As with most things in education, context can be everything. A skill taught in isolation from meaningful context, for example, is rarely learned, and often becomes grist for blaming the student for his lack of learning rather than analyzing the teacher's instructional design. Read a mediocre piece of student writing after five pieces of poor writing in a row, and the mediocre piece will glow brightly in comparison. Now take a look at the last decade's intense interest in developing student grit and a growth mindset. What seems so positive an enterprise changes its hue in a different context, even to the point of doing harm.
To be clear, the intent of grit and growth mindset—"stick-to-itiveness," tenacity, self-discipline, resilience—are all positive attributes for students to develop, unless applied, of course, to the pursuit of destructive habits or criminal tasks. Over emphasis on students' degrees of grit and growth mindset as the keys to their academic success, however, can perpetuate harmful stereotypes, racism, and classism. Before we call for faculty-wide grit and growth mindset programs, we are wise to take a moment, dive deeply, and examine the cultural narratives we perpetuate with students and each other when putting so much focus on these two ideologies.
Very Brief Background
For most educators, it was Carol Dweck, Paul Tough, and Angela Duckworth, catalyzed by the emotional intelligence and self-regulation research from Daniel Goleman, who gave grit and growth mindset traction in the modern classroom. Of course, these themes have been around for centuries with Aesop, Horatio Alger, Homer, and Mabel C. Bragg, who wrote the first popular version of The Little Engine that Could. Recently, however, there is new research vitality in these areas, which boosts their credibility, and we've been fixated on these attributes through a political lens in our national debates, particularly as we discuss immigration, housing loans, medical coverage, and tax codes.
In her Brainology post for the National Association for Independent Schools (2008), Stanford professor and psychologist, Carol Dweck, described the essence of her growth mindset research:
"Many students believe that intelligence is fixed, that each person has a certain amount and that's that. We call this a fixed mindset, and … students with this mindset worry about how much of this fixed intelligence they possess. A fixed mindset makes challenges threatening for students (because they believe that their fixed ability may not be up to the task) and it makes mistakes and failures demoralizing (because they believe that such setbacks reflect badly on their level of fixed intelligence)."
Fixed intelligence students choose to do things that make them look smart, she said, but growth mindset students do things that help them learn, and this dramatically changes their academic trajectories. Dweck added that growth mindset students see, "confronting challenges, profiting from mistakes, and persevering in the face of setbacks," as ways to become smarter, and that it is within their control to achieve higher levels of performance. One of the distinguishing practices that helps teachers discern between the two is whether to ask, "Show of hands: Who got that one right?" when surveying the class after reviewing a homework problem, or to ask instead, "Who had an interesting challenge and was able to resolve it? Let's hear that story."
Just as importantly, according to Dweck, was the way these two groups perceived effort:
"Those with a growth mindset had a very straightforward … idea of effort—the idea that the harder you work, the more your ability will grow and that even geniuses have had to work hard for their accomplishments. In contrast, the students with the fixed mindset believed that if you worked hard it meant that you didn't have ability, and that things would just come naturally to you if you did. This means that every time something is hard for them and requires effort, it's … a threat[.] … Those with growth mindsets reported that, after a setback in school, they would simply study more or study differently the next time. But those with fixed mindsets were more likely to say that they would feel dumb, study less the next time, and seriously consider cheating."
Duckworth and Tough's, "grit," ideology refers to a person's capacity to work toward long term goals and not give in to short term distractions and temptations, thereby building academic and personal stamina, especially when things are challenging for students. Duckworth and Tough declared that grit was the key to student success and should receive overt instruction.
These are very simplistic descriptions of both ideologies, of course; interested educators should read further on both. The focus of this writing, however, is to make educators aware of the rising racist and classist concerns associated with both approaches, which can be uncomfortable.
In a recent study from researchers at Michigan State University and Case Western Reserve University (Burgoyne, et al, 2018), two meta-analyses indicated that growth mindset practices didn't have the positive academic impact that schools and commercial programs employing those practices claimed they had. The study used grade-point averages, course grades, course exams, and standardized test scores, such as the SAT, as their indicators of growth mindset's impact on academic achievement, and the strong correlations just weren't there. They did say, however, that when there was an impact, it was stronger with children and adolescents than with adults, and that students who had high risks of failing benefited the most from growth mindset interventions. The authors of the study noted, too, that all researchers in the studies did not control carefully for growth mindset specifically, so more research was needed.
