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Does "Grit" Make the Grade?

Posted on Jun 2, 2016 1:00:00 PM

The conversation about “grit” has really taken off lately. There’s a new book out by best-selling author and journalist Paul Tough, Helping Children Succeed, and it’s been getting a lot of play in the press. The grit concept itself isn’t new, but the discussion is becoming more nuanced. We’re interested in this discussion because it almost always weaves in and out of what we at Horizons do.

Basically, the grit story goes like this: children who exhibit personal (and non-academic) qualities such as resilience, self-control, and optimism tend to be more successful. Young students with grit tend to go further than those without, and grit seems to play an important role in improving students’ academic performance.

So everyone should develop grit, right? Indeed, that’s what plenty of people and institutions have tried to do in the past few years – they’re looking for ways to teach grit, and even measure it.

But it starts getting tricky when you suggest kids from low-income families need to develop grit. Whatever it is, they already have it. They don’t face day-to-day existence in poverty without knowing something about perseverance and resilience.

What’s more, having studied it at length, Paul Tough says you can’t actually teach grit – there’s no curriculum, no textbook, no direct way to teach it, because unlike, say, riding a bike, it’s not a teachable skill. He sees grit more as a capacity, one that can be stimulated in the right environment.

It turns out the environment Tough describes is exactly what Horizons programs have always provided.

First, he suggests that children, particularly those growing up in adversity, are most intensely motivated when they have a sense of connection – like the long-term connections Horizons students build, year after year, with their Horizons peers and teachers. The Horizons approach is based on these connections.

He also believes that when low-income kids get the right kind of trust and support (like the kind they can find in their Horizons community), they thrive through projects and challenges that take them out of their comfort zone. That’s how kids discover they can do things they thought were impossible. It happens every day in Horizons’ project-based learning classrooms, and for many Horizons students, it happens most memorably when they overcome their fear of water and learn to swim – a Horizons requirement.

The conversation continues, and we’re still not sure grit is something that can be taught or measured. But our experience gives us confidence that, given the right environment, grit can be encouraged, tapped, and channeled to overcome obstacles that might otherwise seem insurmountable.