[FoRK] This is not the Grit you are looking for

Stephen D. Williams sdw at lig.net
Tue May 10 09:42:56 PDT 2016

Bad term, poorly understood, misapplied.  The narrow perception and skills of educators isn't helping here.


Here’s the thing: Duckworth completely, totally, absolutely agrees with this critique. She would also like to add: It’s missing half 

Grit, as Duckworth has defined it in her research, is a combination of perseverance and passion — it’s just that the former tends to 
get all the attention, while the latter is overlooked. “I think the misunderstanding — or, at least, one of them — is that it’s only 
the perseverance part that matters,” Duckworth told Science of Us. “But I think that the passion piece is at least as important. I 
mean, if you are really, really tenacious and dogged about a goal that’s not meaningful to you, and not interesting to you — then 
that’s just drudgery. It’s not just determination — it’s having a direction that you careabout.”

In the case of grit, the enthusiasm for the work-ethic piece of the puzzle has outpaced the evidence, and schools across the country 
are trying to apply a concept that still hasn’t had all the kinks quite worked out yet. Back to the test score example highlighted 
by Quillette: That research equated conscientiousness with grit, and so the finding that conscientiousness didn’t predict higher 
scores — but IQ did — led to the conclusion that grit doesn’t live up to the hype. But this interpretation, Duckworth argues, leaves 
out the equally important other half of grit: passion. “That report was about, ‘Well, maybe grit’s not that important,’” Duckworth 
said. “And my thought when I read that was — how many kids who are 16 years old are passionate about their standardized reading and 
math scores forschool?”

Really, the sound of the word /grit/ itself is not helping matters, Duckworth pointed out. The word sounds like sweatiness, or 
dirtiness; it brings to mind the unpleasantness of effort. You /grit /your teeth — or, for another example, think of the 
single-minded toughness embodied by the heroes in /True Grit/. Grit sounds serious; it does not, on the other hand, sound like muchfun.

As such, perseverance would seem to be the more difficult half of grit: How, for instance, do you get students to work harder on 
their schoolwork? And yet Duckworth’s work has found just the opposite: It tends to be the passion part of grit that people need 
more help with. “I find that people’s passion scores are lower than their perseverance scores,” Duckworth said. She’s not yet sure 
exactly why this is, but she has a theory. “One possibility is that people can learn to work hard and be resilient, but to find 
something that would make you say, ‘This is so interesting to me — I’m so committed to it that I’m going to stick with it over 
years’ — that kind of passion may, in some ways, be harder to comeby.”

The consequences of hasty applications of grit in an educational context are not yet clear, but Duckworth can imagine them. To be 
sure, it’s not that she faults these educators — in many ways, she says, these are the best in the field, the ones who are /most 
/excited about trying innovative new ways of helping their students succeed. But by placing too much emphasis on grit, the danger is 
“that grit becomes a scapegoat — another reason to blame kids for not doing well, or to say that we don’t have a responsibility as a 
society to help them.” She worries that some interpretations of her work might make a student’s failure seem like /his /problem, as 
if he just didn’t work hard enough. “I think to separate and pit against each other character strengths on the one hand — like grit 
— and situational opportunities on the other is a false dichotomy,” she said. “Kids need to develop character, /and /they need our 
support in doingso.”


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