
I could blame my reaction on heavy carb consumption, but the pizza hadn’t been served yet. No, my idyllic beer and pizza afternoon was ruined by that dangerous tee shirt, and how ubiquitous and misused the grit narrative has become. I’m so tired of the grit solution as a simple answer for the complex challenges that so many young people and their teachers face in the classroom each day.
What’s wrong with it, you ask?
Let’s start with what Grit is. In this instance, not a bird digestive or a Southern breakfast icon. The Character Lab, founded by the queen of Grit, Angela Duckworth, defines it as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.”
I’m in no way against persevering or long-term goals. I founded a non-profit that helps young people develop their life-goals and get the tools they need to achieve them. What some might define as gritty behaviors like revising an essay several times or slogging through to the end of a tough text a little at a time, are routinely things we help students do.
My issue with grit is that it puts all of the responsibility on the student who must demonstrate a very specific type of determination – on demand – without necessarily having the skills, conditions, or support to do so.
Hungry, exhausted students can’t concentrate. Reading assigned chapters of Moby Dick is understandably unimportant to a student who is the primary caregiver for younger siblings or a key breadwinner in his/her family. The consequences of frequent moves and school changes, excessive absences because of parental instability, or undeveloped reading ability are not the result of low grit. Not having the money to buy supplies for a take-home project or to put together an entry for the science fair has nothing to do with grittiness.
The troubling thing about grit mania is that too often, it facilitates the notion that those very real barriers are, conveniently, the fault of the student. They chose not to work hard, they chose not to persist. They just weren’t gritty enough. Which is ironic because for many kids in tough situations, they’ve already overcome tremendous obstacles- just to get as far as they are.
The problem with grit isn’t the idea that sustained effort through difficulty improves one’s chances for success. I totally agree. The problem is that grit is oversimplified and used completely outside the context of the barriers that must be breached to persist. As straightforward as we want it to seem, the complexity of success can’t be summed up in a tee-shirt. Realizing one’s potential is a complex recipe and many ecological factors—such as race, class, or family income affect access to the opportunities that Duckworth’s own grit manifesto says are crucial to getting it. Without acknowledging the conditions in which one is trying to succeed, or providing the tools to own one’s learning, grit becomes just one more thing that a kid can fail at. Grit has become an easy place to lay blame for their struggles; and absolve any responsibility for those who failed them.
If I could get myself on the grit train, it would be to explore grit in the context of systems rather than individual students. How do schools systems and communities show “perseverance and passion” in achieving their purpose? In my view, school districts that are destigmatizing free lunch or committing sufficient resources to train, support (and competitively pay) teachers to be persistent in their efforts to engage every student in their classroom are demonstrating grit. Communities that are investing in public/private partnerships that wrap services around students and their families are showing grit.
But as it relates to individual student achievement and predicting student success, I would like to see grit returned to its alternate definitions and embracing the complexity and very personal nature of how students succeed. Perhaps I can sum it up in a tee-shirt? “Grit: For birds and breakfast only.”