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A successful student: Grit over intellect

 I was never the smartest student. But my parents always told me to try my best. So I did, maniacally so. From school to baseball to piano, I made sure to work hard and dedicate myself. I (think I) turned out all right.

A recent article in The New York Times suggests that grit and other performance character traits matter more than intellect in predicting academic success. Writer Paul Tough cites research by Angela Duckworth, who finds that outstanding achievement emerges from students who combine “a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take.”

This kind of character is rare. Our fast-paced, judgmental society discourages us from persevering. It’s much easier to give up on something or to avoid it than to stick it out.

So far this year in my English class, my students are working extremely hard. But several of them, frustrated that their skills have not yet significantly improved, have begun to question their ability and now wonder whether they can achieve.

This is very normal. After all, they’ve been good students for a long time. They’re used to success. They’re used to working hard and getting rewarded. It’s no fun to work hard for no reward. Besides, their teachers have long praised them, sometimes for above-average skills. It’s no wonder that my students are experiencing dissonance.

What to do?

My typical response is to stay positive, do some cheerleading, and note students’ specific growth. This works over time but requires calm and rational thought. There’s no calm when you get your fourth F in a row on an essay you stayed up past midnight to perfect.

So my next step is to incorporate into my class some of the character education Tough writes about in his piece. My belief is that if students trust in themselves, in each other, and in me, they’ll trust the process, and they’ll practice the grit necessary to accomplish something extraordinary. 


  1. Julie

    Agreed. I’m too lazy to go find the original source, but I read about a study (I think done at Stanford) in How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer where one group of students was praised for being smart after they solved a puzzle and another was praised for working hard after they solved the same puzzle. When each group was asked to perform a subsequent harder task, those praised for their smarts were quicker to give up and performed less well than those praised for their effort.

    • Mark Isero

      Thanks, Julie! That reminds me of Carol Dweck’s work, too, about mindset. Too often teachers make statements to students that convey static messages — you’re smart or not smart. Even praise, especially when non-specific, limits kids.

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