As a teacher for the past 15 years I have always been interested in the question ‘why do some very able students fail to achieve their full potential yet other less able students fulfil their full potential and very often excel in school?’. Is it the teachers they have? Is it their parents? Is it that they have a growth mindset? Or, do they have more grit?
If we could answer this question my life would become much easier, but maybe we are just going about things in the wrong way. Is making our students more ‘gritty’ the answer? Fundamentally, the way I see it is unless we can ignite a passion and drive for success and achievement in our children we will continue to have students who sit in our classroom disengaged. Angela Duckworth describes ‘grit’ as, perseverance and passion for long term goals’, and explains the 4 key components of grit being;
1. A tremendously deep interest in what you do
2. Capacity to practice
3. Sense of purpose- important to other people and not just you
4. Hope – you can’t be gritty without getting up after being knocked down
However, consider a 14 year old student who has just opted to pick 9 GCSE subjects, some of which they have never heard of before or don’t know very much about, not to mention the subjects they have to choose like English, Maths and Science. Yes, we give them time to practice and learn the subject, yes there is a sense of purpose in what they are doing as they understand this will give them a qualification after two years which is not only important to them but hopefully important to their parents too. Most teachers will teach their students that failure is not a bad thing and it is essential they learn from each failure in order to improve, especially popular today with the rise of growth mindset education. However, how do we get our students to have a tremendously deep interest in what they do?
Grit has to start with passion. If you don’t love what you do, if you don’t find it important or interesting then there is no point in the perseverance part of grit – passion and perseverance must be combined in order for students to find their grit. So here’s my point, maybe our education system is just going about things in the wrong way. We want our children to have skills such as conscientiousness, we want them to understand the purpose and benefit of hard work, we want them to be resilient especially when we know life is hard and things won’t always go their way.
I believe to cultivate grit in our students the answer lies in the end game. It lies with helping students consider their career path and how they want to spend their life. This normally appears for the first time around the age of 14 in the UK when students consider their GCSE options but even then it is only a brief conversation around what students want to be when they grow up. Instead their options should be built around their passions in life and yes their end game may mean they have to study some subjects they have no interest in, where they have to tolerate a teacher who fails to engage them but they remain gritty because they have a tremendous interest in what they do every day as they are focused intently on the end game, on the destination. Gritty people have a clear direction in life and have the confidence they need to achieve, excel and succeed. If we want our children to develop grit we first have to ignite their passion.
I now work in a school where this is exactly what happens. Students arrive at the age of 14 or 16 to study their GCSE’s or A Level subjects and in their enrolment meeting we discuss the end game with them. We take time to find out what their passion really is and we aim to ignite that passion by designing a curriculum around them. What I have found as a result is that our students engage more, they persevere when things are tough, they accept failure as a way of learning and improving and they understand that each day they arrive at school they are a step closer to their goal. As a non-selective school we are proud that students from all over the city of Liverpool and with varying backgrounds and ability levels have the same opportunity to find and nurture their passion, after all isn’t that what all our children deserve.