Update: See this recent Edweek article by Alfie Kohn for one study pointing to why "grit" is misguided !
"It's not so much teaching kids to have grit as it is helping them discover what they're willing to be gritty about."
Here in Charlotte, a group of citizens gather informally to discuss important issues. I was invited to attend their session of the topic of that dreaded buzzword "grit." What follows are my thoughts after the discussion, which I am publishing here to share the conversation and see if we can move our definition forward.
I am not sure grit exists-- what we call grit is either talent, stupidity (ignorance of the odds) , selfishness, greed or endurance. Someone in the group discussion mentioned that the Nazis had grit.
If you search the hashtag "grit" on Twitter, you see a lot of folks posting how strong they or someone else is at sports or academics but I think this is actually just cultivation of talent in many cases. Or talent + endurance in varying measures.
Many folks in the roundtable (myself included) described issues of personal talent and endurance as grit. I think the personalization of the stories proves we all have grit, every one of us, in some areas. That explains the quotation that begins this post.
Grit can be taught by example, but not by instruction. The gentleman next to me touched on that when he said we need to teach the tough stories in African American and Indian history. He reminded me of a study that found that telling children about the failures of great scientists and mathematicians caused kids to get higher scores than another group that was only taught about the accomplishments of those great achievers.
Given the point above, teachers should not only teach the "tough stories" of their curriculum, but also model grit personally, be metacognitive out loud about how they move past setbacks daily as well as in "big life events"(childhood difficulties, academic roadblocks, personal and career challenges) I do this naturally because I am super open: I teach grit by making what is usually hidden visible. Some teachers are afraid to do this because they are afraid of being too human is a sign of weakness. Those teachers are necessary in education, too, because children see them as rocks and like knowing someone so protective, like knowing a superhero. Maybe we adults in children's lives can teach grit both ways, by being larger than life ("my dad never cried", "my mom worked 3 jobs to provide for us") and by being very lifelike ("that grownup looks so together but has overcome the same things I am struggling with so I guess I can rise above, too").
My husband, as an engineer, is really interested in finding precision in words. He came up with this definition of grit:
" Grit is the ability (and willingness) to move past your comfort zone and remain there until you are comfortable." ...to start something and be awful at it (removing talent from the equation) and to endure until you have competence.
Questions remain: is it smart to do this in all areas, would it not be more efficient to focus on a few areas and if so should that be decided by a parent a teacher the student him or her self or some larger social institution?
I'd kind of like to work these words into the definition as well: "bodaciousness" (ignorance, passion) and "mad dog mean" (talent, driven, passionate) from an older gentleman who I was so happy was part of the conversation. What a force of history!
I am interested in what people might say about grit in relation to the woman in this story. Is she weak? A failure? Entitled? Is there grit in this story? http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bridget-allen/my-value-autism-feminism_b_4297914.html
Thanks for thinking about this with me.
I imagine today will not be the last time I use the tag "wild speculation" in a post, but here's the first:
This cake story on Mr. Losik's site inspired this post.
I appreciate Mr. Losik and his website certainly attests to the fact that he is not a "good old days" kind of teacher. However, the example of this cake is one that is being misused by others, educators and critics alike. Indeed the image is probably being laughed about right at this moment somewhere in America by the kind of disrespectful teacher that derides young people all planning period in the staff room.
There are exactly NONE of those teachers at my school and I am grateful for that every day. But they exist. To blame this incident on the education system not being stringent enough in its grammar and spelling instruction is wrong. This incident is NOT a failure of the cake decorator's spelling and grammar teachers, but of our entire school system's critical thinking instruction and multiple intelligence training, not only for cake decorator but also his or her manager. Disagreements are welcome but here is how I see it:
During a summer training a few years ago, when I was talking about educating all students, a fellow teacher said to me "but society needs someone to work the crap jobs" and to that stunning feat of pessimism I now reply, "No, in the 21st century we need someone to invent jobs and processes that free people from having no other option but a poor career match."
A bad career to one person is not so to another, but there are job mismatches and this cake story is one of those. (It is also a cautionary tale to retail establishments who don't have proper quality control procedures in place. I am sure there are words that someone may like on a cake that even an impeccably-educated student may not know how to spell. Also sometimes customers may purposely misspell for inside jokes and colloquial expressions.)
Yes, the cake story has larger implications for education reform, but not what many think at first glance.
