Second in a series to The Oakland Press about education reforms and the classroom experience.


One of the reasons I have loved being a teacher for so long is the marvelous complexity and dynamic change in my day to day activities.  Nothing when done well is routine, and year to year the variety of students creates new challenges.

Complexity, of course, means that few problems are easily or completely solved.  And so I admit, I am always skeptical of what are offered as “magic bullet” theories to solving education’s challenges.

One of the more recent buzzwords in education is researcher Angela Duckworth’s coinage of the single-syllable solution, “grit.”   Grit, formally, is ” the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals” (The Duckworth Lab).  If only our students all had grit, she reasons, they would learn better.

Well, yes.  Of course.  Who doesn’t want our students to persevere, to control their impulses, to sustain their focus, to avoid distraction?

Right away, you can bet I was skeptical when I saw Duckworth speak at the summer Advanced Placement National Conference in 2013.  And later that fall, when Royal Oak Schools invited a guest speaker on the same topic, I was equally dubious.

Where “grit” may go astray, of course, is if we cling to it as a school reform life raft.  If we are not careful, for instance, we might take Duckworth’s definition and place all of the responsibility for learning on the student for not being “gritty enough” when times are tough.

Years ago, for instance, a student of mine had not completed his homework.  When I spoke to him, he told me he had gotten caught up in a drug drop and had been held at gunpoint while “they” checked who he was.  He was sorry, he told me, that he hadn’t gotten around to it.

Some “excuses” for not completing school obligations in my classroom have included miscarriage, heroin addiction, fatigue from lack of food, domestic abuse, and caring for invalid parents.  Now, if only these students had grit . . . .  (It’s important to mention here, by the way, that these are stories from across my career, in communities rich and poor, urban and suburban, racially and religiously diverse.)

“Grit” isn’t a “magic bullet” or even especially new to educators.  It’s only dangerous if read too simply or too completely as an answer to all we do. 

One trouble with “grit” understood too simply is that it appears unteachable, even fatalistic.  We may say, “Well, Judy got over her bullying issue, but Hugh didn’t.  I wonder what’s wrong with Hugh?”  Worse, I could claim, “Well, I taught him all the geometry I could.  He just doesn’t work hard enough; he’s too easily distracted by his video games; there’s nothing to be done!”  In other words, if I only imagined my teaching role as delivery of content, grit is outside my jurisdiction and capability.

Duckworth is not quite so simple as that, however, and neither should our applications of grit be.

While she discusses “effortful control” and “academic mindedness,” “personal strategies” and “resilience” development, all as means to help students develop grit, I am as interested in addressing student understanding of failure.

In an educational environment increasingly centered around high stakes test performance and limited college scholarship, students hitting academic walls and sometimes failing are too often seen as catastrophe, for them and for parents.  “I’ll never be good at math” might translate as “I don’t have enough grit.”

But Duckworth deserves credit for noting that grit also means learning from failure, learning about our own learning, about a “growth mindset.”

“Grit” isn’t a “magic bullet” or even especially new to educators.  It’s only dangerous if read too simply or too completely as an answer to all we do.

In the end, teachers must do what we always have. no matter what word we attach to it:  help students grow as people, treat them fairly and with respect, set expectations and assist them when circumstances prevent their reaching these goals immediately.  Teach them with the expectation that we are working together for their own success.


Steve Chisnell is a teacher of Advanced Placement English and blended learning at Royal Oak High School (MI), a Fulbright-Hayes teacher, and a Michigan Educator Voice Fellow.

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