Educators work hard every day to give their students the tools they feel they need for success, whether that success is understanding how the human body works, how to factor an equation, or where to place a comma—broadly, how to learn and apply new understandings to solve a problem. But when a student hits a wall and needs a breakthrough, what do we do? In my experience, I find it’s all too easy to fall into spoon-feeding. We tell them how to use the tools they’ve been given and what solution we think is best. We mean well, of course—we want to help the student ‘get unstuck,’ to move on to new learning, to model what we think the right answer is. But too often, we compromise students learning how to unstick themselves in the process. We need to step back and push students to figure out their own paths.
This philosophy is captured in the idea of “grit,” a “new buzz phrase in education” that signifies “persistence, determination and resilience… that drives one kid to practice trumpet or study Spanish for hours – or years – on end, while another quits after the first setback” (Smith, 2014). Many feel that shifting our classrooms to foster students’ grittiness will lead to higher student achievement and perseverance because students will gain dispositions and skills—namely, problem solving skills and a tolerance for struggle—that they can transfer to any new, challenging situation or environment.
How, then, do we center our classrooms around building grit? Sanguras (2017) recommends that teachers evaluate their lesson plans to ensure they are building in opportunities for students “to cultivate passion and/or persevere through challenges” (p. 93), such as incorporating structured free time during the school day where students can pursue passion projects. Martinez and Stager (2019) suggest an iterative design model in which students “make constant forward progress through a series of gradually improving prototypes” (p. 51), each prototype representing a challenge students had to overcome in their previous design. But setting aside that kind of time or taking on the shift that Martinez and Stager suggest may not be feasible in every school or classroom; we may lack the resources or the flexibility in curriculum.
But we can start small. Look for the little ways that we can build in opportunities for students to iterate and improve, whether it’s submitting corrections on a test for some extra credit or workshopping a piece of writing multiple times. Let students return to assignments later—gradebooks don’t need to be in permanent ink. Establishing grit starts with giving students opportunities. What can you do in your classroom, content area, and context?
Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2019). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom (2nd ed.). Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.
Sanguras, L. (2017). Grit in the classroom: Building perseverance for excellence in today’s students. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press, Inc.
Smith, T. (2014, March 17). Does Teaching Kids to Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead? Retrieved from NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/03/17/290089998/does-teaching-kids-to-get-gritty-help-them-get-ahead