Teachers are often directed to develop lessons and curriculum that are engaging. For me, it started in college at Marquette University. One of my professors always emphasized: “Make learning meaningful and memorable.”
While we want students to be consistently engaged and motivated to be active participants in our lessons, it is also crucial that our curriculum allows for failure. Yes, failure. Creating a lesson solely for the sake of engagement does not develop true intrinsic motivation, and the opportunity to cultivate attributes essential for long-term success is missed.
Teachers need to integrate curriculum and programs that center on personal achievement and passion cultivation — lessons that force students to reflect upon what they are actually doing so they can set long-term goals that provide direction and meaning to effort.
If the driver of curriculum is solely for students to perform well on a standardized test, how are we playing a role in the development of their passions, perseverance in challenges or experience in accomplishing long-term goals? Without these experiences in passion cultivation and failure, there is no opportunity for growth and grit.
In my work with students in the classroom and in a summer employment program, the “grittier” students are the ones who are the hardest workers, the award winners, or students who stun me with their growth.
In the context of the summer employment program, students who had motivations behind their attendance to help support their families, find a path to college, or acquire their first job experience for a resume were interested in and even passionate about coming to work each day.
Even if a student didn’t know their personal long-term goal, the ones who achieved more recognized that at the very least they wanted to succeed in something long-term and were motivated to learn how, even when they encountered obstacles. They stuck with the program for more than one summer, cultivated relationships with community leaders, and found what they were passionate about in the midst of it all. Their intrinsic motivation helped them maintain an attitude that allowed them to take risks, to bounce back from any negative feedback, and to be open minded as they applied the life skills they were learning.
In my experiences, higher achievement in life — professional or educational — is not solely correlated with measurable intelligence. In actuality, for as long as we’ve measured “success,” intelligence has only been half of the equation. Researchers have identified grit, optimism and resilience as other factors.
In her book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” Angela Duckworth, a psychologist and a former educator who received the MacArthur Fellowship in 2013 to continue her research in self-control and grit, defines grit as perseverance and a passion for long-term goals. Duckworth’s hypothesis and findings support the notion that grit is more of a predictor of success than talent and that anyone, regardless of gender and age, can learn to be “gritty.” Less is owed to genetics in the case of grit development and more to experience and self-perception, which can drive social mobility.
Even the creators of the first IQ test in the 1900s acknowledged that one’s success is equally dependent upon intelligence and other things beyond measurable intelligence. There are certain attitudes that attribute to characteristics that fuel the cultivation of grit, optimism being an essential one.
Students perceive that they are capable and have a positive attitude toward learning and even the possibility of finding success. With optimism can come courage and confidence — attributes that foster resilience through failure. A student with courage can manage their fear of failure and increase their ability to take risks. The extremely “gritty” students aren’t afraid to flop. Their grit is built through failure.
Resilience, another crucial attribute that facilitates growth in grit, requires courage and optimism when the outlook is perceived as negative. In his book “Resilience, Why Things Bounce Back,” Andrew Zolli writes that grit is comprised of finding a passion, perceived empowerment to influence one’s surroundings or outcome of events, and a belief that experiences, positive and negative, lead to learning and growth.
Duckworth’s findings resonate with Zolli’s definition. She notes grit requires effort and passion — giving practice a purpose and long-term goals a direction and meaning. Giving meaning to effort grows stamina.
In my childhood home, “Attitude,” by Charles Swindoll, hung at eye level from the door handle on our refrigerator for the entirety of my middle school and high school years.
“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. … It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. …,” wrote Swindoll. This was my mother’s constant reminder of how we should perceive and approach every situation in life. Risk-taking, optimism and resilience are more about attitude than anything else.
Attitude is significant to the outcome of education. A person’s attitude opens the door to development of attributes, that are greater predictors of success and achievement than raw talent and measurable intellect. Attitude and perception make the attributes, like grit, essential to high achievement possible.
Maybe as educators we just need to find ways to instill in students the attitudes that force them to develop the habit of always seeking excellence. Excellence, not perfection — which is a hallucination of someone else’s ideal — but a mindset for success that allows for vulnerability and failure, prioritizing self-progress and cultivating grit as a crucial byproduct.