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Grit in the Classroom Building Perseverance for Excellence in Today's Students by Laila Y. Sanguras Book

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Grit in the Classroom Building Perseverance for Excellence in Today's Students by Laila Y. Sanguras Book Read Online And Epub File Download

Overview: The combination of sustained hard work and resiliency, grit is the difference between those who give up and those who don't. Grit in the Classroom: Building Perseverance for Excellence in Today's Students assists educators in creating a learning environment that fosters grit development for all students, regardless of ability. Each chapter includes stories to illustrate the research and ideas presented and ends with discussion questions that can be used to continue the conversation. In an era of talent development and the pursuit of excellence, learners must be equipped with the perseverance that is essential to reaching high levels of success. This book provides a rationale for teaching grit in the classroom with the goal of propelling this topic into discussions of building passion and talent in today's students. 

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Grit in the Classroom Building Perseverance for Excellence in Today's Students by Laila Y. Sanguras Book Read Online Chapter One

From pretty much my first day as a teacher in a small Oregon town, I started asking, why? Why won’t they do their homework? Why don’t they care about this stuff? Why can’t I motivate them?

I never doubted why I was teaching or why I was there, but I just couldn’t figure out why I struggled to engage some of my students. I tried everything I could think of, I experienced little to no success, and then I went to graduate school. I studied motivation at Portland State University in Portland, OR, and then went on to focus on coping, resiliency, and mental toughness at the University of North Texas in Denton, TX. And then, many years later, I was sitting in a staff meeting in a suburban Texas town and was shown Angela Duckworth’s 2013 TED talk on grit.

In her talk, Duckworth (2013) described the challenges of teaching math to middle school kids. (No kidding, right?) She noticed that the students who performed the best in her class weren’t necessarily the smartest—they were the ones who worked the hardest. As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Duckworth and her research team studied teachers, salespeople, and West Point cadets in order to learn more. Interestingly, they found that grit was the best predictor of success. Not IQ, prior achievement, or great hair . . . but grit.

The problem, according to Duckworth, was that educators have been too narrowly focused. Although we are really good at measuring achievement, she argued that we needed to consider how grit can be assessed and improved in our students if we really wanted to build their stamina and increase their likelihood for success in school and beyond.

I was completely inspired after watching Duckworth’s talk. Her ideas made sense, which I appreciated as a teacher, and they were supported by research, which I valued as an educational psychologist. I wanted to do more, however, to inspire other teachers the way I was inspired during that staff meeting. So, here we are. I’ve outlined practical ideas for how teachers, parents, and administrators can work together to recognize and instill grit in their students.

This chapter provides a framework for the pages ahead. We’re going to rewind to the 19th century in order to examine intelligence and how the conception of this construct has changed over time. We’re also going to dissect grit so that we can study each component in depth. And that’s only Chapter 1!

In Chapter 2, we’re going to dig deeper into how grit is measured and examine ways teachers can support students in their grit development. Chapter 3 is focused on building grit in gifted students, specifically as it relates to elite talent development, and what all classrooms can learn from the field of gifted education. In Chapter 4, I integrate grit with what we know about growth mindset research and how teachers can use these theories in working with students. Because passion is such an integral component to grit, I’ve dedicated all of Chapter 5 to how teachers can cultivate passion in their students. I wrote Chapter 6 as a guide to help you work with parents, ensuring a streamlined approach to building grit in students. And finally, the last chapter is all about grit at the school level and how campus staff and administrators can work together to build a gritty school culture.

Each chapter ends with final thoughts and discussion questions to help you consider practical ways you can apply these ideas to your classrooms. I also included a compilation of resources at the end of the book that I hope is helpful to you. By the last page, if I’ve done my job well, you will be inspired and equipped with the knowledge you need to prioritize the building of grit in your students.

Intelligence Versus Grit

Beginning with Sir Francis Galton in the late 1800s, psychologists have been enamored by the individual differences that make up varying levels of intelligence. Studying intelligence began as a very practical matter: Educators needed to identify which students would need special help in school, and the military needed to quickly assess the abilities of its recruits. There were even some years when scientists toyed with the idea of limiting procreation to those who met certain intellectual criteria. I’m not kidding.

You are likely familiar with the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, a five-factor instrument that assesses fluid reasoning, knowledge, quantitative reasoning, visual-spatial processing, and working memory (Roid, 2003). The scales have undergone five iterations since 1916 and are frequently used to determine appropriate special education interventions.

