Grit: An Essential Ingredient of Academic Success
An athlete who wins an Olympic medal.
A cadet who passes basic training.
A student who earns a high GPA.
What do these people have in common?
Talent or intelligence may have been the first answers to come to mind, but there’s another less conspicuous factor that runs strong in these individuals: grit.
Grit is “the sustained perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” according to Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth, a researcher studying achievement at the University of Pennsylvania who won a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2013.
Grit is not a new concept; we’ve known for decades that talent or intelligence alone does not automatically translate to high achievement. In the 1920s, Stanford graduate student Catharine Cox read the biographies of 300 famous geniuses—including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci, and Charles Darwin—and determined that certain qualities differentiated those who accomplished enough to change the world: the tendency not to abandon tasks for novelty and the tendency not to abandon tasks in the face of obstacles. In other words, even the world’s most renowned geniuses had to consistently work toward their goals and overcome adversity in order to accomplish great things.
As researchers continue to study grit in the 21st century, we’re gaining an understanding of just how significant grit may be in terms of achievement—potentially equal to or even more significant than talent or intelligence. According to Duckworth, grit is the most accurate predictor of whether cadets will finish basic training at West Point—more so than SAT, GPA, extracurricular activities, and physical aptitude combined.
Duckworth notes that a common misconception about grit involves emphasizing resilience while overlooking the need to nurture consistent passion over the long term. In reality, grit involves both. People are gritty both when they choose to devote their time and effort to a pursuit and when they overcome obstacles to do so.
Given grit’s potential power to shape young people’s lives, educators are understandably interested in learning how to help students develop this characteristic. Schools across the country, including the KIPP public-charter school network, are creating curricula and implementing programs to help students become grittier.
A focus on character has been a cornerstone of KIPP since its inception, and still composes the essence of its beliefs: To succeed in college and the world beyond, KIPPsters need both a strong academic foundation and well-developed character strengths. KIPP’s character work focuses on the seven strengths—including grit—that are critical for an engaged, happy, and successful life, and was developed in collaboration with Duckworth and others. These strengths are:
Zest: Enthusiastic and energetic participation in life
Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals
Optimism: Confidence in a future full of positive possibilities
Self-control: The capacity to regulate one's own responses so they align with short- and long-term goals
Gratitude: Appreciation for the benefits we receive from others, and the desire to express thanks
Social intelligence: Understanding the feelings of others and adapting actions accordingly
Curiosity: Eagerness to explore new things with openness
As more research is published, educators will continue to refine how they address grit in the classroom. Below are just a few examples of things you can do to help your students develop the perseverance and passion they need to achieve long-term goals.
Avoid the "grass is always greener" mentality
Help students focus on the tasks in front of them and resist "grass is always greener" thinking. This will help them persevere through difficulty rather than losing interest in the challenge. You may say things like, "This math problem is challenging, but that means we need to focus even more instead of skipping ahead to the next one. Let’s work together to figure it out."
Identify and focus on student passions
Help students identify and focus on their passions—something most adults need help doing as well. The deliberate, consistent practice involved in becoming good at a skill will help an individual develop grit, but the person must also be passionate enough about honing the skill to put in the needed time and effort. Pose questions like "If you had a whole day free, what would you have the most fun doing?" or "When you were little, what did you dream about doing or becoming?" To encourage students’ passions, you could also do things like commission a classroom mural from a student who doodles in his notebook or check out a library book on cartooning for him.
Praise effort and perseverance over getting the right answer
Praising effort, perseverance, and learning over getting the right answer encourages students to value the hard work behind achievements. However, right answers still matter, and praising effort should not overshadow this. Say things like, "That feeling of math being hard is the feeling of your brain growing."
Have students explain their thought processes
Ask students to explain their thought processes in relation to what worked and what didn’t. This will train them to become flexible, creative thinkers who can overcome obstacles. Say things like, "The point isn’t to get it all right away—the point is to grow your understanding step by step. What can you try next?"
Resist giving unchallenged praise
When students do something quickly and easily, resist the temptation to praise them. Instead, tell them, "I’m sorry I wasted your time on something too easy for you. Let’s do something you can learn from." This shows students that learning something new and growing their brains is more important than easily getting the right answer.
Featured White Paper:
Read this white paper by Dr. Elizabeth R. Kazakoff to learn about well-researched methods of supporting students’ intrinsic motivation and how to apply that research to selecting and using educational technology.