From Greater Good
The Science of a Meaningful Life
By Vicki Zakrzewski
March 20, 2014
Schools are exploring how to foster—and even grade—perseverance and passion. But before we take grit too far, we need to remember how little we know about it.
Grit is all over the news these days—the “latest fad in schools, ” according to author Alfie Kohn. With research suggesting that grit is linked to academic success, many policy makers, school leaders, and educators are crossing their fingers that this might be the silver bullet needed to give a boost to struggling students.
Yet a closer examination of the actual research on grit reveals that there are many missing pieces to the grit puzzle. And if we’re not careful, encouraging our students to be “gritty” or, perhaps even worse, grading them on their level of grit—as they do at KIPP charter schools—may do more harm than good.
Leading grit researcher Angela Duckworth defines grit as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” In a nutshell, her research has found that students with high levels of grit are more successful in both academic and non-academic pursuits.
But there’s a lot more to grit then just identifying a goal and going for it. Before a school races to make grit a key factor in student success, here are a few important things to consider:
1.) We don’t know how to teach it, and Duckworth is the first to admit this. So how can schools expect students to develop something that they’re not sure they can teach and students can learn, let alone grade them on it? It’s an unfair proposition for both students and teachers alike.
Part of the challenge is that it’s not known whether a person’s level of grit can change. Grit is understood by researchers to be a stable personality trait, possibly part of the trait of “conscientiousness.” What this means is that a person’s level of grit generally remains the same over time.
Yet while developmental psychologists agree that a child’s personality becomes more stable as he or she goes through certain developmental stages, research on personality traits in adults suggests that these traits may actually change gradually over the lifespan. However, much is predicated on other factors, such as environment, the process of identity development, and interactions with other people.
In other words, we can change—but the questions remain: when, how, how much and how fast?
So without a deeper understanding of child development, it is unrealistic to assume we can teach a student to increase his or her level of grit in a math class over the course of a semester and then maintain that level for the remainder of his or her school career. And, unfortunately, most teachers and school leaders do not have a strong grounding in child development, as shown in a recent report on teacher preparation programs by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.
Still, some researchers who are trying to figure out if grit can be taught suggest that we look at children’s motivation. This leads us to the next point.
2.) Grit requires passion for long-term goals. Not a lot of students come to school with this in place. So the next question is whether or not schools can help students create these goals. And the answer is… maybe.
Researchers who created a program to help students cultivate hope found that the first step was having students figure out what goals were important to them—not to their parents or their teachers. Otherwise, students had a hard time staying motivated to reach their goals.
And not just any goal will do. One study found that students who score higher in grit linked their personal goals (“I want to become an engineer”) with outcomes that benefit the greater good (“because it will help people”). This same study showed that helping students define what the authors called “beyond-the-self” outcomes at the beginning of a semester led to a higher GPA. Whether or not this meant that students raised their grit levels is unknown—again, the research is just not there yet.
But for students who may come into our classrooms with high levels of grit—and even for those who don’t—helping them shape their goals to serve more than just themselves may help motivate them to achieve those goals, especially when school seems tedious.
3.) The interplay of grit and emotions. Grit involves two psychological resources: self-discipline and self-control, both of which require the ability to manage emotions and thoughts. Yet the research on grit rarely, if ever, mentions the importance of emotions—and this is where the dark side of grit comes in.
According to a U.S. Department of Education report on grit, “persevering in the face of challenges or setbacks to accomplish goals that are extrinsically motivated, unimportant to the student, or in some way inappropriate for the student may potentially induce stress, anxiety, and distraction, and have detrimental impacts on students’ long-term retention, conceptual learning, and psychological well-being.”
In other words, encouraging or forcing students to be “gritty” may, in some situations, do more harm than good.
Leading emotion researcher Richard Davidson tells us that emotions and cognition work together in a very seamless way to help us persevere on tasks. And yet when the going gets tough and emotions like fear or anger arise, many of us lack the emotional intelligence to know how to deal with those emotions.
Research states that there are two ways we regulate our difficult emotions: cognitive reappraisal or suppression.
Cognitive reappraisal means that we reframe the situation that caused the negative emotion. For example, a student who does poorly on a test may reframe the situation as an opportunity to learn from mistakes and improve. People who use this method generally have more positive emotions, closer relationships, and overall well-being.
Emotion suppression means just that: pushing away rather than dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions. Long term, this method of emotion regulation can lead to higher levels of negative emotions, anxiety, and depression. People who regularly suppress their emotions also have fewer close relationships and social support.
And, pertinent to education, researchers have found that emotional suppression is higher amongst adolescents than adults.
This forces us to ask the question: Are students who demonstrate high levels of grit—particularly when pressured by parents and teachers—dealing with their emotions in a positive or negative way? And what about students with a history of complex trauma, who may use emotional suppression as a method of survival?
What happens when schools grade them on their ability to push through their personal challenges to succeed academically without giving them the resources for how to do that?
The research on grit does not provide any answers yet, especially considering that the majority of studies have only been conducted with high-performing students at elite schools.
It is up to parents and teachers to help students find healthy ways to manage their emotions, so that this potential dark side of grit does not rear its ugly head.
In the end, I doubt that grit is just a “fad.” Even though we may not know a whole lot about it yet, we do know that it plays an important role in helping us achieve what we want out of life.
But it’s only one piece of the puzzle of human development. Cultivating other qualities such as meaning and purpose, empathy, compassion, hope, forgiveness, and gratitude are also part of being human—and, given their long history, probably aren’t going away anytime soon.
Vicki Zakrzewski, Ph.D., is the education director of the Greater Good Science Center.