Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Response to Edutopia's "Grit Happens in PBL"

Click here to view John Larmer's Edutopia Article titled, "Grit Happens in PBL"

Here is my response posted on Edutopia as well-

The folks that criticize grit do so from a primarily economic point of view. The critiques that I have read do not like the idea of telling economically disadvantaged students to "just be gritty". Its viewed as another version of "pull yourself up by the boot-straps". I believe these critics feel that there are societal structures that require serious change, and they are concerned that the "grit movement" will distract leaders from the real structural changes necessary to build a more equitable society. And in relation to those critiques, I have heard criticism of teaching students self-control (often associated with the grit research and researchers) as being more about compliance than learning.

I have spent a lot of time working with grit and the related research this year. I feel like there are two versions of grit in the education world. The first version is the pop version. Its the version I see on this particular post, and the version I see Alfie Kohn and Ira Socol criticizing. It seems to me that people hear the word "grit" and they assume that the research behind it simply says, "try harder", and you will "do better". I think people jump to that conclusion because many educators are attracted to that idea. Most of us see students who lack motivation. Many of us just wish they would try harder! So we hear grit, and we assume we know what that research and what all the fuss is about. But after really digging into the topic, I assure you, there is much more to it.

In summary, I think the second version of grit, the one that digs much deeper, is about executive functioning. I believe the research is discovering a particular trait associated with achievement (note I didn't say success), that is a function of a healthy developing brain. In that view, providing students from chronic stress scenarios (often students from violence and poverty, but not always) with the opportunity to grow a part of their brain (executive functioning) that is often stunted in chronic stress (see the work of Eric Jensen or Laurence Steinberg) is really about equality not compliance. The research shows that those with self-control and related executive functioning skills (i.e. grit) achieve well by all sorts of measures from all sorts of demographics. By ignoring schools' opportunities to develop these skills (particularly good opportunities in early ed, transitions, and early adolescence due to increased brain plasticity), schools would be perpetuating inequality. Does teaching grit replace the need for structural change and increased equity in our society? Absolutely not. But I don't know any researcher claiming that it will. In fact, since writing his book, Paul Tough has coined a phrase in response to this critique, he calls it the adversity gap. In this he explains that he is not suggesting that students from chronic stress need more adversity (!), but he is saying that students on the other end of the gap might need some in order to practice the executive functioning skill of grit more often.

And in regards to PBL or student-driven learning. PBL often engages students more than traditional schooling. Which is why I am big proponent of it. It often leads to more real work than the compliance content cramming most of us grew up with. It often gives students the opportunity to practice grit, which is great as well. But I would argue that if you are working with students from chronic stress, PBL will not address their executive functioning needs. In those cases PBL is just another mode of learning that students can't access deeply. When students develop executive functioning skills such as self-control and yes, grit, then they can access any type of learning...and hopefully that type of learning is PBL often is.


  1. Why do you make a distinction between success and achievement?

  2. In my opinion achievement means being able to accomplish goals. Success is more subjective than that.

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