The Little Engine That Could: “Grit”


“Grit” (synonymous with perseverance, toughness, determination, or having backbone) is a hot topic within educational circles.  Why?  Well, to scholars such as Angela Duckworth it is the essential element of high achievers.   One aspect of her work revealed that “grittier” undergraduates achieved higher grade point averages than their peers.  To many it makes sense – hard work pays off.  For teachers, the skills associated with “grit” represent the most often cited critiques of students.  For students it requires the development of specific skills: setting goals, focus, and finishing what they start.  So what should teachers do to foster this behavior in students?

Goal Setting: 

Establishing goals is an essential element in the “grit” equation.  For students it involves more than simply setting goals.  Students who demonstrate “grit” have to be able to deal with setbacks and obstacles.  How a student deals with feedback is critical – including grades that may not be expected.  In a recent blog post about “grit”, Andrew Miller argues for the elimination of grading in formative assessment since it tends to be viewed as punishment.  I have seen Miller’s concern play out in the classroom; however, how a teacher delivers formative grades may offer a modeling opportunity.  Teachers know that grades are virtually meaningless unless they accompany some form of feedback.  Teachers can build a sense of possibility when their grading includes constructive feedback along with student reflection.  For example, one strategy that I learned from a mentor is called “Two Stars and a Wish”: give feedback on two things you thought the student did well, and one thing that could be improved.  But there is a warning that goes along with goal setting – teachers must follow through.  Students realize very quickly what is valued in a classroom based on how a teacher responds.  Without timely and meaningful feedback, goal setting is doomed.


Many of my elementary school colleagues often times share their frustration related to the abilities of student to “focus”.  This is especially true in tasks such as writing that require significant thought, planning and patience.   It really involves two key aspects – setting goals and keeping engagement and interest in the project.  One thing that teachers can do is to help students understand that having a plan for a big project is important.  Begin a unit of instruction with discussions not only about the outcome but about possible setbacks that could arise.  Teach students to develop task lists (even if it is only five or six steps).  Help students envision what the final project would look like (an excellent exemplar).  In other words – help students envision what success would look like.  In terms of engagement, breaking long term projects into smaller tasks helps everyone – especially those students who struggle to maintain attention for extended period of time.  Another thing that teachers can do to help maintain engagement and focus is to change the “setting”.  A colleague of mine regularly takes her students outside to read or write.  I often times incorporate a small snack (like popcorn) into work time – Popcorn Poetry Time. 

Finishing What You Start: 

Setting goals and providing an environment that helps students focus is a beginning.  The final “grit” skill that has to be fostered is to demonstrate the importance of finishing work and projects.  For this, teachers should consider including parents in their assessment processes.   Many teachers use weekly newsletters or text messages with parents about assignment deadlines.   However, for many parents they always want to know more about their child’s behavior in school.  As part of formative assessment tasks students should be given the opportunity to share their work products with parents.  This gives parents the opportunity to see growth in their child’s abilities, and teaches students an important real world lesson: final work products have to meet the expectations of different individuals (not just the teacher).    

There are many positive reasons for teachers to advocate and model the skills associated with “grit”; especially in light of the Common Core State Standards where skills such as perseverance, precision, and strategic thinking are critical.  However, building “gritter” students is not a task that can be completed overnight.  Teacher teams should work together to discuss and decide the skills that match their curriculum and assessment objectives.  Careful planning and implementation is necessary to ensure that students understand how to develop goals, focus and to finish what they start.


Greg Broberg

Greg Broberg

Tempe, Arizona

One of my favorite quotes related to teaching is by Socrates: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” It keeps me grounded in two ways. First, it reminds me that teaching should always involve the “search” for knowledge. This may come from a professional development source, colleague or student. Second, it keeps me on guard for new ways to engage students—bringing a fresh perspective on something I may have taught for years.

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