Let them eat grit

true grit

For some time now “grit” has become one of the new mantras of education reform and schools are somehow supposed to teach students how to have more. Here’s a piece on why this is nonsense, from Joe Bower, a teacher in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, who seeks to explore progressive forms of education. This appeared on his blog,” for the love of learning.”

 

By Joe Bower

 It is tempting to see education as the great equalizer that will allow children to overcome differences in background, culture and privilege. It would be convenient if poverty was not an explanation for poor academic achievement.

We all want children to be resilient and persistent in the face of challenges. However, as a teacher who already teaches children to develop a growth-mindset and resiliency, I am uninspired by pundits claims we just need more grit from students.

We know that affluent children who have opportunities and support to learn tend to out-score their less privileged peers. While there are outliers and exceptions, this is not up for debate.

Education systems around the world are being challenged to provide a more equitable system that allows all children, regardless of their background, culture or privilege, to be educated at a very high level.

When pundits call for more grit and resiliency, they aren’t talking about all children. No one is demanding that high-scoring students show more grit. When people call for more grit they are talking about the low scorers — and we know the low scorers tend to be children who are English language learners, special needs, living in poverty, suffering from mental health problems or are for complex reasons generally difficult to educate.

When we say that students need more grit and resiliency, we are really telling disadvantaged children that they just need to try harder. This is wrong for four reasons:

1) Children in poverty are often the ones facing the most challenges and are already exhibiting impressive amounts of resiliency. I teach in a children’s inpatient psychiatric assessment unit, so I work with these kids daily. It’s easier for children to “pull up their socks” if they own socks. These children don’t need grit — they need their basic needs met.

2) Too often the argument for more grit in children is an abdication of the system’s responsibility to make things more equitable. I’m all for growth-mindset and resiliency, I teach it everyday, but they are not systemic solutions to inequality and inequity. Systems thinking tells us that improving education has less to do with characteristics of individual teachers and students and more to do with priorities of schools and school systems.

3) Children who are a challenge to educate, whether they be English language learners, special needs, mentally ill, easily frustrated or chronically irritable, don’t need to be reminded of our expectations or told to try harder. If we resign ourselves to thinking children just need more grit, we might be tempted to frame this as a motivation problem that can be solved with rewards and punishments. We need to move away from the mindset that says children will be successful if they want to and move towards the mindset that says children will be successful when they can. 

4) For every time we encourage kids to not throw in the towel or to get back on the horse when they fall off, we need to reflect on the environments children are living and learning in and the tasks they are required to do. Sometimes the child’s environment is abusive and neglectful, and sometimes the tasks required of them are developmentally inappropriate or simply unengaging and irrelevant — either way, more grit might teach kids how to play a game stacked against their favour without teaching them how to change the game.

I’ve also found that the people who call for more grit from students tend to also be the people who claim we need to go back to basics — to which I ask, “When did we leave?” Alfie Kohn writes:

The notion that our schools have strayed from the old-fashioned teaching that used to be successful is dead wrong on two counts. First, old-fashioned methods weren’t all that successful in the past either. It may not be easy for us to admit, but those methods caused countless people to give up on school and think of themselves as stupid. Even people who used to be successful students often don’t show much depth of understanding, much capacity for critical reflection, or a lifelong love of learning.

People who call for more grit and a back to basics approach tend to suffer from what Jamie Vollmer describes as Nostesia which “is a hallucinogenic mixture of 50% nostalgia and 50% amnesia that distorts rational thinking.”

It’s easy to call for more grit.

It’s easy to cry that we need to go back to basics.

It’s easy to blame the kids and the schools.

It’s easy because it means we don’t have to reflect inward – rather we just have to look outward. Challenging one’s own practices and system priorities can be tough but nothing will ever change and schools will never improve as long as we place all the responsibility for change and improvement on students and schools.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | December 12, 2013