Friday, January 31, 2014

Why I'm Tired of People Arguing About Grit

I’m tired of the online arguing and posturing over the concept of “Grit.”  At first, it sounded like a good idea, successful people have attitudes that lead to persistence and hard work, allowing them to overcome obstacles and reach their goals.  We can teach these qualities to students and increase their chances of success.

Then the critics come to say that is just elitist B.S., even calling some of its proponents modern day “eugenicists.”  Grit is fine for the privileged they say, but citing Grit as the reason for success is just another way to “blame the victim” and place the fault of failure squarely on the shoulder of our children and not the systems that place obstacle after obstacle in their way.

So they endlessly chatter. And chatter some more. Baiting each other into argument and reveling in their intellectual exchange.  All the while ignoring the damage their polarizing attitudes, rooted in theory divorced from practice, can have on public school students in America. It creates a false dichotomy.

Haven’t we learned anything from the polarized politics of Washington and our state houses that seem to miss the reality of people’s everyday lives?

So what do our kids need?  Grit or Slack.

If you are in a classroom everyday the answer is easy.  Both.

Every child is different and every day is different.  Still, in many ways, they are not much different from us.

For example, I get a tax refund every year.  (we can debate that wisdom later)  Knowing that my government owes me money, I am motivated to file early, so I’m hoping to file by Monday.  For most Americans who owe Uncle Sam, what day are they most likely to file?  That’s right, April 15.  Some might even take the hit and file late.

When do students complete their work?  That’s right, when they have to.  Just like you and I, a deadline or a due date is the day that you finish what you have to finish.  Without compelling reason or reward, you just aren’t likely to finish early.  And sometimes you shouldn’t.  It is wise to use all of your allotted time to do something well.

Sometimes a student needs a deadline.  They need to know that it means something.  If it is not enforced then it is no longer a deadline. 

Sometimes a student needs a break.  We know they have had issues that other students have not dealt with.  We know their reason for not doing what they are supposed to is understandable. 

Not always, and sure we get it wrong sometimes.

So why not err on the side of the student, right?  Give them the benefit of a doubt.  As the mantra goes, “it about what’s best for the student.”  What is best for the student?

I got the benefit of a doubt too many times in high school.  I could remember almost anything I heard and so long as I paid attention in class, I could count on doing well on tests.  If teachers required additional work, I did just enough to keep an “A” (or a “B” if it was an AP because those were weighted).  I knew that in most classes teachers would not bother to penalize me for poor work habits if I could score well on their tests.

This relates to Carol Dweck’s ideas on “mindset.”  I didn’t achieve because of effort, school just came easy to me.  I relied on my abilities and didn’t even get that my effort (or lack thereof) mattered.

It was good enough to earn me admission to the University of Virginia, but I barely escaped my first year without an academic suspension.  I never opened a book to read for biology or psychology, the teacher went over homework in math every Friday, so I didn’t bother to do it ahead of time, and Latin homework wasn’t collected or graded so I never did it.

I spent the first three weeks of the summer of 1991 on the assembly line of the Bassett Furniture factory where I’d worked the last three summers wondering whether that was the place I’d spend the rest of my life.

Taking my excuses for not doing work and giving me second chances when the grade I had earned at the end of a marking period was not as high as I wanted wasn’t in my best interests.  After the scare of suspension and prospects of life in a factory (which would have turned into unemployment) I tried something different.  I actually read the texts assigned on schedule.  I did assignments even when they were not graded.  I found other people in my classes to study with.  I did this because after a year of college I learned that effort matters.  I finished college with a decent GPA, but more importantly, I learned in the process.

What I am advocating is not a “no excuses” attitude.  Nevertheless, there is a little truth to the old teacher mantra of “don’t let them see you smile until Christmas.”  Any successful teacher who has been at it for more than a few years does not need an armchair quarterback to explain how students work.  Grit and the qualities of perseverance are vital.  Students need to learn self-control, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills vital to success in the world.  They need external standards of accountability.  They also need to be subject to the spirit and not the letter of the law.  Situations require flexibility and because there is a relationship between teachers and learners, teachers recognize that there is a time for slack.

Writing books and engaging in theoretical arguments are fun, but when you deal with the reality of whether a student is going to graduate or not and struggle with the question of whether they will walk into their future equipped for success or set up for failure, that’s when you really understand the question “What’s in the best interest of the child?”

1 comment:

  1. Well said. Too many limited attention educational ideologues will read this, but they won't hear it. They have moved on to their next self promoting tweet or a conference where no real work takes place. All teachers can do it grit their teeth. Thank goodness we have the successes and failures of real students around to keep us grounded.