Thanks to a new friend, I just read an interesting little article on the struggle to name the set of skills and traits that most successful people exhibit: grit, critical thinking, persistence, optimism, self-control, curiosity, soft skills, etc. The naming part is merely amusing—but the comments surrounding the naming debate offer insights into the skills dilemma. The target is ambiguous, the key factors are slippery, and many of the current names are misleading because they obscure the real key: being immersed in a knowledge-rich environment that provides the best of our human heritage. From critical thinking to character, pretty much all of this slippery stuff is actually cultivated by rigorous pursuit of the liberal arts.

Reading the naming debate, it struck me as a sad sign of how narrow and sickly the typical school curriculum has become.

Go ask a successful coach how to teach things like optimism and grit: Set a really ambitious goal, work incredibly hard to accomplish it, provide honest feedback, figure out what each kid’s best is and settle for nothing less, and celebrate the small victories along the way. In the end, you really did win if everyone gave 100%.

I’m simplifying, but you get the idea. Now compare that competitive coach to what’s happening during the school day. According to nationally representative data analyzed by the Center for American Progress:

  • In math, 37% of fourth graders, 29% of eighth graders, and 21% of twelfth graders said their work is too easy.
  • In history, 57% of eighth graders and 55% of twelfth graders said their work is too easy.
  • In civics, 51% of eighth graders and 56% of twelfth graders said their work is too easy.

Have you ever heard a teenager say football practice was too easy?

This brings me to my very unscientific theory: Thanks to the self-esteem movement, the narrowing of the curriculum, and test-prep drills that focus more on strategies than on content, we now have a grit, character, team work, self-discipline, call-it-whatever-you-want problem.

The solution to this problem is not to try to directly teach these skills and traits—it is to develop a rigorous, knowledge-rich, well-rounded curriculum that demands such abilities be developed in order to get the work done.

I had some easy history classes in middle school. Then I had a high school US history class with fact- and concept-heavy exams, quarterly debates, and a college-quality term paper (that was spread across the entire year so we were taught each step of the research and writing process). The class was not easy. It was also one of the best I ever took. Grit was necessary, but not the goal. We were given a goal that made us want to develop knowledge, skills, and grit: understanding America’s past and present so that we would be capable of helping shape a better tomorrow.


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6 comments on “Solving the Grit Problem”

  1. 1
    Ponderosa on June 2, 2015

    There is no tracking at my very ordinary public middle school. Special ed kids are lumped together with budding geniuses. If I demand too much, the lower-ability and unmotivated kids or their parents will squawk or worse. As I plan my lessons, I feel the presence of this low-standards-loving constituency. I always bristle when I hear reformers condemn public schools for setting low expectations. The logic seems to be that high expectations would require more work from teachers and, given the lazy nature of unionized public school teachers and their immunity from accountability, they opt to lower standards. What the reformers don’t get –because they live in Manhattan and Marin and Fairfax and not ordinary America –is that there is a large and powerful and assertive lobby for low-standards: kids (not all, but many). And their parents (not all, but surprisingly many. I just had a meeting with parents who do not believe in homework.) While there may be many tiger moms in reforsters’ neighborhoods, there are many anti-tiger moms in less affluent communities –parents who dislike academics, who dislike teachers and whose image of school is a place for socialization. It’s not lazy teachers who are dragging down standards; it’s ordinary Americans who have no real appetite for high standards (though they may give them lip-service) and who pillory any teacher who violates this community norm.

  2. 2
    Lisa Hansel on June 2, 2015

    Hi Ponderosa,

    You raise a very important point (as usual). Just to be clear, I’ve never thought of the self-esteem movement, narrow curriculum, or test prep as teacher driven. It seems like the self-esteem movement is very parent driven (it even seems to include some parents who otherwise do have high standards). Narrow curriculum and test prep seem administrator driven, but it could be many parents’ desire for things to not be too hard that makes a narrow curriculum have such staying power. If you don’t want your children to have homework, you certainly don’t want to help with term papers and science projects.

    Do the parents you’re thinking of want their children to go to college?


