So what is grit? In a 2013 report called Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology defines grit as, “Perseverance to accomplish long-term or higher-order goals in the face of challenges and setbacks, engaging the student’s psychological resources, such as their academic mindsets, effortful control, and strategies and tactics.” Let’s unpack that definition to get a better idea of what grit looks like in the classroom.
Perseverance to accomplish long-term or higher-order goals
Grit depends on students being intrinsically motivated to reach goals that are meaningful and important to them. Sometimes, students cannot immediately make the connection between those goals and the task or lesson at hand. That is why teachers need to know their students. Knowing a student’s future goals allows a teacher to make those connections in the classroom. Then, teachers can make sure their students understand why they need to learn the material at hand. By focusing on the Application Component of the STAR Protocol and helping students to make meaningful personal connections to the material they are studying, teachers can promote intrinsic motivation in the classroom.
In the face of challenges and setbacks
Engaging the student's psychological resources
1. Academic mindsets
How do students see themselves as learners? Do they see themselves as likely to succeed or likely to fail? Do they feel safe sharing their thoughts and ideas in their school environment? Do they see any value in the work their teacher is asking them to do? Do they value hard work and learning through mistakes, or do they see struggle as the sign of a personal failing?
Recently, two of my colleagues, Bryn Chighizola and Amy Cox, wrote about the importance of the growth mindset on this blog. That is one component of academic mindsets, which also encompass students’ values and goals, as well as their beliefs about their own competence, social connectedness, and belonging. Teachers can play a role in shaping students’ academic mindsets in a number of ways, such as praising effort rather than intelligence, asking students to explain the real-world applications of their learning, and creating safe and supportive learning environments that encourage students to take academic risks.
2. Effortful control
Will students complete an unpleasant task now if it will help them to achieve a long-term goal later on? Can they avoid the siren call of social media long enough to do their homework? When working in a group, can they focus their conversation on the project they are working on, rather than on their plans for the weekend? Will they defer short-term pleasure for long-term gain? Can they pass the marshmallow test?
Many people of all ages find effortful control the hardest aspect of perseverance to manage. It can be hard to say, “No,” to another television episode, another helping of dessert, or another twenty minutes on the internet, especially when saying, “Yes,” to our goals often means hard, unappealing work with no immediate pay-off. This is a hard element to address in the classroom because so much of it comes down to choices that students make outside of school. However, teachers can remind students what they are working towards, they can have students chart their progress towards academic goals, and they can inspire students to keep trying.
3. Strategies and tactics
When students encounter an obstacle, do they have a toolbox full of strategies that can help them to overcome it? Do they know how to manage their time? How to work through a challenging text or problem? How to break a larger project into its component parts? How to set manageable goals?
Many teachers already teach study skills, time management techniques, and goal setting. Sometimes, it can be difficult for students to remember to use these tools, however. One powerful technique I have seen teachers use is to ask students to explain their thinking strategies to the class. It can be especially beneficial to ask multiple students in a class to respond to the same question. In this way, students can remind each other of the strategies they are learning.
The report cautions that grit comes with potential risks and costs. In particular, it warns of the potential for stress, anxiety, and distraction that can result from “persevering to accomplish goals that are extrinsically motivated, unimportant to the student, or in some way inappropriate for the student.” In other words, some horses may not be suitable for all riders. I see this as another reminder of how important it is for teachers to know their students. When teachers engage students in conversations about their hopes and dreams, and give them the tools they need to persevere through the obstacles they will encounter along the way, they are helping to promote grit in the classroom.