The research presented in Duckworth and Tough's books on grit has also received significant critique, finding it lacking proper research protocols (see Kohn, Thomas, Socol, among others), making their conclusions suspect. These concerns themselves are enough to warrant a closer look, but they are not the most compelling reason to question grit and growth mindset, as there is much more in play here.
Respected professor and writer, Paul Thomas (@plthomasEdD) posted the Burgoyne report last month on a blog called, "Debunked!" I responded to the blog, indicating that posting the piece under the title, "Debunked!" was misleading since it wasn't fully debunked in the research study, and that there were some positives with growth mindset worth incorporating with other elements that help teachers create hope, not blame. Thomas disagreed with me, posting his thoughtful response (see References for the URL).
Here is where he convicts me every time and has done so for more than a decade: Thomas points to the deficit thinking that is inescapable with grit and growth mindset—The idea that students who do not demonstrate white, well-resourced definitions of perseverance with curriculum that may or may not be meaningful to them, in a larger system that is often operated with intentional and unintentional bias against their success, and to act upon those perseverance ideals daily are somehow less disciplined than others, diminished in a way, and that teachers must "fix" what's wrong in them, (i.e., personal character and maturity) and not fix their environments and the controlling narratives of those in power that perpetuate this constant diminished state.
Author and educator Richard Cash agrees, referring to deficit thinking as the, "spoken and unspoken assumptions about a student's lack of self-regulation, ability, or aptitude. The most devastating impact of deficit thinking is when differences—particularly socio-cultural differences—are perceived as inferior, dysfunctional, or deviant ... Typically, schools are designed to 'fix' students who are achieving poorly or misbehaving. However, by blaming students, we exonerate ourselves as the possible cause—using the symptom to overlook the source" (June 2018).
Thomas ties it to his critique of grit/growth mindset: "Both growth mindset and grit … mistake growth mindset/grit as the dominant or even exclusive quality causing success in student learning (ignoring the power of systemic influences) and then create an environment in which some students (too often black, brown, and poor) are defined in deficit terms—that they lack growth mindset/grit." He adds, "[S]tudents are better served by equity practices couched in efforts to alleviate the systemic forces that shape how they live and learn regardless of their character."
In a separate post, he argues that it is particularly harmful, yet typically American, thinking to assume that students' success and failure is driven solely by individual character and behavior, when actually, so much of any one individual's success or failure is driven by social forces, environment of birth, and systemic biases. He recommends Sendhil Mullainathan's Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much to clarify this point, as do I—It's a thoughtful read.
Thomas and others claim that growth mindset/grit programs, "disproportionately target racial minorities and impoverished students, reinforcing that most of the struggles within these groups academically are attributable to deficits in those students … linked to race and social class … [which] perpetuate race and class stereotypes, and as a result, work against inclusive pedagogy and culturally relevant pedagogy" (Thomas, 2018).
Thomas promotes author and educator Paul Gorski's assertion that, "Equity literate educators … reject deficit views that focus on fixing marginalized students rather than fixing the conditions that marginalize students, and understand the structural barriers that cheat some people out of the opportunities enjoyed by other people."
At the Equity Literacy Institute, Gorski is clear: "We must avoid being lulled by popular 'diversity' approaches and frameworks that pose no threat to inequity—that sometimes are popular because they are no real threat to inequity." (December 9, 2017) Among Gorski's equity principles in that post are these statements:
"'Equity' approaches that fail to directly confront inequity play a significant role in sustaining inequity.
Educational outcome disparities are not the result of deficiencies in marginalized communities' cultures, mindsets, or grittiness, but rather of inequities.
Equity initiatives focus, not on fixing marginalized people, but on fixing the conditions that marginalize people."