Please try to get a mental picture of the person behind the icing bag. Allow me to use my completely unscientific and entirely anecdotal imagination to help you imagine a scenario beyond laughing at what a poor speller the employee is and tsk tsk- ing about his or her poor grammar and work ethic. Let's call this person "Cake Decorator " (We can't tax our imaginations too much right here at the beginning):
Cake Decorator is a person with a life, bills to pay, people who love him or her, dreams, aspirations, and skills -- yes, SKILLS (obviously cake decorating is not one of them, and neither is grammar or spelling, but there is SOMETHING this decorator does extremely well, has an affinity for, does better than you or I could do even if we took a class on it!) -- Don't forget that as you look at that bad cake.
Cake Decorator does not have mastery of verb tenses or spelling, or even the icing bag. Is the cake then evidence that today's classrooms are too lax on spelling and grammar instruction? I don't think so. Cake Decorator is in a career mismatch. That Cake Decorator seems not to know or act on that is the true failing of our education system.
K12 education does not free employers from having to have good staffing, training, and quality control practices. There is a problem at this WalMart. (I shop at Walmart, I'm not hating, that is just obvious. If I applied for a job in a field in which I have no skill, even with my good education and resume and work ethic, I would hope someone would have the sense to turn me down!)
Cake Decorator is getting paid low wages without benefits for a job he or she is ill-suited to work. Cake Decorator may be feeling trapped. Cake Decorator should probably look for a new job but Walmart may be the only show in town. Or MAYBE Cake Decorator's 11-13 years of schooling in a system that rewarded grammar and spelling but none of his or her skills has left Cake Decorator feeling worthless. "No point looking for a job because I can't do anything well," Cake Decorator may say to him or herself. (Cake Decorator probably did not use the word "well" as I just imagined in that last sentence. That's almost a definite.) Sometimes what a person learns from years of school is not to ask for help- to lay low and get by. That's the part of education we need to change.
Some readers may think "Ha! Cake Decorator will finally get what he or she deserves now! They should have worked harder in school! They probably cut classes, they probably mouthed off to their teachers or sat in the back with their head down. Now they will reap what they sowed - they deserve years and years of misery as punishment for not playing the game of school by the rules!" This thinking is blind to how academic curriculum and assessment daily fails to honor the full range of human gifts in the structure of schooling as it stands.
We graduate far too many students who are steeped in years of being labeled losers at a game that is very clearly rigged toward only a certain kind of smart.
Is the solution to the problem that we should make future students like our unfortunate friend Cake Decorator study more grammar, take more spelling tests? Or could a solution be that we teach those things, but also give Cake Decorator, and those like him or her a chance to hone equally important skills in a k12 setting?
Good grammar is one ticket into the middle class and as such should be valued in education; somewhat less so is good spelling. But these thing are NOT, NOT, I repeat, indicators of intelligence, capability, talent, or skill.
I wish I had taught Cake Decorator. If I had, I can't promise that he or she would be any better of a speller or would be any more likely to speak or write standard Midwestern-accented English, but he or she would, I hope, have learned from me that they were gifted at something, just the same. That, in the inspiring words of Angela Maiers, they are a genius and world needs their contribution.
I would hope that the assignments I gave Cake Decorator would have led him or her on a better path of training, would have kept him or her from dropping out literally or metaphorically, would have led them to create an amazing senior exit project on some topic about which most of us reading this blog know almost nothing. I'd like to imagine that that their project presentation would have blown away the judges because I as the teacher advisor would have shown young Cake Decorator how to minimize their weaknesses by maximizing their strengths.
if I had taught Cake Decorator, I'd like to think they would have learned to speak up and to self-educate when they are tasked with a job they are not qualified for; that they would be more discerning about their own qualifications and how to improve them. College- and career-ready doesn't mean "ready for any possible career" and employers can just slap people into place like cogs.
A good education should helps people, employers as well as employees, discern mismatches and fix them. More grammar worksheets and spelling tests won't fix the problems of a student like Cake Decorator. However, education advances such as PBL, maker movement, STEAM integration, genius hour will.
Maybe if more schools head the 21st-century direction that today's reflective teachers are moving, we will metaphorically have more career matches like that of the Wynn's cake decorator and fewer metaphorical -or literal -Walmart Cake Decorator career mismatches. The market won't bear everyone who wants to be a basketball player becoming one. The market won't bear every talented artist becoming a studio artist. But a good education with a background in critical thinking will help students choose the right match and learn how to adjust themselves in the real world.
What a great time to be a teacher!
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Lisa Gurthie is the PD facilitator at Piedmont IB Middle School. She specializes in tech and arts integration, interdisciplinary holistic education, and unschooling school to reconnect academia to real life. One day she will modernize her "about" page. She curates this blog for the professional development convenience of the teachers at Piedmont, but the editorial comments are her own.