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The confusing new terrain of grit

gritfavicon OK, now I’m totally confused.

I used to think I understood the concept of grit and its importance in education. It’s the non-cognitive skill (or character trait) studied by Angela Duckworth, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and made popular by writer Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed.

I thought I understood grit so much that I wrote about it a few times and even taught it to my AP English students two years ago. When they faltered during Fall semester on their essays, I reminded my students of their strength, and I explained that long-term success came from long-term determination. Grit became a buzzword in our class — and occasionally a joke, particularly in our morning classes when my students were hungry and wanted the plural form for breakfast.

Now, two years later, National Public Radio this morning put out not one but two reports on grit, and I’m thoroughly confused. (The reporters call grit “the new thing in education.”) Both are around seven minutes long and worth listening to.

Here’s the first one:

This first report solidified my hunch that grit has been claimed (and possibly co-opted) by conservative educators. Perhaps the shift began when Dave Levin of KIPP became interested in the non-cognitive skill. KIPP schools now teach and assess students on grit, and Mr. Levin teaches a Coursera course on building character in students. As Alfie Kohn argues in the piece, grit is becoming a “virtue” that conservatives like William Bennett would say that “good” students have and “bad” students lack. To Mr. Kohn, grit is an ingredient of a “bootstraps” mentality.

If the first NPR report made me queasy, the second one totally confounded me. Here it is:

Yes, I understand that “smart” is a dirty word. But grit is the outcome of growth mindset? Interesting. Sure, I suppose that makes sense, but I’d never heard the two terms in the same sentence. Certainly Stanford professor Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, wouldn’t want to fraternize with the new grit folks, would she? Now I’m not so sure. The lines are being blurred!

And maybe that’s a good thing. I’ve always disliked the dichotomy in educational discourse. The truth is, There’s nothing wrong with grit and growth mindset existing together. We can all like them! Who wouldn’t want their children to be resilient and see challenges as opportunities for growth?

Unfortunately, nothing in education is that simple. The people who make policy have the power and the resources to shape how we understand and use concepts like grit and growth mindset. It’s all about metaphor. A good word in educational reform today may be a bad word tomorrow, and vice-versa.

Confused yet? (I am.) By the way: Thank you, Michele, for letting me know about the first NPR piece this morning! My loyal Iserotope readers are also great reporters! favicon

Please share your brilliant insights!