By Karl Pupé

Karl Pupé asks how, as educators, we can introduce ‘grit’ to our classrooms.

What is ‘Grit?

The word ‘grit’ has almost become a cliché. In these turbulent times, we hear from politicians & leaders that we must be ‘grittier.’ But what does that mean?

Professor Angela Duckworth, psychologist & leading expert in Human Resilience, asked the question of what traits separated the top athletes, musicians, entrepreneurs and other leaders in their fields, from the rest of society. After extensive research, her studies found that the people who were at the top of their professions were not only uber-talented but possessed a particular character trait which she termed ‘grit.’

These high performers were never satisfied with their performance and were always looking for ways to improve. They were disciplined, focused and learnt to cope with the boredom, frustrations and pain that comes with mastering their craft. They trained relentlessly, for months, years and even decades before they achieved the results that they were hoping for.

Despite whatever external rewards came with their developing skills, they were also motivated to seek out intrinsic rewards like mastery and self-actualisation. Duckworth wrote in her book Grit “it was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special1.”

Duckworth’s book became a New York Times bestseller & her TED talks have been watched over 8 million times, launching her to literary stardom. She discusses many ideas in her book, but I will focus on two that you can implement in your classrooms.

1. Embrace Failure

As part of her research, Duckworth studied recruits that entered the United States Military Academy better known as ‘West Point,’ America’s most prestigious and notoriously challenging military training facility. Many recruits struggle with the physical and academic rigour imposed by the facility and therefore dropouts are not uncommon.

When she interviewed the recruits, Duckworth found the most significant factor of graduation success was not their GPA results or superior physical attributes but their ability to learn from their failures and bounce back from hardship.

As classroom teachers, you can make your classes “failure-friendly”. Emphasise to your students that failure is actually an essential component to academic success and in many cases this is evidence that they are learning. Celebrate effort as much as success, especially for students who may not be as strong in your subject, helping them to cultivate a Growth Mindset. This is about making your students more resilient and willing to keep on going.

2. Teach Your Students How To Delay Gratification for Greater Rewards

Duckworth cited the work of her mentor Walter Mischel, Professor of Psychology in Columbia University and conductor of the now legendary ‘Marshmallow Test’ in the 1960s. The test was simple. A researcher would sit a four-year old child in a room with a marshmallow. The researcher would announce that they are leaving the room and told the pre-schoolers if they wanted to eat the treat if they wished. But if they could wait 15 minutes for the researcher to return, they could have two marshmallows instead.

The researchers collated the data and 20 years later tracked the students down to see how they were faring in their lives. What Mischel found (and what Duckworth echoed) was that the students who could wait and received the two treats, had better test scores, better jobs and overall, in an economic sense at least, better lives. They both concluded that the key to success in life was the ability to delay gratification and to stay focused on long term outcomes rather than short term gains.

Students, especially before exams, tend to complain about the workload and can sometimes be discouraged. You must be able to help your pupils see the ‘big picture’ and paint a compelling vision of what their lives could look like if they do well in your subject.

If they are tired and demotivated, give them breaks and show them motivational videos about people whom they admire but had to work hard to get to where they wanted to be. Great motivational speakers like Les Brown, Eric Thomas and Tony Robbins can be watched freely on YouTube and can help lift the spirits of individuals in your class.

The Drawback of Grit

Grit is not a cure-all. We live in grossly unfair society and Duckworth’s work has received its fair share of criticism. The central tenet of “working-harder, never-give-up” doesn’t play nicely with our ever increasing post-industrial society.

As David Denby wrote for The New Yorker “Family background, opportunity, culture, landing at the right place at the right time, the overall state of the economy – all these elements, operating at once, allow some talented people to do much better than other talented people.2

Yes, life success depends on your ability to be resilient in the face of difficulties, but other important factors like natural ability, background, gender, ethnicity and even blind luck all play a part in life success. We must be optimistic with our students but not delusional. As shows like X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent have proved, self-belief & hard work does not always equate to adoration, fame and megabucks. We have a responsibility to guide our students in making brave yet pragmatic life choices.

Thank you Mr Walker

I hated Maths. As I sat in the Year 10 bottom-set, looking at my returned test-paper with a fat red ‘F’ staring at me arrogantly, I slumped in my chair, imagining my Mum’s disappointment and seeing my Sega Megadrive spirited away to the loft as forfeit.

My Maths teacher, Mr ‘Walker’ (not his real name) looked at me – a face mixed with concern, pity and optimism and asked me to stay behind, after class to give me a word of advice that only changed my grade, but my life and which also shaped my teaching career.

After everyone had left, I explained to Mr Walker that I had never been good at Maths and was “destined to fail, so there was no point even trying”.

Mr Walker stated, “You may not be as naturally talented as the other students, but you have an able brain and a great work ethic and that’s enough. Every time I open the ‘Tortoise and the Hare’ book, the Tortoise won. Remember ‘inch-by-inch, everything is a synch.’

Over the next two years, he stayed behind after school to help me with specific Math’s problems, mark extra work he set and gave me old test papers to practice my exam technique. He celebrated my successes and encouraged me when I felt frustrated, until I passed comfortably. I owe my Math’s grade to that great man.

Although I have had setbacks, failures and heartbreaks, the example that Mr Walker set for me was to keep going, keep learning and to keep trying to improve myself. For me, grit has helped me fall in love with learning and be patient. When the inevitable frustrations crop up, I know that just like the Tortoise, with each step, I am moving forward.

In these times of uncertainty & disruption, teaching our students to be resilient, internally motivated and if they can, enjoy the difficulties they face, could be the greatest gift we can give them in the classroom. It certainly was for me.

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