  3. 3
    Learning grit, character, non-cognitive skills or . . . ? — Joanne Jacobs on June 3, 2015

    […] Many students say their classes are easy, writes Lisa Hansel on Core Knowledge blog. “Thanks to the self-esteem movement, the narrowing of the curriculum, and test-prep drills that focus more on strategies than on content, we now have a grit, character, team work, self-discipline, call-it-whatever-you-want problem.” […]

  4. 4
    Ponderosa on June 3, 2015

    Yes, the narrow curriculum is largely the result of administrators’ fear of NCLB high-stakes tests (here in CA the math and ELA tests together count for 85% of a school’s score). It’s also the result of the hegemonic false ideas about mental development –i.e. that knowledge doesn’t count. That reading and writing and thinking can be developed without actually learning anything about the world. That the existence of Google obviates the transmission of knowledge.

    My main point, I think, is that the reformers are blind to their class bias. There is a substantial chunk of the American populace –white and non-white –that has zero penchant for academics. A lot of them may want their kids to go to college, but solely because the elites are telling us that that’s a requirement for decent jobs these days. If well-paying factory or low-skills jobs were available, they’d opt for those. And just because many aim for college does not mean they have what it takes to succeed at college level. I’m not talking about IQ (though that is a factor for some) but the cultural habits and know-how that is invisible even to those who possess them. Habits like watching PBS or the news. Habits like holding your kid accountable for not doing homework. Habits like resisting the urge to take your kids’ side in a dispute with a teacher as a way of bonding with your kid, even though it may undermine the teacher’s ability to teach that kid. It seems to me there are real class and cultural factors (as well as congenital factors –genes, fetal alcohol syndrome, etc) that keep many kids from becoming students who can excel. I don’t think many people appreciate the radicality of the Bill Gates/reforster dream of turning the whole spectrum of American humanity into symbolic analysts. Gates and Co. don’t grasp the invisible factors. Personally I don’t think we should make the economic security and dignity of our citizens contingent on their ability to get bachelors in computer science. To each according to his needs and willingness to pitch in to the collective project of running a country and from each according to his ability and willingness to pitch in to the collective project of running a country. If we need Taco Bells, then we should dignify Taco Bell work with a living wage. Schools should push upward the lower classes’ capacity and appetite for academic work, but this can only go gradually –they cannot turn the anti-intellectual into intellectuals in a mere generation or two.

  5. 5
    LArmstrong on June 4, 2015

    Consider this inspirational read: Coach John R. Wooden’s PRACTICAL MODERN BASKETBALL! I know little about basketball, but as a “retired” Reading teacher and current Reading tutor, Ch. 1, “My Coaching Philosophy” (mine is the 1966 edition) provides an injection of passion and reminds me of the why and HOW of top-notch teaching, keeping KNOWLEDGE at the forefront. (Grit, persistence, optimism, etc. follow in the caboose position, pulled along by “KNOWLEDGE of your subject”.) On my bookshelf, Coach John Wooden’s book sits alongside those of Dr. Jeanne Chall, E.D. Hirsch, M.J. Adams, Sally Shaywitz and other inspirational education writers and researchers.

  6. 6
    Arslonbek Tishaboev on May 23, 2018

    I believe that developing critical thinking skills in our students is one of the most important for being an effective teacher. Developing a learning environment which fosters creativity and imagination for students is one of the most important tasks teachers must accomplish. Many educational institutions are recognizing the need for creativity as well. The need for creativity and imagination is driven by the growing global economy which requires a workforce who can adapt and accommodate to rapid changes occurring in present times.

    Currently, we live in an environment with different kinds of complex issues which require creative solutions. In order to help produce creative minds and contribute towards a positive social change, we have to develop creative learning opportunities for our students. I believe that our students must be empowered to take some control over their learnings in order to acquire creative thinking skills. If our students feel empowered and valued, they will have more freedom and motivation to think creatively while engaging in their learnings. When giving assignments and projects, I try to give my students some flexibility and control over their task completion. Especially during team projects, students can learn best from each other. Students will be given an opportunity to share their skills and work collaboratively on the project. I personally think that when students work together there is more opportunity for creative thinking.

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