Got Grit?

Written by Nathan Pastrano.

Scholars have spent the last four decades debating about what, exactly, makes students “successful.”

Angela Lee Duckworth, researcher and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent nearly twenty years researching students who have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, and whether or not they consider themselves happy and successful.

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Angela Duckworth, hosting a Ted Talk on “grit,” and what that means for students in today’s competitive world. Image from Angela Duckworth’s website.

According to Duckworth’s Ted Talk, “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” there is one common feature shared between successful students and adults. Surprisingly, success is not merely a matter of talent, I.Q. scores, or socioeconomics.

Duckworth’s interest in the subject of “grit” first began when she started teaching at elementary and middle schools. She quickly realized that her students were more than capable of learning the material being taught. However, the students who were categorized as “gifted and talented” ended up with worse grades than the other students in her classes. If natural intelligence was meant to be indicative of academic success, why were her most intelligent students not making the highest grades in her classes?

If natural intelligence is supposed to be indicative of academic success, why were [Duckworth’s] most intelligent students not making the highest grades in her classes?

Duckworth began this investigation by heading off to graduate school and becoming an educational psychologist, where she researched commonalities between successful students in and out of the classroom.

She surveyed high school seniors, undergraduate and graduate students, and college graduates working full-time after completing at least a 4-year degree. According to Duckworth, students in all three groups possessed one trait highly correlated with wealth, accomplishment and fulfillment, and success.

This characteristic had nothing to do with being labelled as gifted and talented, nor was it solely a matter of maintaining a strong diet or physical health. It was grit.

 

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Pictured: Duckworth, giving a talk at The University of Delaware. Image by Kevin Quinlan.

Grit, for Duckworth, is the “tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.” Students who learn to overcome obstacles and adapt to new environments are often the students who achieve their goals. They persevere, not taking no as an indication of incapability.

By studying the function and physiology of the brain in children prior to their years of adolescence, Duckworth learned that the brain changes its shape in response to external stimuli, such as facing adversity.

… Duckworth learned that the brain changes its shape in response to external stimuli, such as facing adversity. 

 

Additionally, children can learn to persevere at an early age. As Duckworth states, they learn early on that “failure is not a permanent condition,” but an opportunity to adjust the way they handle hardships.

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“Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” by Angela Duckworth.

 

To put this into practice, imagine we have two students: Susie and Timothy. Susie, early on in her childhood, persisted through economic and academic adversity—challenges that helped instill a foundation for grit. Timothy, on the other, had a very average, protected childhood. Now, fast forward into the future, where both students are attending the same university. Both possessed the same standardized test scores prior to admission and measure up in countless ways beyond just baseline intelligence.

Ultimately, despite taking the same classes during college, Susie ended up with a higher GPA than Timothy. Why?

Susie had surmounted multiple challenges throughout her childhood. As a result, she was able to keep her grades up while juggling extracurriculars, a part-time job, and finishing an undergraduate thesis. In this situation, Susie’s work ethic and effective time management skills helped her achieve academic success while at university.

While it remains unclear how to instill grit effectively, scholars across the board agree that there are simple steps we can take to better act as role models for students. One important factor is talking to students about overcoming, and subsequently, learning from failure. Students who are well-versed in dealing with frustration often learn how to adapt in their interpersonal relationships, career paths, and academic endeavors.

Students who are well-versed in dealing with frustration often learn how to adapt in their interpersonal relationships, career paths, and academic endeavors.

In conclusion, evidence shows that pushing children to pursue their interests and passions will lead them down the path to success.

 

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