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by David Dockterman, Ed.D., & Lisa S. Blackwell, Ph.D.
With all the media excitement about grit and "non-cognitive" skills, educators might conclude that to ensure students' success we just need to get them to resist eating marshmallows, as documented in the well-known experiment that revealed that children who managed to refrain from eating a marshmallow while the experimenter stepped out of the room had greater academic and life success (Mischel et al., 2011).
The ability to self-regulate and persist in the face of challenge is indeed a critical factor in student academic and life performance. However, teaching "gritty" behaviors directly may not be successful if students don't have the mindset, strategies, and supports they need to motivate and sustain their growth (Farrington et al., 2012). Core beliefs, content-specific skills, and classroom culture are also essential to success.
If students are struggling, we want them to remain motivated, try harder, and stick with it. But what about the saying, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result"? If a student has tried to learn something, didn't succeed, tried the same thing again and again, and never felt progress, is he likely to think that trying yet again will yield results? And is that motivating or demotivating?
George Washington had a lot of grit. He led the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War when the British army had much greater resources, and more and better-trained soldiers. It took grit to lead the Continental Army for eight years and eventually win the war. But George Washington also sometimes quit, which seems at odds with having grit. He went into battles aiming to win, but when things weren't working in his favor, he sometimes decided to retreat. He would give up the near-term goal of winning the battle because he realized that pursuing that goal would yield large losses in the American army, thereby compromising the more important, long-term goal of gaining independence. He'd go back, regroup, think about a different strategy or tactic to try next, set a new goal, and go for it. If that didn't work, he'd try something else, always committed to the big aim. This is grit. It's the "perseverance and passion for long-term goals" (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007, p.1087).