Helping Kids Stick with Learning

Whether you call it grit, resilience or perseverance, it’s a behavior that will serve students well in the Common Core classroom and beyond. What may divide participants in the “gritty resolve” debate is just how educators should help students go about developing it.

This MiddleWeb Resource Roundup looks at the growth of grit awareness and at current evaluations of what is most likely to increase kids’ determination to learn the hard stuff.

21st Century Grit

duckworth-TEDFresh off being named a MacArthur Fellow in September, 2013, grit researcher Angela Lee Duckworth commented in an Educational Leadership interview: “(G)rit is not just having resilience in the face of failure, but also having deep commitments that you remain loyal to over many years…. Woody Allen once quipped that 80 percent of success in life is just showing up. Well, it looks like grit is one thing that determines who shows up.” Here’s a look at some of Duckworth’s research from 2007 – written with Christopher Peterson – and her 2013 TED Talk.  Find her more detailed 2009 TED Talk here.)

Another word in play in this conversation is “rigor,” the preferred term of educator/author Barbara R. Blackburn, whose writings and presentations focus on helping students, teachers and principals develop resilience for rigorous learning. Visit Blackburn’s website for extensive free resources including such articles as The Seven Myths of Instructional Rigor. In it she defines rigor as “creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels” (Williamson and Blackburn, 2011). Blackburn contends that, based on her experience as a teacher, “any student can reach higher levels with the right support.” She includes several resources related to the Common Core.

Pushback from Educators

In 2012, the concept of “grit” gained further prominence with Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character.  At the time, veteran teacher and Education Week blogger Nancy Flanagan responded by noting that “Individual grit is a good thing. But without a compassionate society and open opportunity, it’s only half the equation.” Flanagan pointed out that grit is not a new concept in education and included several helpful links at her Teacher in a Strange Land blog.

The most vivid pushback against unbridled enthusiasm for rigor and grit that we have found comes from Furman University professor P.L. Thomas, who taught for 18 years at a Title I high school in South Carolina.

plthomas-100Children in poverty line up at the starting line with a bear trap on one leg; middle-class children start at the 20-, 30-, and 40-meter marks; and the affluent stand at the 70-, 80-, and 90-meter mark. And while gazing at education as a stratified sprint, ‘no excuses’ reformers shout to the children in poverty: ‘Run twice as fast! Ignore the bear trap! And if you have real grit, gnaw off your foot, and run twice as fast with one leg!’ These ‘no excuses’ advocates turn to the public and shrug, ‘There’s nothing we can do about the trap, sorry….’  In the race to the top that public education has become, affluent children starting at the 90-meter line can jog, walk, lie down, and even quit before the finish line. They have the slack necessary to fail, to quit, and to try again—the sort of slack all children deserve.”

Speaking of students generally, Grant Wiggins (Understanding by Design, 2005; Educative Assessment, 1998) writes about the difference between backbone and character in a 2012 blog post titled Why Insisting On “Grit” In Learning Is Missing The Point: Character Training:

“The essence of character is not mere backbone. As Dewey said, it is good judgment borne of having learned to really think and to be held accountable for one’s judgments by the demands of schooling…. And so, to ask kids to “persist” in the face of boring and isolating work conditions is not only somewhat hypocritical but borders on cruel. It certainly isn’t preparation for a successful life – it’s not enough to be really good at delaying gratification and trusting adults. You have to have a passion and a purpose, and typical schools often work against it.”

What’s a Teacher to Do?

truebridge-slideHow can teachers help students learn to persevere? Writing in ASCD’s Educational Leadership, Sara Truebridge (collaborator on the Race to Nowhere documentary, 2009) and Bonnie Benard (Resiliency: What We Have Learned, 2004) note that resilience isn’t content. “Resilience isn’t a program or curriculum. It’s not a quick-fix product that schools can buy. Resilience is more influenced by how a teacher teaches than by what a teacher teaches.”

In an insightful hour-long video that accompanies the article (part of the 2013 Whole Child Virtual Conference), Truebridge relates research on resilience to specific strategies teachers can implement.

In Three Pillars for Supporting Resilience, instructional coach Cheryl J. Wright provides a succinct reminder of the teacher dispositions that can help build resilience. Her ASCD Express post also outlines the elements needed to provide a nurturing classroom and student centered teaching. Another list of essentials comes from school PD director Bryan Harris (Battling Boredom, 2011) in Building Resiliency in Struggling Students: 7 Key Ideas from Research. Building on calls for less testing and more time for concern from teachers, Harris summarizes the key ideas, citing the research upon which they are based. Several themes may be familiar; others may suggest actions to take today. At the end of the post, commenter ASD-J adds two more elements to build student resilience.

Anthony Cody, a veteran educator and coach in the high-poverty Oakland CA schools, shares strategies to help students persevere, gleaned from his years as a middle school teacher, in Students Can Do Hard Things, a MiddleWeb guest article. Among them: periodic reviews of portfolios, fewer letter grades and more suggestions, evaluation of effective projects before launching into new ones, and more. He concludes: “Our students can do hard things, but they do not always know that. High self-regard is important for all the kids we teach, but it is not built through empty praise. It grows as the student actually succeeds in creating quality work.”

Carol_TomlinsonTeachers’ words, of course, can alter students’ images of themselves. In Growing Capable Kids, University of Virginia’s Carol Ann Tomlinson recalls instances when a teacher’s words and actions affected students (including her adolescent self). She writes, “Powerful teachers help students grow their capacity to be resilient by mindfully providing students with three elements: affirmation, opportunity, and support.” She adds that affirming a student’s efforts is significant but that providing the student the opportunity to test his ability strengthens resilience even more. In another Educational Leadership post from earlier in the year, Tomlinson considers Fairy Dust and Grit, drawing on her experiences in the classroom to suggest ways to encourage creativity and to help students see that hard work and grit can yield moments of creativity.

In her MiddleWeb guest article The Power of Teachers’ Words Debbie Silver (Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight: Teaching Kids to Succeed, 2012) writes: “Effective feedback starts with carefully selecting words that are honest, specific, nonjudgmental, and specifically chosen to help the student figure out how to get better. It should inform them about their progress. It should not judge, label, accuse, excuse, or even praise. It provides instructive knowledge that will enhance the student’s performance.” Silver provides the theory behind effective feedback and offers examples of the good and the bad.

Building Teacher Grit

After briefly noting the realities of high-needs public schools that often stress educators, Education Week blogger and transformational leadership coach Elena Aguilar outlines How Teachers Can Build Emotional Resilience. A key element in her discussion is the part principals can play in providing opportunities for teachers to shore up their emotional resilience.

RKriete_120Professional Learning Communities can also foster educators’ resilience. In another Ed Week Teacher post, middle school ELA teacher Rob Kriete explains How to Make the Most of Your Professional Learning Community using his experience with his grade level ELA colleagues. Beyond the local PLC, find ideas and support online. Twitter provides seemingly endless opportunities, some of which are collected in this MiddleWeb Resource Roundup on social media PD.

Both students and teachers can benefit from understanding ‘growth mindset,”  the research-supported idea that when we see ourselves (and our students) as individuals with minds that are always capable of growing, new learning abounds. Watch for a MiddleWeb Resource Roundup focusing on fixed vs. growth mindset soon. In the meantime visit Carol Dweck’s “Even Geniuses Have to Work Hard.”

More Good Stuff

For up-to-the-minute posts as well as resources reaching back to 2011 on grit and resilience, visit Larry Ferlazzo’s The Best Resources For Learning About The Importance Of “Grit.

The September 2013 issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership  is devoted to the theme “Resilience and Learning.” Many of the articles are locked (members only). There are also some really good public articles, some of which are included above. Find more at the September 12, 2013 issue of ASCD Express.

Resource Updates:

January 2014 –  Build perseverance into classroom experience with ideas from Andrew Miller’s ‘5 Steps to Foster Grit’ at Edutopia.

March 2014 – MindShift’s  Can Focus On ‘Grit’ Work In School Cultures That Reward Grades? gives background and pushback to the current surge in gritty classrooms. Lots more resources provided by commenters.

April 2014Ten concerns about the ‘let’s teach them grit’ fad by Alfie Kohn, adapted from his book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child:  Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting, appeared in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet.

April 2014 – Heather Wolpert-Gawron asks Do You Remember the Moment When You First Learned “Grit?” in her TweenTeacher blog post.  She suggests grit can be learned but not taught and offers ways schools can help students develop grit.

July 2014 – What do the best teachers do to make their classrooms both challenging and supportive? Teaching experts Annette Breaux & Todd Whitaker contrast the typical characteristics of effective and ineffective classrooms using two simple but compelling bullet lists.

October 2014 – When we ask students to accept challenges and work harder, we want to be sure we know what they need to work on and where they need our support. Better classroom assessment is critical, says ‘Smarter Grading’ author Myron Dueck, who tells how he changed the way he tests and assesses students and manages project learning.

December 2014 – Resilience goes hand in hand with engagement, and student disengagement is a major challenge for middle school teachers, says NSF-funded researcher Jennifer A. Fredricks. In Teachers Really Can Engage All Our Students, the teacher educator offers strategies to build community and craft learning opportunities that encourage students to actively participate and succeed.

Susan B. Curtis is the co-editor of MiddleWeb

Susan Curtis

Susan Curtis is co-editor of In a long career, she has taught middle grades students, worked in human services, edited a variety of publications and wrangled the reference desk in libraries.

1 Response

  1. Thank you so much, Susan, for highlighting our article and for all the work you do with resilience! I also invite you to check out–and pass on to others–my new website and my new book, Resilience Begins With Beliefs: Building on Student Strengths for Success in School.

    Thanks again! We are all in this together!!! ~Sara

    P.S Please take the poll on my site and I encourage you, and others, to comment on my blog.

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