Gorski reminds us that, "Compared with schools with low percentages of students experiencing poverty, schools with high percentages of students experiencing poverty are more likely to have: less access to school nurses and college counselors;
- more limited access to computers and the Internet;
- inadequate learning facilities such as science labs;
- more teacher vacancies and substitute teachers;
- more teachers unlicensed in their subject areas;
- less rigorous and student-centered curricula;
- inoperative or dirty student bathrooms;
- less access to preventive healthcare;
- serious teacher turnover problems;
- higher student-to-teacher ratios;
- insufficient classroom materials;
- less access to stable housing;
- fewer extracurricular programs;
- fewer experienced teachers;
- lower teacher salaries;
- larger class sizes; and
- less funding.
He adds pointedly, "So, explain to me how we can meaningfully respond to the impacts of these conditions by completely ignoring these injustices while 'fixing' the mindsets, cultures, or grittiness of students or families experiencing poverty."
"Allostatic Load" refers to the, "cost of chronic exposure to elevated or fluctuating endocrine or neural responses resulting from chronic or repeated challenges that the individual experiences as stressful." (www.sciencedirect.com/topics/immunology-and-microbiology/allostatic-load) Many teachers are unaware of the negative effects that such allostatic loads, i.e. ceaseless stressors such as the ones listed in Gorski's list above, inflict on our bodies and minds, especially in individuals who live in poverty, are challenged by an alcoholic parent, or who people of color bearing the hourly burden of proving worth, full rights under the law, educating whites about their perspectives, are legitimate/trusted shoppers, and are of benign intent.
In his blog, however, educator/writer, Ira Socol, writes, "[H]igh allostatic load factors do not mean that a child comes to school 'disadvantaged.' Rather, their advantages are simply not respected nor exploited by the school. The damaged children described by the "young Peter's" narration are all brilliant, all incredible observers of their worlds, and are all incredibly capable." (2013) Talking about grit specifically, he adds, "[W]hat Tough and his friends want these kids to possess is willing compliance, not "grit" nor "character."
Author, Alfie Kohn, affirms Cash, Thomas, and Socol in his critique of growth mindset:
"The message of [focusing on the mindsets of individuals] has always been to adjust yourself to conditions as you find them because those conditions are immutable; all you can do is decide on the spirit in which to approach them…. Social psychologists use the term "fundamental attribution error" to mean paying so much attention to personality and attitudes that we overlook how profoundly the social environment affects what we do and who we are… Why, for example, do relatively few young women choose to study or work in the fields of math and science? Is it because of entrenched sexism and "the way the science career structure works"? Well, to someone sold on Dweck's formula, the answer is no: It's "all a matter of mindset." We need only "shift widespread perceptions over to the 'growth mindset'"—that is, to the perceptions of girls and women who are just trapped by their own faulty thinking. This is similar to the perspective that encourages us to blame a "culture of poverty" in the inner city rather than examine economic and political barriers—a very appealing explanation to those who benefit from those barriers and would rather fault their victims for failing to pull themselves up by their mindset." (2015)
In a separate critique of grit, Kohn notes research weaknesses and skewed priorities in Duckworth's work, wondering here about the merits of her goals:
"Duckworth reported that [National Spelling Bee contestants] performed better in that competition if they were higher in grit, 'whereas spellers higher in openness to experience—defined as preferring using their imagination, playing with ideas, and otherwise enjoying a complex mental life—perform[ed] worse.' She also found that the most effective preparation strategy was, 'solitary deliberate practice activities' rather than, say, reading books. … If enjoying a complex mental life (or reading for pleasure) interferes with performance in a one-shot contest to see who can spell more obscure words correctly—and if sufficient grittiness to spend time alone memorizing lists of words helps to achieve that goal—this is regarded as an argument in favor of grit. Presumably it also argues against having a complex mental life or engaging in leisure reading.
"Driving the study of student performance conducted by Duckworth was … [her] belief that underachievement isn't explained by structural factors—social, economic, or even educational. Rather, [she] insisted it should be attributed to the students themselves and their, 'failure to exercise self-discipline.'"
Poignantly, Kohn poses, "The most impressive educational activists are those who struggle to replace a system geared to memorizing facts and taking tests with one dedicated to exploring ideas…. By contrast, those enamored of grit look at the same status quo and ask: How can we get kids to put up with it?"
What Does All This Mean for Conscientious Educators of Middle School Students?
