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Grit, Growth Mindset and the Backlash Against Both

by Betsy Hill

Grit, perseverance, fortitude, tenacity, resilience, persistence, stick-to-it-iveness, backbone, pluck, moral fiber, stamina, spunk... We have a lot of words for what it takes to do hard things and overcome obstacles. Growth mindset, flexibility, adaptability, zeal, willingness, a positive outlook, flexibility, motivation. We also have a lot of words for what it takes to learn from mistakes and try something new when our first approach doesn’t work.

The valence of the terms is different.  Grit is, well, gritty. It’s tough, it’s grinding, it’s exhausting. Growth mindset sounds gentler, more positive, easier. But the attraction for educators is similar – getting students to keep at the hard tasks of learning. 

The response of educators – first embracing and then a backlash – are also similar. The education world has embraced and rebelled against both concepts, despite research and evidence that they are predictive of greater academic and life success. 

The difficulty with both concepts is that they started as descriptive and left educators in a situation they often find themselves in – without any clear idea of what to do. 

When students struggle or fail, the two common responses are:

• When the going gets tough, the tough get going, or

• When the going gets tough, forget it.

Teachers are clear on the differences. It doesn’t take brain scans for them to identify which category their students fall into. The question teachers have struggled with, essentially forever, is what to do. Are these just descriptions of students or can a teacher influence the response? 

In her book about grit, called Grit, Angela Duckworth characterized it as a combination of perseverance and passion. The notion is that there is some strong incentive (passion), particularly in the long-term, that helps students persist in the face of adversity.

Duckworth’s work has been interpreted as implying that students need to develop grit, by finding their passion and just working hard. And if hard work doesn’t pay off right away, they just need to work harder. Essentially, the message to students has been, “Try harder. Try again. Remember your goal. Don’t give up.” Do you hear that whip cracking?

The question is still: How does a student get grit?

In Dweck’s case, and as she explains in her book, Growth Mindset, the research supports the idea that some students are fueled by failure and learn from their mistakes. They believe that talents and intelligence can be developed. 

Since the original publication of her book, Dweck has emphasized that the focus in a Growth Mindset is not just on effort but on effort that tries different solutions when the first approach doesn’t work out. It’s about learning.

Of course, as we all know, doing something the same way, over and over again, expecting a different result, is the definition of insanity. Most students understand that, as do most teachers. And yet, when a student fails, our response, guided by an incomplete understanding of Grit or Mindset, is too often “Well, just try again.”

The question is still: How does a student get a growth mindset?

The backlash against these concepts is understandable. Teachers who believe that their students need grit, generally have no idea how to instill it in their students. Teachers who believe that their students need to have a growth mindset also generally have little idea how to do that.

Unfortunately, there is a persistent (like every trait, persistence is not always positive) belief in our society that intelligence is fixed. Most people, educators and otherwise, still believe that we cannot change our basic intelligence. Most believe that we are born talented or not. Most students believe that they are smart or not. What these beliefs don’t account for is that our brains constantly change.

The theory of neuroplasticity is really no longer a theory. We know (that is, there is strong scientific consensus) that our brains develop in interaction with our environment. We know that our experiences develop or fail to develop cognitive processes, from vision (and visual-spatial reasoning) to hearing (and verbal memory) to focus (and other attention skills) to our capacity to hold information in our minds to solve problems (working memory), to our ability to write a compelling essay.

If students (and their teachers) understand that their learning experiences can and do change the capacity of their brains to receive, perceive, understand, store, retrieve and apply information, then grit and growth mindset conflate into a learning mindset.

Grit and growth mindset no longer require a leap of faith. They require having the experience of and recognizing cognitive growth. Research such as that at Johns Hopkins on working memory and breakthrough research on students with learning disabilities, demonstrate not only that the cognitive processes for learning can be developed but that they translate to improved performance on academic tasks.

To wit, a story. Student who had been through 12 weeks of cognitive training and experienced average gains of 14 percentile points on the CogAT (Cogntiive Abilities Test), were working in a group on a challenging problem. The answer eluded them for some time. One student was discouraged. “I don’t think we can figure this out,” he said. Another student said, “Remember how we struggled in BrainWare (the cognitive training program) and then we finally got it. I think we can do this.” And they did. They solved the problem.

The core idea of Growth Mindset (and the implicit idea of Grit) is that when students experience their own cognitive growth, they have the confidence to take on ever more challenging tasks. They will rebound and grow from difficulties. They will continue to want to learn. Or, as a recent advertisement for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines puts it, “Confidence breeds curiosity.”

This article was originally published on the Learning Counsel

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