Most recently, Howard Gardner’s (2000) theory of multiple intelligences started discussions centered on the myriad ways we can demonstrate intelligence. Gardner identified the following learning styles: visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical. His research inspired an explosion of ideas in the teaching world. Teachers tailored their instruction to the learning styles of their students, but even still, they continued to struggle with motivating their students and increasing their achievement.

Clearly, we don’t have this intelligence thing figured out just yet. But who really cares? Intelligence does not guarantee success or happiness or world peace. High school reunions are full of smart people who accomplished little. Keeping up with old friends on social media reveals stories of people with limited intelligence who surprised everyone by their achievements. Sure, there is research to indicate that performance, particularly in traditional learning environments, can be predicted by intelligence. But we are finding that something more is needed in this society of hashtags, drones, and self-parking cars.

Grit is about internal fortitude and zeal.

That something else may be grit. Duckworth (2016), a professor and researcher, has become the name associated with grit. She defined grit as sustained perseverance coupled with intense passion. Notice the absence of intelligence in that definition. Furthermore, what else is missing? Luck, talent, wealth, fairy godmother. . . . According to Duckworth, people can be successful if they can persevere through challenges and if they are passionate about their pursuit. Of course, it’s easier to pursue when one has luck, talent, wealth, or a fairy godmother, but grit isn’t about easy. Grit is about internal fortitude and zeal. It requires commitment, thick skin, and (I’m sure you’ve already guessed it) self-discipline.


Self-discipline is the ability to control an impulse in order to overcome a weakness. It’s the ability to not grab a handful of Skittles when you pass by the candy bowl, to stay in and study when you want to meet up with your friends, to not respond to a text message while driving. This control over your behavior is based on a value judgment; you are making a difficult decision to pick the “better” choice.

This obviously implies that you recognize which one is the better choice. Raise your hand if you’ve taught a student who struggles with impulse control, who has absolutely no concept that a “better” choice even exists. I know we’ve all been there. Although the ability to manage our impulses improves as we age, it’s definitely related to maturity, temperament, and genetics (Dewar, 2011–2015; Smith, Mick, & Faraone, 2009). I’m sure you’re thinking (again) that this is just one more thing you can’t control about your students. And you’re right.

Self-discipline is the ability to control an impulse in order to overcome a weakness.

However, there is an important part you play as a teacher. You can reward your students for exhibiting self-control. Depending on the age of your students, this could be the amount of time your students work independently or how they transition from activity to activity. The reward you provide could be a silly sticker, authentic and specific praise, or extra free time. The point is that you recognize and reinforce what you want to see in your students.

Wilhelm Hofmann and his colleagues (2013) studied self-control and how it relates to happiness. They found that people with higher self-control are not only happier with their lives, but happier in the moment they made the controlled choice. This shocked me, as I regularly wrestle my health conscience over my late-night snacks. I usually eat my carrots with a snarl, wishing I had picked the cookies. Even further, they reported that people with higher self-control put themselves into fewer positions where they would have to make a difficult choice. Basically, they are saying to not buy the cookies in the first place. (Ugh.)

The influence self-discipline has on student achievement is astounding. In a study of eighth-grade students, Duckworth and Seligman (2005) found that students with higher self-discipline outperformed the others on attendance, grades, standardized test scores, and admission to a magnet high school. Self-discipline explained more variance in these measures than IQ. See? I told you intelligence was nothing to fret over. Grittier people are also more likely to keep their jobs, graduate from high school, and stay married (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005). That’s something, y’all.

And it’s not even a research fad! We’re talking Francis Galton in 1869, William James in 1890, and Sigmund Freud in 1920 all found that the ability to regulate one’s behavior was crucial to success. And their findings have been replicated so many times since then (Caprara, Vecchione, Alessandri, Gerbino, & Barbaranelli, 2011; Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004; Zimmerman & Kitsantas, 2014). Self-discipline is important.

