Pushing the ‘Grit’ Envelope

‘Grit’ is everywhere in education these days.

Growth Verses Fixed

In schools around the world, teachers are advocating for a ‘growth’ verses ‘fixed’ mindset and they all have their own ideations of the above graphic that’s age and subject specific. As someone who supports teachers from K-12, I’ve seen no other buzz word spread so readily to classrooms in my lifetime. Carol Dweck wrote about this in ‘Mindset’ and dozens of advocates and devotees have sprung up everywhere proposing that if we can only engender and teach perseverance and persistence, students will become more confident and able learners. You know what: they’re right. How to do this is the question.

A few years ago as a math teacher, I performed an experiment which would identify which students had the most grit in my class. Without telling them the objective of the activity, on the first day of class, I would give the students a college level calculus problem. I told them to work on it as long as they wanted, and when they ‘gave up’ they would be given the course syllabus. I would secretly mark the time at which they’d had enough.

The results were shockingly predictive. The students that gave up quickly would be revealed later as the worst students in the class, reflected by subsequent coursework, (or lack there of). The students that kept persisting (sometimes upwards of an hour) would invariably be the best in class by semester’s end. I never told them the real purpose of this experiment. Maybe I should have.

With so much of a child’s personality being made at a young age, professionals wonder how much parents and teachers can ‘reverse’ a defeatist attitude many students have. There are some tactics: set SMART goals, recognize effort and recognize positive self talk.

From Westerner to Tiger Dad

I’ve lived in Asia for 17 years now. As a westerner that has called the far east home for so long, it was inevitable that its culture would wear off on me as a parent. The most notable observation that I’ve made about east Asians in my time here is how driven they are academically. Japan, China, South Korea, and Singapore all lead the world in PISA tests. Western academics dismiss these results and say they’re the result not of the quality of instruction, but additional enrichment programs and parent support, outside the controlled measure for an effective study. All good points. However, these students know that education is the key to upward mobility, a good job and a fruitful career. If you ask the youngest of students at our school what they want to be when they grow up and why, they’ll give you 2-3 career options and the answer above. If you ask an American student the same thing, they simply shrug their shoulders and says “I don’t know” with a touch of annoyance and tad of indifference.

Who is responsible?

In 2011, Yale professor Amy Chua published a fantastic book called ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother‘ which advocated for eastern approach to parenting over a western one. It touched a nerve with western parents who couldn’t fathom bringing their children up with such a value system. In the end, her children were accepted to the ivy league, vindicating this method.

The climax in the book was when Mrs. Chua’s daughters were practicing an instrument one day and pushed to the point of exasperation. Rather than push harder, the author than ‘gives up’ her tyrannical parenting. The daughters didn’t rejoice. They couldn’t believe that their mother displayed such an about shift after so many years of a hard line stance. By then though, the daughters had been instilled with grit and knew the importance of hard work and not merely ending up as an entitled Trump supporters.

I’m guilty of this too. I pushed Ava to crawl at 6 months. I was starting vocabulary flashcards with her before she was one. Just today, as she was taking her unit test on multiplication and division in ‘Khan Academy’ she had a bit of a meltdown, but kept going with it, earning a perfect score. I see evidence of this hard work everywhere, from her high scores on MAP tests to leadership and conversations with adults. Still, we as parents and teachers need to know where to draw the line, when to take a break, and when to come back to it later.

“Daddy, can we take a break? I’ve done so much math today!” Ava told me this morning.

“But you’re doing so well!” I replied. “Don’t you want to get better?”

“Yes, but I’m tired.”

“Ok, we can take a break. But you know the more you practice, the better you’ll get? Right…..right?”

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