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Gritty Educational Models to Prepare Kids for the Real World

If we could really step back and apply the principles of backward planning, we may not need to be talking about grit at the post-secondary level of education. But there it is in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Looking Beyond Data to Help Students Succeed, and a related one, An Enrollment Experiment, Grounded in ‘Grit,’ discussing  two schools looking beyond standard assessments of performance and measuring noncognitive skills in order to help students who might otherwise struggle survive and excel in the college environment.

The articles relate how schools such as Santa Monica College and Portmouth College are implementing such assessments and follow-on programming to keep students in school and contribute to their success once they graduate. The noncognitive traits that are measured include things such as study habits, time-management, confidence, test-taking skills and perseverance (aka “grit”).

Both schools provide feedback to students and then assign coaches or mentors to work with students to bolster their confidence and keep them on track. The assessment used by Santa Monica is SuccessNavigator, developed by ETS and taken by over 25,000 students on about 150 college campuses. Portmouth’s approach incorporates a program called “Launch Pad,” which is a three-week online course, assessment and face-to-face experiential learning program to get students started. Mentors and additional coursework are also part of the plan to keep students on track.

No question that the programs can add value, and Santa Monica and Portmouth are both community colleges supporting a large number of first generation college students with their own set of challenges, including both academic and non-academic ones. You get the sense from reading the articles that grit is something particularly required by a particular type of student or demographic.

But the reality is that we all need grit in our learning design.

What is Grit?

Angela Duckworth, a former middle school and high school math teacher turned psychology professor is known for her research in intelligence. She focused on a personality trait that she calls “grit,” “sticking with things over time until you master them.” A gritty person, therefore, is one who “approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.” In comparing students on the basis of intelligence tests and grit, Duckworth found that students with higher IQ test scores had less grit and conversely, those with lower IQ test scores had more grit. And if you haven’t already guessed, amongst those study participants, the grittiest ones actually had the highest GPAs.

Duckworth created a test called the “Grit Scale,” a series of 8-12 items on which you rate yourself. For example: “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge” and “Setbacks don’t discourage me.” The Grit Scale has predicted success in West Point and the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It’s also the basis for the most recent work in colleges seeking to support student success.

Who Needs Grit?

If we look back at our first two examples, grit is certainly something that can help students to overcome adverse circumstances, such as those encountered by first generation students in community colleges. My argument is that if we were doing things right in K-12, we wouldn’t need it there. This, of course, brings us back to not only debates over equality in education but also over high-stakes testing and all the emphasis on test prep to the detriment of other subjects and other approaches to learning.

Grit can be a loaded topic, with arguments focusing on the socio-economic factors that constitute challenges or barriers to success, but from a learning design perspective, it’s clear to me that we all need a little more grit in the learning process.

How Can We Apply More Grit to K-12?

Grit can be applied to many learning approaches that put the child in the driver’s seat and allow for extensive, self-directed, problem-based learning. By immersing kids in longer-term projects, and supporting their learning with mentoring and coaching throughout, we can support learning that over time will help develop mature, critical thinkers.  Thomas Hoerr, author of Fostering Grit, said something that reminded me of one of my learning heroes, Paolo Freire: “Fostering Grit is dialog. It’s not something that we do to our students; rather it is something we do with them.”

He also said that teaching for grit “means taking the long view,” which is why I say that while implementing additional support at the community college is a good thing, it would be better to have started earlier and imbued all students with grit through meaningful learning engagements throughout the educational process.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

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