Duckworth (2016) proposed that goals are built into a hierarchy with actions at the bottom and goals above, all leading to a super stretch goal. Grit is the ability to stay focused on that super goal, regardless of distractions and setbacks. Self-control is the ability to choose to complete the actions leading to that goal instead of choosing an activity that does not lead to the goal. It doesn’t necessarily even need to be a negative activity. For example, my super goal was to write a bestselling book about grit in the classroom that would be so revered that I would end up on a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Yes, I realize there are some issues with my logic here, but a girl can dream.) A lower goal was to read Angela Duckworth’s (2016) book on grit. An activity leading to that goal was reading every day. A competing activity was picking up a “fun” book to read (sorry, Angela). Reading the “fun” book isn’t going to harm me, but it’s also not getting me any closer to my super goal. Encouraging students to attain their goals can be accomplished in much the same way. Figure 1 is an example of a student’s super goal. Attaining a super goal requires self-discipline, which ultimately leads to perseverance.

FIGURE 1. Example of a student’s super stretch goal.



Perseverance is a behavior, a purposeful action to pursue a goal or task despite obstacles. Perseverance is Kennedy Cobble, who started her battle with cancer a decade ago at 14. Since then, she’s beat cancer four times and is now pursuing a career in education (Minutaglio, 2016). Perseverance is Jack Andraka who was rejected 199 times before he was granted a science lab at Johns Hopkins University to develop an easy and inexpensive test to detect pancreatic cancer (Tucker, 2012). Perseverance is Mustafa Khaleefah, who moved to the United States as an Iraqi refugee in sixth grade, started playing football as a high school sophomore, was heavily recruited by a dozen colleges, and then committed to Michigan State University (McCabe, 2016).

I encourage you to brainstorm this idea of perseverance as it applies to people you and your students know. The reason why this is important is simple: It’s easy to talk about the perseverance of these unique individuals, but many of us don’t have Kennedy’s experiences (thankfully), Jack’s opportunities, or Mustafa’s circumstances. It’s not easy to recognize perseverance in ourselves and in the people we know. And if we can’t recognize it, how can we celebrate and repeat it?

Perseverance is a behavior, a purposeful action to pursue a goal or task despite obstacles.

Perseverance is not to be confused with compliance. One way to think of compliance is the adherence to rules and expectations. Anyone who has participated in a school fire drill knows that compliance is important here. However, another kind of compliance is the submissive, unengaged completion of assigned tasks. This type of compliance should in no way be the goal of a teacher. If you’re a sheep herder or a snake charmer? Fine. But not a teacher. The difference lies in where the behavior begins. Compliance is something forced onto you. It’s like saying you’re sorry just to end an argument, even when you don’t feel sorry. You’re not committed enough to approach the conflict with an attitude of perseverance. You would rather just give in and move on. (I may be speaking from experience here.) Classrooms are full of students completing assignments out of compliance. They’re quiet and working, but far from engaged. When faced with a challenge, their effort will be minimal toward solving it—if they don’t just give up. Students who complete their assignments out of compliance are not going to become gritty. They aren’t developing a passion, and they won’t persevere when things get tough.

In a 2016 Fortune 500 Insiders Network forum, Greg Hyslop, the chief technology officer of The Boeing Company, made the case that perseverance is the most important skill a millennial can have. Hyslop argued that most of Boeing’s projects could take a decade or more to complete, but that many younger employees won’t stick around to their completion. Those who stay with a project long term learn the problem solving and conflict management skills that are critical to being successful in innovative fields. Those who quit and move onto the next shiny object miss out on those skills. (Go ahead and picture one of those people right now. I know you know one.)

Showing perseverance, especially in an imperfect situation, shows that you are trustworthy. In the wise words of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.” Obviously the particular gates of hell can vary throughout your life—the point is you don’t give up. By sticking with something, you show those around you that you are committed to the task, regardless of the obstacle.

Additionally, by not giving up, you are also teaching yourself some valuable lessons. You recognize that your life is in your control, that you dictate what happens. In this realization, you gain power over the decisions you make. You can also learn something from the pursuit of a challenge, perhaps expanding your interests in a new direction. Imagine what this can do for your students, your students who are shuffled from class to class, who have little say in their daily activities or routines. But they do have control over how they respond to the obstacles they experience, and, in that moment, they have the power needed to build grit.

Perseverance often shows up in schools via character education. (Groan.) A well-meaning teacher leads a class discussion about Albert Einstein, Vincent van Gogh, or Dr. Seuss, asking her class to imagine what would have happened if those icons of creativity had given up. Another teacher turns a lively debate away from whether Haymitch is a hero or villain in The Hunger Games into a lesson on the determination one needs to fight oppression. All of a sudden, she’s squelching her students’ excitement in order to teach a “life lesson.” But perseverance can’t be taught in an isolated lesson. It’s personal, and it’s complicated.

