The Welcome Debunking of “Grit”
“Much Ado about Grit: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of the Grit Literature” by Marcus Crede and colleagues analyzed 88 separate studies on grit and raised three main concerns: The effect sizes in Duckworth’s research were inaccurately presented to appear larger, the influence of grit has been overstated, and the characteristic grit is not much different from the concept of conscientiousness—a concept already well-known and well-researched by psychologists.In a email exchange with NPR in which she responded to these criticisms, Angela Duckworth agreed that, although the statistics in her paper were factually accurate, the language was such that the effect of grit could be misconstrued as greater than it actually was. Secondly, she also agreed that the impact of grit is actually in the “small to medium” range. And finally, when asked to comment on whether or not grit was unique from the notion of conscientiousness she acknowledged that grit was indeed in the same “family” as conscientiousness.
Grit is an easy concept to fall in love with because it represents hope and perseverance, and conjures up images of working-class individuals living the “American dream.” However, treating grit as an appealing and simple fix detracts attention from the larger structural inequities in schools, while simultaneously romanticizing notions of poverty.As I consider the future of grit in schools, I keep coming back to a visit I had at a local public school where a teacher lectured his students about the importance of following through on a goal, even if it wasn’t interesting. He bragged about students who memorized thousands of words and as a result won a local spelling bee. “These students showed grit, that’s why they won,” he told his students. What that teacher failed to say is that not all things are worth sticking with. Do we really want to teach our children to focus on memorization and tedious tasks for the sake of developing grit? Or do we want to teach students to explore, question, and engage in meaningful experiences that pertain to their lives?So why is grit at the center of the national education debate?Perhaps this idea of grit resonates with so many people who believe in the popular American adage that if you work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, then you can achieve anything. This belief unfortunately, assumes that individuals have the power, privilege, and access to craft their own futures, regardless of circumstance and systemic barriers.
The notion that kids in poverty can overcome hunger, lack of medical care, homelessness, and trauma by buckling down and persisting was always stupid and heartless, exactly what you would expect to hear from Scrooge or the Koch brothers or Betsy DeVos.
You know how to develop grit a.k.a. perseverance? Give kids (and others!) meaningful work, a great foundation, and lavish support. Oh, and also teach them to be nonperfectionist. Nonperfectionism is 90% of perseverance because, when you’re perfectionist, even the tiniest criticism or other setback can trigger your internal negative dialogue.
And that dialogue can derail you in a flash.
In case you can’t tell, I am thrilled to report on this. Little by little, the culture gets smarter and more humane.