… and the importance of developing grit in students - as an enabler towards achieving academic success.

While the role that grit plays for adults to achieve success (however one chooses to define the term) has been well-documented for some time, the role grit plays in achieving academic success (for young students) is an area of engaging dialogue often overlooked by many educators.  However, throughout my tenure as an educator, I continue to witness the tangible benefits - by way of academic success - accrued to students who demonstrate (character) ‘grit’.

The word ‘Grit’ is defined in at least two ways – and in different contexts – by the Oxford Dictionary, here: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/grit

One of the definitions (of 'Grit') happens to be:

Courage and resolve; strength of character.

As in, ‘I truly believe that if you can adapt to adversity and develop true grit, you can still succeed.

With close to 11 million viewers so far (at the time of writing this), a TEDTalk segment on the subject of grit and perseverance – by Angela Lee Duckworth, a former Grade 7 Math teacher, psychologist, and leader in this area of research – is accessible here: https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance

Since grit is usually associated with an indomitable spirit, this leads us to the realization that grit is perhaps more about an attitude than an end game in and of itself.  Indeed, my observation of ‘academic grit’ correlates to intersecting attitudes of ‘perseverance of curiosity’ and ‘consistency of tenacity’.  Further, not unlike adults, the consistency of a student’s tenacity appears to be directly proportional to the degree that s/he is able to access and (use and) control it.  Grit is also often not directly proportional to IQ or talent (in some cases, grit has been shown to be inversely-related to talent).  A high IQ is also not necessarily always a de facto predictor of success.

To the defining 'characteristics' of grit *:

Courage: While ‘courage’ is difficult to measure, it is proven to be directly proportional to a person’s level of grit.  In an academic context, an extremely gritty student is not afraid to fail, but rather embrace failure as part of his/her learning process.  While some educators currently promote – what amounts to – a trend of coddling youth, by removing competition in sports, for example, this actually ends up preventing some children from learning how to fail, instead of embracing failure as a potentially inevitable – although not permanent – part of life at some point. While failure does not necessarily represent a state of permanence, recovering from failure does rely heavily on how we’ve learnt to deal with it.  How are children expected to learn about dealing with failures of possibly greater consequence – later in their lives – if they don’t learn how to deal with the less-consequential ones early in their lives?  As with many things, the answer may lie in a knowledge-based - and balanced - situation-specific approach to this. 

Conscientiousness: ‘Achievement-Oriented’ versus ‘Dependable’: Conscientiousness – hereby referring to ‘careful’, ‘painstaking’, ‘meticulous’ – is pointed to as the single (of five) personality traits that is most closely associated with grit.  In a 1992 study, (educator) L. M. Hough discovered that achievement-oriented traits predicted job proficiency and educational success better than dependability did.  Relating this to an academic context, it is therefore more important to commit to achieving an A (or A+) rather than simply showing up for class every day. This is also closely-aligned with the tangential benefits of goal setting.

Long-Term Goals and Endurance: 'Follow Through'.  Achievement is the conventional result of the product of talent and effort.  In this case, the latter (effort) is a function of the intensity, direction, and duration of one’s exertions towards a stated long-term goal.  The former (talent) acts as a multiplier on the effort expended.  Therefore, people who are naturally-talented in some area usually excel in it if the appropriate level of effort is invested.  This is an undercurrent in the narrative of Malcolm Gladwell’s theory ... in his 2007 best-selling book, ‘Outliers’.

Resilience: 'Optimism, Confidence, and Creativity'.  History is well-documented with accounts of renowned achievers who’ve stumbled … but who then had the optimism (a defining character trait) and confidence to get back on the proverbial ‘horse’ in their quest for achievement.  Ebullient personal optimism becomes the fertile ground in which seeds of hope germinate.  But, where did those people acquire the strength and fortitude of character to do this?  Futurist (and author) Andrew Zolli asserts that this is ‘resilience’.  He defines resilience as ‘the ability of people (students), communities, and systems to maintain their core purpose and integrity among unforeseen shocks and surprises’.

Excellence versus Perfection: 'Enablers of - or Barriers to - Success?'  Gritty people do not always target perfection, but instead consistently work towards a level of excellence in whatever they undertake to do.  While there are times when ‘perfection’ may be necessary to establish or achieve a standard (such as a sub -10 sec. time for an Olympic 100 metre sprint event, as an example), perfection can also become unforgiving and inflexible, since it can assume an identity as someone else’s definition of an ideal, and pursuing it becomes a ‘ghost in the machine’. Derived from the (Greek) word Arête, excellence is tied to an idea of fulfillment of purpose or function, and is closely related to virtue.  Excellence, therefore, is an attitude … and not an end game.  Thus, the term ‘unrelenting pursuit of excellence’ is often used in some circumstances or situations; academically, this attitude of excellence becomes a defining competitive advantage for students.

So, how do children develop ‘grit’?  One theory - that of ‘Growth Mindset’ - proposes that the ability to learn is not static, and that it changes with effort.  Dr. Carol Dweck – a Stanford University psychologist – demonstrated that when children (read and) learn about the brain and how it changes and grows in response to challenge, they're more likely to persevere when they fail since they don't believe that failure is a permanent condition.

The ideal of a persevering attitude - in a student - is acquired through character ‘grit’ ... more often than not as modeled by 'gritty' parents.

* Some sections of the information presented herein have been distilled from a Forbes Magazine Leadership article by Margaret M. Perlis.