Grit involves sustained perseverance.

In the 1930s, the administrators at Lenox School, a boys’ preparatory school in Massachusetts, were searching for a method to test applicants’ level of perseverance. They relied on intelligence testing to screen the boys, but also wanted to measure this trait that they felt was equally important when preparing for college. So, Walter Clark (1935) developed two tests where students were asked to create words from a given set of letters and to do something similar with numbers. Clark (1935) also asked the instructors to rate the boys’ perseverance in class and when completing their extracurricular activities. He found that the word and number tests were fairly reliable in measuring perseverance. The test administrators acknowledged that a limitation of their study was that they could not control for the motivation of the boys; they were simply relying on them to try their best because they asked them to.

This motivation is key. Remember that grit involves sustained perseverance. So, although Clark’s (1935) tests for perseverance may have initially detected a certain level of “stick-to-itiveness,” they likely didn’t reveal information the administrators found useful. However, in addition to overcoming some pretty extreme obstacles, Kennedy, Jack, and Mustafa (discussed at the beginning of this section) were also highly motivated and passionate about their pursuits. If they were ambivalent about their goals, they likely wouldn’t continue pursuing them. This is where passion comes in. Perseverance is often confused with grit, but grit only exists when sustained perseverance is paired with passion.


Common sense tells us about the importance of passion in our enjoyment of something. The more you enjoy it, the more likely you are to put in the practice needed to be successful. It’s extremely difficult to excel at something you don’t like and gives you no pleasure. For example, I will never be the lima-bean-eating champion of West Cape May, NJ (Alexander, 1988). Why? I don’t like lima beans. I have zero interest in eating one lima, let alone the 600 it takes to win the contest. I don’t want to wear the “World’s Largest Source of Natural Gas” shirt as a prize. There is nothing in it for me, and there is no amount of information you can tell me about the greatness of limas to change my mind. No interest equals no passion. But what about someone who does like lima beans? How do we take a sincere interest and develop it into a passion? And how do we do that in school?

Grit only exists when sustained perseverance is paired with passion.

The key may be to explore “passion for learning” (PFL), not just passion. PFL is sustained and focused interest that captivates a child’s time. Other activities are likely discarded because they take time away from this specific interest. Additionally, the presence of PFL in a child may predict the presence of passion as an adult. In their 2013 study of PFL in children, Larry Coleman and Aige Guo examined children who sustained PFL on a specific domain for at least 12 months. They described six middle school students who exhibited PFL in a variety of domains; three were homeschooled and three were not. To give you an example of what PFL looks like, I want to describe Billy to you:

Billy’s PFL was preaching. His parents told the researchers that Billy was uninterested in typical children’s toys and that he loved to sing songs he heard in church at a very young age. His goal was to read the King James Bible before kindergarten and he had a congregation by the age of 13. Billy tried traditional school, but was frequently in trouble for anointing the other students with water or oil. He refused to participate in activities that went against his religion and would only wear a bishop’s attire (i.e., black suit, black shoes, and gold cross). And that was in kindergarten. . . . Billy described his schoolwork as a middle schooler as detestable and displayed excitement when explaining how he counseled and shared God’s word with his congregation. (Coleman & Guo, 2013 p. 12).

Coleman and Guo (2013) also interviewed Betty, a passionate speller.

Like Billy, Betty’s interest began prior to kindergarten and she also passed on outside activities to stay focused on pursuing her passion. However, even though Betty’s interest was much less controversial than Billy’s, she described cultivating her passion for spelling in spite of the confines of school. She dedicated 40 hours a week to studying, fitting it in when she could: on the bus, between classes, and during downtime. She never mentioned being given time to study during school. (p. 13)

Should time in school be dedicated to pursuing passions?

Dr. Joseph Renzulli thinks so. Renzulli is an educational psychologist who has worked in gifted education for decades. In my house, he’s been dubbed the Godfather of the Gifted because of his contribution and commitment to gifted education. (I call him G.G. Kidding. Okay, just not to his face.) He developed a three-part Venn diagram of giftedness, called the Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness (see Figure 2), that defines gifted behaviors as some combination of above-average ability, task commitment, and creativity (Renzulli, 1984). Task commitment has also been described as sustained perseverance. An implication of this model is that the amount one has in any area can change over time, but that the presence of all three indicate a level of giftedness that may not be supported in a traditional learning environment.

