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Teaching Strategies: Examining Perseverance

Jordan Catapano

The idea of grit – or how perseverant an individual is in the face of obstacles – was popularized by Angela Duckworth’s research on the subject and its direct implications for education. Grit appears to be a key element correlated to long-term success in individuals, as their determination to achieve a long-term goal allows them to overcome temporary failure and adversity.

It seemed logical then that an education system interested in helping students achieve long-term success would help them develop grit. What’s wrong with inculcating you-can-do-it teaching strategies and attitudes to help students focus on elements on achievement?

But a recent study in the Journal of Research in Personality suggests that grit doesn’t necessarily lead to more happiness or benefits. Developing a strong perseverance seems like it could help students achieve what they would have given up on before, so what does this research mean when it suggests that grit might not necessarily be as beneficial for students as we once thought?

Teaching Strategies: What Grit Does for Students 

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At my school, I’ve seen students on various athletic teams wearing shirts with this statement:

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

The statement encourages students of all ability levels to work hard. The harder they work, the better they become regardless of innate aptitude. Through mantras like these, athletes are encouraged to have grit – the quality that endows them with persistence and long-sightedness to improve their capabilities.

In Duckworth’s study, she states that “One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success … it was grit.” Grittier students are ones who are less likely to give up when faced with a challenging task. IQ and talent are not the only factors that determine how successful students are at learning. Often, students who aren’t as innately intelligent can end up doing much better than those who appear to have more natural aptitude for a task.

Grit is perseverance for very long-term goals. It is having stamina, and living life like it’s a marathon instead of a sprint. It is maintaining behaviors that are consistently oriented towards future aspirations, even when those tasks are time-consuming and challenging. So students who demonstrate grit are students who are more likely to double down on challenging academic tasks rather than throwing in the towel and declaring, “I just can’t do it.”

Many times when students confront a particular task that they cannot adequately complete, they stop. If this happens at an early age – such as a student growing frustrated with or falling behind peers in literacy – then they may endure years of opposition to learning during the rest of their schooling. However, if schools can focus on teaching students how to persevere, then they might help students succeed where they would have otherwise failed.

The concept of grit has gained momentum since Duckworth’s publication in 2007. Journalist Paul Tough’s bestseller “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character emphasizes grit’s role in child development. Educational leader Thomas Hoerr with the ASCD also published “Fostering Grit,” which asserts, “Knowing how to respond to frustration and failure is essential whether a student struggles or excels.” Many examiners of grit, including Duckworth herself, also explore Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset that points to evidence of intelligence and capabilities being fluid rather than fixed.

There’s little doubt that encouraging students to have more perseverance when the going gets tough will do harm. Even skeptics of Duckworth’s research – like Eldir Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan in their book “Scarcity – admit that having grit is better than not having grit.

But is there a point when focusing on grit stops helping students perform better academically and instead serves as a detriment?

How Perseverance Can Prove Costly

Popular critiques of grit focus on the economic, geographic, cultural, and racial components that make it more challenging for some students to focus on long-term objectives and understand how their day-to-day tasks fit future aspirations. For example, students wondering where their next meal may come from may have a different perspective on growth and success than a student wondering which Ivy League school will give them the best scholarship. Rachel Cohen’s article “Teaching Character” from “The American Prospect” provides a thoughtful synopsis of grit’s development and backlash in recent years.

Cohen also examines how skeptics question the science behind Duckworth’s findings, how grit ignores student creativity and motivation, and how grit just might provide that one-size-fits-all euphonic solution that appeases philanthropists and politicians more than actually solving students’ needs.

The general criticism of grit suggested by the Journal of Research in Personality is that grit requires a “costly perseverance,” a determination that might have students focusing too much on the sticking-with-it mentality regardless of what “it” might be. With every bit of persistence comes opportunity cost, and when students over-exert themselves on an unfulfilling or insignificant task, they may be missing better opportunities for learning.

Persistence is generally a positive quality; however, it only serves its owner well if the goal the individual persists toward is worthy. So while students might be encouraged to continually stay with a given task until they accomplish it, they might in fact discover that the goal they’ve persisted toward has cost them in other ways. The study points out that while gritty individuals are “more willing to risk failing to complete a task” and “expend more effort and persist longer in a game rather than quit,” they are “more willing to risk suffering monetary loss to persist.”

Ultimately, the students may discover that grit is difficult to turn on and off “those who have it sometimes set themselves up for failure by overreaching,” according to a University of Southern California summary.

So does this imply that grit is negative, and schools should avoid focusing on perseverance as a character quality?

It All Boils Down

There’s no doubt that grittier individuals are more likely to stick with tasks once they’ve begun. But the downside comes when those tasks are too complicated, overwhelming, uninteresting, or just plain unnecessary. Gritty individuals may be trading lots of time on tasks they ought not to.

To many, the study comes to a blindingly obvious conclusion: Not every task is worth persevering with. There are all sorts of factors that complicate how big of a role grit ought to play within our overall decisionmaking. What may be more beneficial to students is combining an education on grit with an education on goal setting and prioritizing. Perhaps we ought to teach students to stick with what matters, and to weigh the pros and cons to figure out what exactly it is that matters. This leads to more critical thinking and substantiates more elaborate considerations related to how to maximize their pursuits.

If students know how to evaluate priorities and stick with what matters, then they are applying grit to the most worthwhile elements and avoiding unnecessary pitfalls of focus. Of course, they cannot use this as an excuse for giving up or ignoring required or essential tasks. Perhaps it’s the concept itself – grit – that has caused many adults to focus on teaching this quality to students. Their own grit makes them not want to give up in their efforts of inculcating others on this virtue. Ultimately, if we truly want our students to thrive, then we must help them develop their whole person and a wide range of characteristics, among which is included grit.

What do you think about grit? How do you help students develop character skills such as grit and perseverance in your classroom? Tell us in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.