When Angela Duckworth was a NYC math teacher she noticed something that I think will sound familiar to most teachers: it wasn’t always her most talented students that performed best in her class.
She had a hunch that there was some quality that made those students successful and that doing well in school and life was about more than learning quickly and easily. She left the classroom and set out to research this hunch. After studying what made kids and adults successful in a variety of settings, she found a quality that was a significant predictor of success. She called this grit— a passion and perseverance for long-term goals
Grit was a predictor of which cadets would be successful at West Point, which salespeople would earn the most money, which students would graduate high school, which kids would succeed at the National Spelling Bee and which new teachers in tough neighborhoods would succeed.
I think grit is particularly important in succeeding in math class. I recently worked with a group of fourth graders. When I first began working with them, many students quickly gave up when presented with novel problems that didn’t allow them to follow step-by-step procedures they previously learned. It wasn’t because they didn’t have the ability to solve the problems. It was because they expected to be able to solve math tasks quickly and easily and when they couldn’t, they gave up.
Over time, I tried to create a culture where doing mathematics was not about who completed the most problems in the shortest amount of time. I encouraged them to use their resources to solve the problems and talked to them about how mathematicians often spend a long time solving one problem. After several months, students slowly became more comfortable when presented with challenging problems and the classroom culture began to shift.
The jury is still out on how to best foster grit. What we do know is that Duckworth has found that talent doesn’t make you gritty. In fact, grit is unrelated or inversely related to measures of talent. So how do we best foster grit in our students? I’d love to hear your ideas.
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