After twenty years in higher education, I’ve often paused in my teaching career to ponder why some students who seem to have everything stacked against them go on to succeed and some who seem poised for success end up dropping out of college. It’s the students who do succeed, despite the odds, who intrigue me. What is it about them? What do they do differently? Are they brighter? Do they come better prepared for college? The answer to that is often, “no”. My personal experience has led me to believe these students are more diligent, have a better attitude, are willing to work (even when the work is difficult), and don’t blame others for their struggle. From my professional life, most successful individuals attribute their success to a combination of factors which includes intellect or intelligence, but often focus on their ability to navigate difficult situations through their persistence. In fact, history is filled with examples of highly successful individuals who overcame obstacles and rejection to achieve great acclaim.
Then along came Angela Duckwork and Paul Tough …….
Increasingly, research shows that high achievement, excelling at education or one’s vocation, requires something more than “natural talent” or “genius”, Duckworth and others suggest a necessary ingredient is grit. What is grit exactly? Grit has been defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (Duckworth et al., 2007). There is also research that suggests that grit training can lead to positive long term outcomes.
And this is where the story might end; if we teach our students to stick with things when they are difficult, to see challenges as a necessary condition of success, and to remain positive in the face of hardship, then they would all do better in higher education and life. Aww, but nothing is that easy. What about the students who are first generation college students? Those students whose families aren’t equipped to help them with college. Those students who come from low socio-economic backgrounds, who aren’t in the position to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”.
For three years I worked with high school students in East Saint Louis. The students I worked with were among some of the most “gritty” individuals that I’ve ever met and may not be successful in college despite their grit and attitude. There are barriers. Real barriers like institutional inequities, social capital, and socio-cultural differences that can’t just be ignored.
In the book Outliers (Gladwell, 2008), the author talks about difference in child rearing practices between high socio-economic homes and low-socio economic homes. One example tells of a mother, from a middle class home, taking her son to the doctor. In the car ride to the doctor’s office the mother preps him for the visit. She asks her son to think about questions he can ask the doctor and encourages him to participate in the exam. All this while the mother from the lower socio economic home doesn’t have a primary doctor and when she does take her son to see the doctor she encourages him to sit quietly and scolds him for speaking up. These differences in experiences are cumulative and make certain students less able to navigate the complex social aspects of college. Fast forward to both young men going to college. Something happens with financial aid. One is prepared to ask questions and advocate for himself and the other may choose to drop out because he is not sure how to handle the situation. So, what can we do?
I believe the first step is to listen to our students. If they aren’t doing well in a class, ask them why. Help them find support through tutoring, advising, financial aid, and counseling. Don’t lower the bar, just help them build a ladder so success is attainable. Talk about the importance of good failures and perseverance. Talk students through positive assertiveness and coach communication skills. So, while grit is the new buzz word in education, it should be tempered with social justice ideals. Remember, our students are complex and often just need a good mentor who can both challenge and support them simultaneously.
–Vicki Groves-Scott, Dean, College of Education
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and
passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. New York: Brown and Company.
Tough, P. (2011, September 14). What if the secret to success is failure? The New York Times, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/what-if-the-secret-tosuccess-is-failure.html?pagewanted=all.