Grit – it’s a hot topic in education and it’s being written about a lot. Angela Duckworth, of the University of Pennsylvania, has defined grit as the passion and perseverance for long-term goals. She has also built a tool to measure grit you can take here if you’re interested. Those of us who have worked with high school and college students can probably recall many students we’d define as gritty, but Duckworth’s research has made grit a measured and valid trait that positively correlates with academic performance and retention.
I love the concept of grit – it articulates in one word so many of the qualities I see in the first-generation college students I work with now, and have worked with in the past 13 years. I’ve worked with hundreds of first-gen students from low-income backgrounds who have competed for and won scholarships for college. They all overcame adversity in their lives to get accepted to a selective university. Their grit shows in their ability to keep driving toward their goal of getting into college in spite of the obstacles in their way. They found a way to keep going in high school for four years and then setting their sights on a college degree. Four and five years to get their degree – now that’s long-term goal!
From what I have read, you can’t have grit unless you’ve overcome setbacks. It’s up to each individual to determine what a setback is, because what might be a setback to me, would hardly be a bump in the road to another person. What’s unique about the grit concept is that when a person experiences a setback, they don’t exchange one goal for another, or stop attempting to reach their goal, they take the setback as an opportunity to commit to different path to get to that goal. Getting there can be a life’s work, if it’s elite status as a musician, researcher, or athlete, or less than a lifetime, if it’s a student wanting to get into and graduate from college against the odds.
I gave a small sample of my students the grit test, thinking that because of their backgrounds and their status as first-generation students with a prestigious scholarship, their grit scores would be pretty high. It’s only a small sample, but what I found is that their average score exceeded other groups that Duckworth and others had studied. Their average was higher than one class of entering West Point Cadets, higher than a group of Ivy League undergraduates, and higher than the average scores of both the entering and senior-year engineering students at the same university.
If their grit scores predict persistence in college and correlates positively with academic performance, then I have a pretty amazing class on my hand.
But what happens if their grit “runs out,” or gets worn down, like used sandpaper? Or what if they don’t use grit in a healthy way? They pursue a long-term goal that they can never reach (like a 5’8″ high school basketball player only preparing for a career in the NBA, for example)? And what if some students’ grit scores are low – is there a way to build grit to help students persist through high school and college?
These are some questions I’m pondering as I read articles and research on grit, self-discipline, and academic performance. I’ll keep writing about it and you can feel free to share what you know and ask questions. If you’re interested in reading any of the articles, you can visit the Duckworth Lab page.
So often first-generation college students with low-income backgrounds are viewed through a deficit lens, considering all the things they don’t have and why they don’t succeed in college. I think grit is a trait many of them possess, and it is a positive characteristic that can take them much farther than talent alone.
I hope that we, as educators, can celebrate this trait, nurture it, direct in healthy ways, and perhaps even help it grow!
Thank you for reading!
Make it a great day!
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