Sick of Grit? Put the GRR Back in it!

I hope we'll soon move beyond the test-my-grit debates, beyond the focus on grit in schools, period.

Sometimes it all sounds rather circular and unremarkable: kids who persevere in school have something called perseverance, so schools should cultivate perseverance, so that we get more kids who persevere in school...

The far more compelling dimension of the research on grit is about the gash in our social fabric that is poverty, and how the stress of poverty damages the physical and emotional development of children.

I first read about Angela Duckworth's research on "grit" in Paul Tough's How Children Succeed. Most compelling was Tough's discussion of the science of deprivation: "the actual physical affects of childhood adversity, written upon your body, deep under your skin." He writes:

"The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments, and harder to follow directions."

It's good that this research leads us consider on how schools can foster the habits of mind, heart and work that are important to success in school, workplace and relationships. This is not, of course, anything new for schools. (Historical perspective by Rothstein here.) But in the era/wake of NCLB - with its inordinately high-stakes focus on reading and math testing - it can feel like a refreshing revelation to assert that schools should cultivate resilience as well as reading and 'rithmetic.

But the research on grit must always lead us back to outrage and social action: a determination that poverty is an injustice that we must quit perpetrating upon our children. And this goes beyond school reform.

In his discussion of the work of Duckworth and others, Tough makes it clear that the science is in. Poverty is very bad for the brains and bodies of children (and their parents). But where does the argument go next?

Do we focus on what schools can do for kids damaged by poverty, or do we focus on the policies that produce the poverty that damages the kids in the first place?

Both are important. Unfortunately, the essential findings of this work ended up focusing almost entirely on school reform rather than economic policy.

And it is absurd to believe that the economic reforms that can make a society more equitable are on par with pedagogical reforms that help kids better organize their notebooks, follow directions, self-reflect and set goals.

The critiques of Tough and Duckworth are worth reading. Paul Thomas offers a compilation here. Again, I'm not saying that schools shouldn't be concerned with the cultivation of character. It's that too much focus in this direction silences the more difficult conversations.

I once had the opportunity to ask Duckworth, after a keynote address, about the broader social policy implications of her research. She continued to discuss the implications for schools alone. And I once had the opportunity to ask Tough a similar question. He observed that the broader social policy discussions are more fraught with political discord and emotional volatility than the conversations about what teachers can do - and so he focuses on the latter.

Yes, the conversations about social policy are harder to have. And that's where persistence, perseverance and passion come in. Because these conversations are going to be about privilege, fairness, property taxes, segregation, income inequality, intergenerational poverty, structural violence and racism. To talk about how our unequal society damages your kids in ways it doesn't damage mine requires some real courage. In a word, it requires some grit. It requires some grit infused with the anger - "grr!" - that we ought to feel about the inequities we see around us.

I'm glad to keep talking about grit, as long as we put the "grr" back in it.