This is not a call to abandon all efforts to help students develop those positive tenets of grit and growth mindset programs, such as self-discipline, voice, responsibility for one's choices, personal tenacity, initiative, authenticity, and self-efficacy. Heck, this description alone is probably 90% of a middle school teacher's daily job description.
Instead, this is a call to recognize that we are very different people depending on our circumstances, and that those circumstances, some of which are not actually in our control, yet are renewed each year by unintentional and intentional bias in those with power and influence, significantly affect our capacity to act upon the advice and teaching provided. If we were a member of a suspect class in our community and impoverished or even slightly so, wondering how to pay the medical bills, get food on the table, get our brother, Micky, off meth, get Mom out of her depression, and pay the rent, we might not remember to get those 100 index cards for Monday's class or have the capacity to start the four week project on the day it is assigned. And no, we might not be as willing to take creative risks in learning or take one train, two buses, and a complex transfer to get across town for the study group on Thursday. And then to be blamed for our lack of gumption?
It's also a call to recognize that students who are challenged by poverty or being people of color in biased communities don't lack grit or tenacity. They have plenty of it; that's how they survive. We lose all credibility by harping on it as the root to a student's problems. What these students lack are the resources, time, and support needed to maneuver, extend energy, and find hope in the instructional demands placed on them. Socol writes,
"[A]ll the children living and learning in relative affluence are afforded slack by the accidents of their birth: "Slack" is the term identified by Mullainathan and Shafir as the space created by abundance that allows any person access to more of her/his cognitive and emotional resources … this is what kids need. Slack … the moments when necessity is not the sole driver. 'The cost [of 'scarcity'—the primary element in 'grit theory'] is an undue focus on the necessity at hand, which leads to a lack of curiosity about wider issues, and an inability to imagine longer-term consequences. The effect of this scarcity-generated 'loss of bandwidth' has catastrophic results ... ' The Guardian writes in a book review on the topic." (2014)
And in this audit of our own thinking, perhaps we can do as Thomas suggests, "[S]et aside the assumption that low student achievement is primarily caused by a lack of effort and engagement as well as that high student achievement is a consequence of mostly effort and engagement," and that we resist the idea that, " … life for black/brown and poor people is going to be hard so we need to make them extra 'gritty' to survive and excel."
To these ideas, I add these specific responses:
- Get to really know students and their neighborhoods. Yes, visit homes, attend community events, get informed, and watch more than one news channel or source for more information on challenges to their communities. Let's not make it the student's responsibility to teach us. And, with whatever system works for us, let's remember their personal and family milestones, as they share them with us: birthdays, Quinceañera, bar/bat mitzvahs, Tae-Kwan-do competition, band/Lego/robotic/forensic competition, new graphic comic designed, big sister enlisted in the navy, brother finally out of jail, dog/cat recently died, did four pull-ups in gym class, tried out for the school play.
- Accept and honor the full individual the student really is, not categorize him in terms of the degree to which he satisfies our description of successful older students from our own cultures. Let's choose to see difference from us and our culture as strength, not something less than preferred, and let these individuals know they make good company. Be genuinely interested in their cultures and hobbies as you can, and find ways to invite that collected knowledge into weekly learning. Students will engage if they feel they are contributing. How might our interactions with students and lesson designs be turning students into passive recipients rather than active creators? Instead of being about sense-making and the delivery of knowledge to students, let's make sure our lessons transition students' learning into personal processing and meaning-making as well.
- At every turn, give students proof that hope is warranted. Are there word choices, policies, practices, and attitudes from us that come across to students as adversarial ("Gotcha!"), or do we come across in all things as advocates for them as individuals? There are common sense things that engender such hope: Allowing re-do's on both formative and summative assessments for full credit, encouraging divergent thinking and problem-solving with no academic penalty when they don't turn out as planned (only analysis of went awry, then starting over with our full support), discipline done in private, recoverability after cheating or plagiarizing, modeling and facilitating constructive responses to failures and mistakes, zero sarcasm directed at students or situations, complete erasure of earlier indicators of incompetency from later and more current reports of competency (no more averaging of grades), no holding grudges, cognitive coaching instead of judging, teacher follow-through on promises made, student reflective analysis of choices (He made this decision, and it had this result; is that what he wanted to achieve?), daily, visible proof that we will not humiliate the student nor will we let him humiliate himself, and visible proof weekly that progress is being made ("You once here, but look where you are now!).
