True Grit

Of the different components needed for “world class schools” in America, I believe that student “grit” is the crucial ingredient too often overlooked.

There has been much recent research on the concept of “grit” defined by educational researcher Angela Duckworth as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals“. Grit entails “working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.”

The concept of grit is indirectly emphasized in a  recent thought-provoking editorial by David Brooks of the NY Times titled “The difference in moral and cognitive learning”.  It can be found at:

In his column, he finds a profound difference between Asian and American education.  He posits that American learning focuses primarily on understanding and mastering the external world while Asians “tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.”

America was settled by people who also believed that hard work and the cultivation of related virtues resulted in success.  Consequently, we became the most prosperous nation in the history of the world.  But that prosperity is now threatened from within.  Over the past 60 years, our country has over-emphasized IQ and individual “rights” along with instant gratification.  We have under-emphasized hard work and perseverance.  When a bright child gets a low grade, parents now tell us the child is bored because the teacher did not challenge young Einstein enough.   So the responsibility for challenging the child now seems to belong to everyone but the child.  When an average child fails a test, the parents now often say the grading system is unfair or the homework too excessive.  So making school work easy or entertaining seems to be the desired accommodation.  In short, we still want the American dream – but disregard the primary means for achieving it. Grit!

Malcolm Gladwell made a similar point in his book “Outliers”.  He cites research that shows people designated “world class” in their profession had in common 10,000 or more hours of practice.  World class violinists were those who practiced the most.  Their natural ability as a 5-year-old was NOT the major difference in their world class accomplishment – despite modern myth to the contrary. “Average” students who persisted  out-performed child prodigies who lacked persistence.  Grit mattered more.

I’m not saying that everyone should work hard at the same educational or  life goals.  Some have gifts and talents for academia; others for “hands on” jobs; others as leaders or “worker bees” in their chosen field.  We need them all – and we should honor the persistent pursuit of excellence in each field!

We have become an “entitlement” nation redefining the American dream as a right, regardless of effort, to a good living, various creature comforts, and 24/7 entertainment.  Yet there are individuals and groups among us who quietly pursue the American dream as it was once envisioned.  For example, here in Pearland, it is undeniable that many Asian students out perform all other student groups as measured by state tests and SAT scores, class rank, Ivy League college acceptance, and hours of community/civic service.  Why?  In many cases, our Asian students are first or second generation immigrants.   It is widely known that many such students go above and beyond what is required of them – and devote long hours to study.  So how do you reach the top here in Pearland ISD?  WORK HARD!  GRIT!

Brook’s editorial speaks of the Asian mindset as cultivating virtues including “sincerity, diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.   In Chinese culture, the heroic scholar may possess less innate intelligence but triumphs over hardship.”  He goes on to say that “Western schools want students to be proud of their achievements while the Chinese emphasize that humility enables self-examination.”  He adds that “Western students often work harder after you praise them, while Asian students sometimes work harder after you criticize them.”  (Incidentally, any criticism of a student in American public schools is now widely labeled as abusive – and often involves parent paid attorneys!)

Brooks also comments that American efforts to completely separate public education from the teaching of morals is partially responsible for the difference between Asian and American learning.  I would add that the removal of most or all  moral teaching from the American public schools since the 1960’s has deepened that educational deficit.   We no longer hold in common bedrock American values, substituting instead a vague and confusing moral relativism emerging from drugged out ’60’s Hippies:  “Do your own thing!”,  “Fight the Power!”  “Freedom!”  “Expand your mind!”  “Your truth is what works for you.”

Wake up America!  The moral virtues that preach hard work and perseverance remain available for ALL to cultivate.  They are not the exclusive property of any one individual, culture or historical period.

Our school district is now developing K-12 instructional lessons on the virtues of hard work and perseverance.  Though a formal program emphasizing GRIT will emerge in Fall 2013, you may see signs of this rising emphasis this year at different schools within our district.

What a concept!  Hard work produces results!  Call the media!

Want to read more about Angela Duckworth’s research on grit?:

9 Responses to “True Grit”

  1. 1 Vicki Perry February 24, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Thank you for a courageous and thought provoking editorial on education and what it is making our country today. “GRIT” is truly needed in our educational systems.

  2. 2 magic submitter tutorials April 13, 2013 at 8:29 am

    You could certainly see your enthusiasm in the work you
    write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. At all times go after your heart.

  3. 3 Kurtis April 9, 2013 at 9:21 am

    Good post however I was wondering if you could write a litte more
    on this topic? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Appreciate it!

    • 4 John P.Kelly April 12, 2013 at 10:19 am

      I’m not sure what you might be looking for in terms of more information. If you are looking for information on the concept of grit and how it relates to school children and their success, then the work of Angela Duckworth would be very helpful. (I cited a link to that in my original post.) Also, Paul Tough has recently written a book titled “How Children Succeed” which speaks of the same things.

      If you are asking what our school district will be doing: We have a Master Teacher in our district helping to design K-12 lessons and emphasis on “grit” for the coming school year. Students will self-assess their own “grit” on a “grit scale”. They will hear an emphasis on perseverance and on going beyond failure and setbacks. I’ll be asking parents to help with this by not “snowplowing” obstacles out of their child’s way – but instead letting them experience challenges, obstacles, and failures. Too often these days, parents want to find a way around the child’s poor grade or disciplinary issue. Part of “grit” is getting kids to work their own way through things.

      I’ll be glad to talk with you further about this in person if you’d like! And thanks for writing!


  4. 5 staceyglpc March 25, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    I am a Gladwell fan, as well. “Outliers” points out that success is not only determined by hours of practice, but having an inherent passion for whatever he/she is practicing. I believe the quote is, “The man who loves his work doesn’t work a day in his life.” It seems that not many kids these days are connecting with that kind of passion. What are your observations/experiences with kids and true “vocations?”

    • 6 Dr. John P. Kelly March 27, 2013 at 12:32 pm

      Stacey: As the father of 7 kids, I confess I don’t have all the answers. With some of my children, a passion developed and it was easy to help channel/facilitate their courses/future accordingly. But with the majority of my kids (so far), my wife and I have found that we must look for signs of gifts/talents/strengths/interests in our children – and prompt them to consider those things for their future. With 4 kids through/in college at the moment, 2 of them are definitely pursuing their passion. Two others are still trying to figure it out. My 3 younger children aren’t at all sure yet. Thus, it behooves strong school districts to work with parents as we jointly try to figure out what a child’s passion, interests, and gifts are. Not easily done. I think our district’s growing Career and Technology programs (most recently illustrated by the creation of Turner College and Career HS) are going to help kids determine if their immersion in a particular career or college area matches what they want to do and what they’re good at…
      So yes, passion matters as does “grit”. Absent the passion, discernment by parents and the school district as to what might excite a young person – is worth pursuing.

  5. 7 Mark Dunk March 6, 2013 at 7:15 pm

    My wife does a lot of hiring of new university graduates, and this culture of entitlement is taking its toll on the quality of the graduates that she interviews. Hard work is, well, hard work, but our schools and our culture have lost the focus on that. I like the concept of intellectual grit, and I look forward to this initiative in our district.

    I believe readers of your blog who are not familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s books would benefit greatly from reading them. Also, the story of his upbringing, educational paths, and professional advancement make for interesting reading as well and exemplify true grit.

  6. 8 Amanda Lucas March 6, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    Paul Tough comments on his work with Angela Duckworth in his recent book, How Children Succeed. In his work with an inner city school in New York and a prestigious independent school also in New England, they found that many students each from different economic backgrounds had these characteristics you speak of, true grit and determination. It was these characteristics that made them successful in college when other students were not. You might find it an interesting read as you further this work in the district. I’m anxious to see what is in store!

  1. 1 An Interview with PISD Superintendent Dr. John Kelly | Silvercreek Tribune Trackback on March 25, 2013 at 5:05 pm

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