FIGURE 2. Three-Ring Conception of Giftedness. Note. From The Schoolwide Enrichment Model: A How-to Guide for Talent Development (3rd ed., p. 22), by J. S. Renzulli and S. M. Reis, 2014, Waco, TX: Prufrock Press. Copyright 2014 by Prufrock Press. Reprinted with permission.


So, Renzulli (1984) developed the Enrichment Triad Model (see Figure 3), a three-pronged approach to meeting the needs of gifted students. It has since evolved into a model used to enrich the learning experiences of children of varying abilities. Type I Enrichment includes general exploratory activities to inspire students and expose them to an array of disciplines and interests. Type II Enrichment is focused on developing the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary when cultivating interest and creativity. Although Type I activities can be structured, Type II are more organic, stemming from students’ needs. Type III Enrichment is similar to developing one’s passion for learning. Students who are committed to their interests immerse themselves in them and are “creatively engaged” in this process.

FIGURE 3. The Enrichment Triad Model. Note. From The Schoolwide Enrichment Model: A How-to Guide for Talent Development (3rd ed., p. 50), by J. S. Renzulli and S. M. Reis, 2014, Waco, TX: Prufrock Press. Copyright 2014 by Prufrock Press. Reprinted with permission.


Robert Vallerand and his colleagues (2003) have studied passion for more than a decade. They define passion as a strong desire for an activity, object, or person that one loves, values, and invests time and energy into. In their dualistic model of passion, two types of passion exist: harmonious and obsessive.

If you have harmonious passion for an activity, you do it because you get joy from it. You are intrinsically motivated to engage in the activity and this passion does not interfere with other parts of your life. For example, if, like me, you feel harmonious passion toward young adult literature, you are rarely happier than when curled up with the newest John Green gem. If you had a choice of what to do in your free time, you would likely choose reading. You’re also inclined to make recommendations to friends and experience pure joy when you meet someone with this same passion. Harmonious passion is typically viewed as a positive behavior and is internalized as a healthy part of your identity.

Passion is a strong desire for an activity, object, or person that one loves, values, and invests time and energy into (Vallerand et al., 2003).

If you have obsessive passion for an activity, your behavior is more maladaptive and can lead to conflict. Your passion supersedes everything else to the point where you will risk relationships, work, and other important parts of your life in order to cater to your interest. If you can’t imagine this really being a thing, pop by my house when a certain college football team is playing and tell my husband you want to take him to his favorite place in the world for dinner. You’ll likely be eating alone. Obsessive passion is similar to an addiction, where the excitement for an activity, object, or person is so extreme that the person is blind to most everything else. It’s also internalized as a consuming part of your identity; without this passion, you don’t know who you are or what to care about.

We see similar obsessive passion in our students when we try to transition them from an activity they don’t want to stop, or in our children when we limit their screen time. It may not be that these activities are part of their identity—it’s just that their interest is more powerful than anything you’re offering.

Although persistent pursuit of passion is integral to establishing grit, flexibility is also important. One must be able to distinguish between harmonious and obsessive behavior, adapting to new situations in a healthy manner. For example, my husband has realized over time that he is terrible company when he tries to combine his passion with any other activity; while obsessive at times, his self-awareness minimizes the potential for conflict.

Interestingly, the amount of time you spend on a task does not determine whether your passion is harmonious or obsessive. The key is how you feel about what you are doing. If you feel in control of your time and emotions while pursuing your passion, it is likely more harmonious than obsessive. If you are feeling like you must commit to your passion or you will think poorly of yourself, or feel that others will think badly of you, it’s likely that your passion is unhealthy. Because a person with obsessive passion builds her identity around the passion, how well she is accomplishing her goals in relation to the passion impacts how she feels about herself. Pursuing the passion becomes more rigid and less creative, as there is little room for failure.