- Let's also do an equity, class, and racial audit of our attitudes towards students from cultures different from our own to see them as fully dimensionalized individuals, worth knowing. And let's do the same audit with all audio-visuals in our presentations and classrooms: Students of different colors, religions, cultures, sexual orientations, and socio-economic status portrayed doing thoughtful, competent things, representing the very best of humanity. If it's in sight, it's in mind.
- Actively investigate and dismantle those inequities that our students face daily, "Changing the conditions," as Gorski says above, "that marginalize people." We can start with equal access laws in our community that limit some students from getting an education or working due to pregnancy or immigration status. Limit or remove learning experiences that require students to purchase materials. We can work on equal pay laws for teenage girls and women in the community, as well as fund girls' sports to the same level we do boys' sports. We can make sure every single student has the necessary technology and in and out of school access to a reliable Internet Service Provider, if it's required by the schools. We can provide child care for all parent meetings. We can provide students interested in taking advanced courses with additional tutoring supports to make a successful go of them, and we can formally teach reading to middle schoolers who may have not been able to learn to read when they were younger. Finally, we can confront and end the bias in colleagues, students, and parents about career and tech ed courses that aren't necessarily associated with university-bound students but are just as intellectual demanding and personally maturing and meaningful as more traditional courses, if not more so.
- We can avoid automatically blaming our students' inattention in class or lack of academic performance on their personal character flaws as associated in our minds with people of that color, culture, religion, or socio-economic status. We can stop judging students of a certain color, religion, culture, or socio-economic status as less likely to be capable or interested in academic work, simply due to perceived stereotypes of people with that skin color, culture, religion or socio-economic status. One of the greatest gifts we give students is to honor what they bring to learning's table as valuable, not dismiss their circumstance as irrelevant, or to respond punitively when their responses to extended learning demands are different than how those without so many challenges respond to those same demands.
- We can provide real skill training to all students in middle school on executive function skills and personal self-efficacy. It's the nature of the age, not the class or race, to need these learning experiences at exactly this age. This means we dismantle all practices related to grades and grading to teach self-discipline, timeliness, task analysis, and impulsivity/distractibility control
- Finally, let's train all teachers in cognitive coaching and descriptive feedback, which both emphasize reflection on decisions, their impact, setting goals, not invoking ego through judgment, active engagement in learning, self-monitoring, being flexible, taking responsibility, and revision from new perspective. You know, that hope stuff.
While growth mindset and grit have many thoughtful advocates we all respect deeply, looking at each ideology's research, principles, and practices with a critical eye is warranted. Considering the critic's concerns with each one regarding race, inequity, and classism is reasonable. With so much dividing us these days politically, culturally, and economically, we can come together here and pull the camera back on these topics to reveal their larger context and have informed discussions. With such perspective, the call to get it right becomes even more urgent.
Cash, R.M. (2018). Reframing deficit thinking: How to change perceptions for the better. Retrieved from https://freespiritpublishingblog.com/2018/06/18/
Dweck, C.S. (2008). Brainology. Retrieved from https://www.nais.org/magazine/independent-school/
Gorski, P.C. & Swalwell, K. (2015). Equity literacy for all. Educational Leadership, 72(6), 34-40.
Gorski, P.C. (2018, May 16). If you are still on the "grit" or "mindset of poverty" bandwagon, consider this. Facebook post, retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/pgorski/posts/10160292488845534
Kohn, A. (2014). GRIT: A skeptical look at the latest educational fad," adapted from The myth of the spoiled child, Independent School, Retrieved from https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/grit/
Kohn, A. (2015). The perils of "growth mindset" education: Why we're trying to fix our kids when we should be fixing the system, Retrieved from https://www.salon.com/2015/08
Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. Picador.
Sisk, V.F., Burgoyne, A.P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., & Macnamara, B.N. (2018). "To what extent and under which circumstances are growth mind-sets important to academic achievement? Two meta-analyses." Psychological Science, 29(4), 549-571. doi: 10.1177/0956797617739704
Socol, I. (2014) Grit, Part 2 - Is "slack" what kids need?" