The paradox of ‘grit’

“Grit” seems to be all the rage today. Perseverance. Determination. Persistence. Hard work. Yes, all of these traits are worthy of our attention, and have helped almost all of us through some difficult times. They have made (at least some of us) good money. They are as American as it gets, romantically lending to images of covered wagons trudging along the Oregon Trail, of Jack London alone in the winter’s wilderness building a fire, of the at-risk and underprivileged student making it to college.

These stories inspire us, give us hope, and remind us that we all do, in fact, have something inside of us that can keep on keepin’ on. I am thankful for that, and happy that academics and policy-makers are finally finding value in failure, in making mistakes, and in the oft messy process called learning.

Tim Price

University of Pennsylvania researcher Angela Duckworth has done some incredible work related to this notion of grit, enough of it to make it an actual term used amongst educators around the world. It has brought attention to important, and seemingly successful, efforts in urban centers where the achievement gap has been positively addressed, to some degree, through an emphasis on grit and well-intentioned reform (i.e. KIPP schools).

Even out here in Idaho, we have come around to this term, making it part of our working vocabulary, as evidenced in the 2017 study “The People’s Perspective” wherein three out of every four Idahoans surveyed each agreed that “grit” is just as important as academics. This doesn’t surprise me at all. Idahoans of all backgrounds, and those particularly in rural parts of our state, certainly understand the value of hard work.

It’s one of those intangible things that drew me here and to the communities that make Idaho proud. Being a transplant, I can only hope that some of this “grit” will ultimately rub off on me.

That all being said, I wonder if this renewed focus on “grit” has had some unintentional consequences that we haven’t thought of or recognized as of yet. Curricular theorists have long understood that any curriculum (in which “grit” has become) has multiple dimensions to it; in addition to the more palpable intentional curriculum there exists a hidden curriculum, one just below the surface.

While not necessarily nefarious in nature, it is important to be aware of this part of our curriculums, for to ignore it we would be educating our children without the full picture of what that means. In the case of grit, I wonder, could there be an argument that as schools seek to further develop the aforementioned qualities of perseverance, determination, and persistence – of grit — that we are also, quite unintentionally, teaching them to feign strength, to avoid asking for help, or, worse, that their pain is not worthy of our attention?

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Similarly, there has been literature that also suggests the existence of an even deeper paradox and dimension to curriculum, and thus also of the campaign for grit, called the “curriculum shadow” (Uhrmacher 1997), another dimension to what, why and how we teach that is not only hidden, but often the very antithesis of what we want or need.

Based on other very human qualities like fear, pride and ego, this curriculum can be quite allusive, requiring us to dig deep to find it. What’s amazing, yet also frustrating at times, this process can lead us to those other qualities that I would imagine everyone of us would want for our kids in acceptance, forgiveness, humility, and dare I say it, love and compassion.

Unfortunately, though, I have yet to see any verbage of the kind mentioned in any school mission statement that I have been part of, and certainly have yet to see anything like it in any said set of goals, objectives or outcomes (my own notwithstanding, if I am to be honest). However, maybe they should be. Maybe grit isn’t the whole story (even though I do have to admit, it’s got a ring to it.)

Maybe we also have to teach kids that asking for help is OK, that letting go isn’t giving up, and that sometimes the only pathway to peace might also mean coming face to face with our own shadow and embracing it with love, empathy and compassion.

Written by Dr. Tim Price, a teacher for 15 years in both public and independent school settings in both Colorado and Idaho. He recently left the classroom to begin the next chapter of his career as an educational consultant and independent researcher.

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