Grit in School

Most of us entered the field of education because we want to make a difference in children’s lives. We believe in education, and we believe that teachers are a crucial component of a child’s educational experience. There is nothing worse than feeling like you failed a child, that no matter what you tried or what your intentions were, you didn’t make the difference you aspired to. Sure, you can tell yourself that maybe you just can’t see that influence until later in life. But if we step out of fantasyland for a moment, we will face reality: There are some kids we won’t reach. There are some kids we fail. And for that, we’re deeply sorry and regretful. We’re also committed to figuring out what else we can do. Because we believe in the power of education, we believe that there is something to learn from these dark moments. And that’s why we study and read. That’s why you’re here.

Grit may have just as important an influence on success as cognitive ability.

Let’s come back to cognitive ability for a moment. Duckworth (2016) argued that grit may be a significant predictor of success, possibly more of a predictor than cognitive ability. In 1904, Charles Spearman published a paper about a general factor of intelligence; he called this g. After studying the results of multiple batteries of achievement tests (i.e., visual, spatial, verbal, memory, etc.), he realized that scores were pretty similar across tests. That is, a person who earned a low score on one test, earned similarly low scores on all tests. Additionally, researchers have repeatedly reported a strong positive relationship between g and IQ (Carroll, 1997; Gottfredson, 1998; Jenson, 1980; Spearman, 1904). For example, a person with a high g likely has a high IQ. Why should you care? Because g, and therefore IQ, is fairly stable over time. Assuming you take a reliable IQ test as an adolescent, the percentile rank of your IQ will be similar when you take another test as an older adult. Now you’re probably thinking this is a big downer. I mean, if we can’t increase intelligence, why do we get up every morning and put on our teacher pants? Well, because according to Duckworth and her colleagues (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007), grit may have just as important an influence on success as cognitive ability. Mic drop.

Walk through this with me. You’re an average student who decides to take an advanced placement (AP) course your junior year of high school. You need the college credit and want to prove you can do this. You study, meet with your teacher during tutoring hours, and complete all of your assignments. You struggle here and there, but ultimately earn a high grade in the class and score a 3 on the test. You worked your way through this course and earned college credit as a junior. Your intelligence hasn’t changed. But you know more than you did when you started. You have improved study habits. You believe in yourself and what you are capable of. That’s grit.

Have you ever popped into a school and overheard two teachers bragging to one another about the IQs of their students? Nope. What do we care about in education? Because I don’t know you and I’m not going to make any assumptions, I’ll tell you what we should care about—the 10 things listed in Table 1.


10 Things We Should Care About in Education


Children believe they can learn and they demonstrate growth in their learning over time.


Children love the process of discovery so much that they lose track of time.


Children know how to approach a challenge and problem solve their way through it.


Children feel empathy and genuine respect for others.


Children are passionate and can articulate their passions.


Children understand that they control their actions and, therefore, the results of those actions.


Children know what it feels like to want to give up—but then they persevere through it.


Children establish the necessary self-discipline to achieve short- and long-term goals.


Children are intrinsically motivated because of their dedication to the learning process.


Children understand their strengths and weaknesses and that these are not fixed.

To be clear, these are not cultivated through character education or weekly role-playing. We must design learning experiences that thrust children into practicing these behaviors over and over and over again. Think of the entire school year as one big project-based learning adventure. We don’t design a lesson that is going to require students to complete a service-learning project in order to demonstrate empathy; we are going to design rigorous history lessons that require students to view events from multiple perspectives. We won’t force a student to work on a science project for a month; we will create a challenging lesson that leads students to ask unlimited questions and give them time to find the answers.

Grit will not solve all of our problems. After all, we are dealing with people and people are unpredictable. However, grit is something we can grasp onto as one tool to improve how we approach education.

So, although you may not hear teachers bragging about a student’s IQ, it’s common to hear discussions of talent. Duckworth suggested that by explaining achievement (or lack of) by way of talent, we are being lazy (as cited in Lebowitz, 2016a). We are attributing something great (i.e., success) to something we just innately have, something we’re born with. So, we can either wish on a star or we can dig deeper.

Introducing Students to Grit

By now you realize that grit isn’t something that your students will just learn through a flashy activity. It’s a skill that needs to be nurtured over time. There are, however, steps you can take to put grit at the forefront of your students’ minds. After all, it’s much easier to develop a skill if you’re equipped with the understanding of what that skill looks like.

