Grit, Growth Mindsets, and Simple Solutions for Complex Problems

Two of the most influential concepts shaping the current discourse about teaching, learning, and student success are the ideas of “growth mindset” and “grit.” Their popularity stems from two major factors, I think. First, they’re both easy to summarize in a sentence or two, which always helps ideas spread rapidly throughout the national conversation. Second, they seem to just, well…ring true for a lot of us. 

Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist who formulated the concept of “mindset” and whose research centers around “fixed” vs. “growth” mindsets in education, points to the way in which learners think of themselves and their abilities as the key to academic growth. A “fixed mindset,” where a student believes they possess fixed abilities and intelligence, leads to difficulties with complex material and learning from setbacks. Students with a “growth mindset,” on the other hand, see themselves as works in progress, and conceive of their abilities and intelligence as attributes that can be improved over time. As Dweck posits, with a significant body of research behind the theory, inculcating growth mindsets among our students can play a significant role in helping them overcome many of the traditional barriers to success.

“Grit,” the theory of performance articulated by former teacher and current researcher Angela Duckworth, argues that students with larger degrees of this quality can succeed despite significant adversity. “Grit,” which is shorthand for perseverance, passion, and the self-discipline to operationalize them in service of learning, is a key predictor of academic success, according to Duckworth’s argument. Similar to the older idea of “stick-to-it-iveness,” Grit is a commodity that can be cultivated among students, Duckworth argues, and–in a similar fashion to Dweck’s growth mindset–provide students with the tools to overcome adversity and succeed academically, even if the road to that success is littered with obstacles.

Both of these concepts have proven wildly popular (do a Google search for “growth mindset” to see just how vast its reach has become) in both K-12 and higher education. After all, they seem to affirm what we know about student success, right? Motivation is essential! Students need to work hard, and not give up so easily. Sometimes it’s not how smart you are, but how persistent you can be. And those are all true to an extent. But lost in all the hubbub surrounding the ascent of Growth Mindset and Grit as educational panaceas is the very real danger of these solutions actually exacerbating the problems they aim to solve.

While there is a good deal of efficacy in helping students develop these qualities (although I would argue that Dweck’s mindset research holds more value for student success than Duckworth’s admonitions for “grit”), we need to be careful about how we deploy these concepts in our pedagogy. It’s all too easy to use them as ways to pretend we’re using effective methods to “toughen students up” while not really teaching effectively at all. As Alfie Kohn, one of the most trenchant critics of this phenomenon, has argued, admonitions to show more ‘grit’ blame individuals for the failures of larger systems. To put it another way, students who attend under-resourced schools and lack access to the type of academic resources their better-off peers enjoy, are now expected to overcome this disparity by…working harder? Placing the onus on students to develop a growth mindset, to show grit, lets us off the hook if we’re using ineffective pedagogical methods, Kohn continues:

Finger-wagging adults who exhort children to do their best sometimes don’t offer a persuasive reason for why a given task should be done at all, let alone done well.  And when students throw up their hands after failing at something they were asked to do, it may be less because they lack grit than because they weren’t really “asked” to do it — they were told to do it.  They had nothing to say about the content or context of the curriculum.  And people of all ages are more likely to persevere when they have a chance to make decisions about the things that affect them.

The most impressive educational activists are those who struggle to replace a system geared to memorizing facts and taking tests with one dedicated to exploring ideas.  They’re committed to a collaborative approach to schooling that learners will find more engaging.  By contrast, those enamored of grit look at the same status quo and ask:  How can we get kids to put up with it? [emphasis added]

And this is the rub: well-intentioned concepts that we try to use in the service of student success can become excuses for the very problems that prevent that success. Dweck herself has pointed out the perils of overly simplified applications of concepts which actually require nuance and care. Kohn and other educators have critiqued the ways in which the blanket application of mindset theory and “grit” has obscured the systemic issues that affect so many of our students.

So should we completely abjure the use of these ideas? The answer is more complex than a simple yes or no, I think. While mindset and grit are concepts which seem to affirm the gut feelings we have about student learning, we should be wary of simple explanations for complex phenomena. There are a lot of moving parts in the learning process, of which student mindset and grit are just a couple. While we certainly want to encourage students to see themselves as capable of developing their abilities, of always being able to learn and do more, and to do that work even when it’s most difficult, we can’t just blame them when those efforts fall short. Most essentially, we can’t fall into the trap of a deficit view of students. Seeing students solely in terms of deficits–they aren’t working hard enough; they need more grit; they’re just in a fixed mindset–is where learning goes to die. When we see our students as complicated human beings who have taken a wide variety of paths to arrive in our classrooms, we then understand that simple catchphrases aren’t sufficient for meaningful teaching and learning. The answers to complex problems are never simple.

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Finally, if you need a moment of zen this week, I invite you to be inspired by this happy pup:



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