You can assist students in constructing an understanding of grit by introducing them to people who have demonstrated passion and perseverance in pursuit of their goals. Depending on the abilities of your students, choose the reading selections accordingly. Students can read biographies of J. K. Rowling or Angie Thomas in language arts, Marie Curie or Albert Einstein in science, Nelson Mandela or Abraham Lincoln in social studies, and Isaac Newton and Marjorie Lee Browne in mathematics. Of course, you could also select a number of other people including Michael Jordan, Frida Kahlo, and Jay Z. Most people who have “made it” in their fields have done so because of grit. By providing students with biographies of these individuals, this is the conclusion your students should reach.

Never miss a moment to bring grit to the forefront of your students’ minds.

It’s also fun to introduce concepts to students using television and movies. I’ve found that you can’t go wrong with Disney, whether your students are 8 or 18. The main characters in TV shows such as Austin & Ally, Jessie, and Shake It Up all demonstrate passion and perseverance. And who can argue the grit of Ariel in The Little Mermaid? Or Pinocchio? You can show a short clip to your students and ask them to identify the actions that demonstrate grit. You can also ask students to identify areas of weakness—where characters could have made different decisions to attain their goals.

Of course, it’s most important that students recognize grit in themselves and those around them. Ask them to journal about someone they know personally who exemplifies (or doesn’t) the kind of passion and perseverance needed to be successful. When discussing current or historical events with your students, make sure “grit” is part of the conversation. Never miss a moment to bring grit to the forefront of your students’ minds.

When students understand what grit is all about, you can show them Table 2. This table is a list of ways in which students may demonstrate grit and warning signs that they may not be demonstrating grit. Ask students to add specific behaviors and actions to the table so that they can apply what they’ve learned. It’s imperative to be explicit in what grit does and does not look like so they can begin to transfer their understanding to their own experiences.


Student Demonstrations of Grit or Lack of Grit

Signs of Students Demonstrating Grittiness

Warning Signs of Students Without Grit

•They get a bad grade on a math test and ask you how they can do better next time.

•They get huffy when they get a bad grade, throwing away their tests.

•You introduce a project, and your students get excited about the possibilities.

•They can be overly chatty in group projects but typically related to the assignment.

•They are annoyed by the open-endedness of a project and just want you to tell them how to get a good grade.

•They ask you for extra credit, often at the end of the grading period.

Pursuing Excellence

Duckworth and Gross (2014) proposed two equations to explain how talent leads to achievement (p. 44).

Talent × Effort = Skill

Skill × Effort = Achievement

Notice that effort counts in both equations. In fact, if I’m remembering my high school algebra correctly, you can rewrite the equations as

(Talent × Effort) × Effort = Achievement


Talent × Effort2 = Achievement

Okay, I know I’m just showing off now, but you should really just pause to consider the power of this path to achievement. Sure, talent is important, but effort is even more influential. That’s pretty awesome.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to work with three elite gymnasts. They had been “gym-schooled” through eighth grade while they trained 40+ hours in the gym. One of them lived with a host family during the week so she could train and then went home on the weekends to see her parents and brother. The gymnasts’ days started early and ended late. I was fortunate enough to be their freshman English teacher. I created a blended course for them; I worked with them in person 3 days a week and they worked at home or the gym the other days.

It is crucial that we help our students find their “why.”

These girls were extremely talented and had been selected to train with Olympic champion Kim Zmeskal Burdette in her Texas gym. Their skill (talent x effort) was undeniable. Duckworth (2016) argued that something happens between skill and achievement. In a sense, having a skill is easy: You have a talent and you put in the effort to develop that talent. However, to take that skill and to turn it into achievement, you have to put forth even more effort. For my gymnasts to compete internationally, earn college scholarships, and have a chance at the Olympics, they had to stay committed. They had to persevere through every challenge presented to them in and out of the gym in order to achieve their goals. The “why” behind the commitment for these girls was their passion. Although they didn’t love every drill and every injury, they loved the competition and the pursuit of excellence.

In school, it is crucial that we help our students find their “why.” If you don’t think we need to figure out how to do this, ask a kid in the back of the classroom why he needs to be in your class. It’s very likely the answers will range from “I don’t know” to “because I have to.” He has no “why,” and, after his response, you may also be wondering why you even need to be there.

If you’re like me (a mostly left-brainer who occasionally dips her toe in the right-brain world), you get very excited when you use algebra in real life, because, despite the posters listing all of the careers that use math, you really don’t care. However, when I am trying to figure out how much the to-die-for Vince Camuto pumps will be after the discount, I visualize the equation in my head, do the math on my smartphone, and mentally thank my algebra teacher. (I also start plotting a way to bring these gorgeous shoes home without anyone noticing.) But, you want to know something? I still don’t care about math. I do care about getting a good deal, and fashion is definitely one of my passions, so that’s my “why.” It’s personal.

But, listen. I am not advocating that math teachers create problems around students’ interests. My algebra teacher could have forced me to calculate the sale prices of a thousand pairs of shoes and I still wouldn’t care about math. Solving equations has nothing to do with my passions now or as a high school student. So what was the point of taking that class? Well, in addition to it being required (the kid in the back of the room was right), I learned to respect the discipline. I appreciated how every variable had a place in an equation and I learned that if I took my time, I could solve multistep problems correctly. I also learned that, because math didn’t come easily to me, I had to put in extra time to learn the material. And, most importantly, I learned that when I did learn something difficult, I felt a great amount of pride (#perseverance).

With these equations, Duckworth (2016) suggested that someone twice as talented who puts forth half the effort as another person may have the same level of skill as that person, but will achieve less over time. Read that sentence again. Draw it out if you have to. Crunch the numbers. As a teacher, this is the greatest thing I’ve heard since SSR (silent sustained reading) made a comeback. When we place an emphasis on effort, authentic effort, with our students, we are also showing them a way to improve their performance. And by creating a community that values true effort, you are creating individuals who know how to take their skills, pursue their passions, and excel.

Sam was a student I failed. I completely thought I had him figured out; he was an extremely bright, underperforming student in seventh grade, but I was going to turn him around. So, in my eighth-grade language arts class, I reserved one day a week for independent study. I gave very few guidelines regarding the topics students could choose and set up research checkpoints. Students informally reported to the class their findings, as a way to generate more interest and expose one another to a variety of topics. I mean, I was teacher of the year material here.

When we place an emphasis on effort, authentic effort, with our students, we are also showing them a way to improve their performance.

Sam chose to research the dark web, the underworld of the world wide web. His first informal presentation was fascinating. His second presentation . . . not so much. He repeated almost the exact same information to the class. I was going to quietly pull him aside later to discuss the fact that he had done nothing this past month (remember, I’m teacher of the year material), but Julia said what we all were thinking: “Isn’t this the same thing you told us last month?” Sam’s response: “There is no other information available on this topic. It’s all classified.” Okey-doke. Sam clearly had the skill to knock our socks off with his research, but he didn’t have the effort. Maybe his interest in the topic was weak. Maybe he didn’t have enough self-discipline to sustain his focus. Maybe he was tired. I don’t know, but that’s okay. Because learning and passion are so personal, I am incapable of having all of the answers. We have to let ourselves off the hook and just enjoy the challenge. For many of us, that challenge is our passion. Am I right?

On the other hand, Jorge was more successful. He was not a naturally talented student and struggled to keep up with all of his assignments. His research topic and questions were very simplistic; let me tell you, this boy really loved penguins. He had to put in a tremendous amount of effort for every part of his study, from citing sources to writing up his results coherently. By the end of the semester, however, his research questions evolved to include bigger issues about penguins in captivity and the effects global warming were having on their livelihood. Jorge demonstrated grit, while also learning research skills, to believe in himself, and critical thinking skills. Go ahead and say it: #teacheroftheyear.

Final Thoughts

Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.

—Steve Jobs

Grit is the result of intense passion coupled with sustained perseverance and it may be the difference between success and failure over time. In building grit, effort counts twice—more than achievement and more than talent. As teachers who give our students everything we have (and then some), we can take practical steps to cultivate grit in our students.

Self-discipline and passion are also important to our understanding of grit. School is the place where we can help our students manage their behaviors and stoke their passions. As teachers, we can fulfill the dual purposes of teaching our students content while developing their abilities to persevere through challenges.

Discussion Questions

1.Describe a time you faced a challenge and persevered. How did you feel before, during, and after? What about a time that you gave up or were defeated?

2.Read over the “10 Things We Should Care About in Education” (p. 19). Do any of these not belong? Is anything missing?

3.Review Duckworth’s equations for grit (p. 22). Do you agree? Can you think of an example when effort influenced achievement more than talent? 

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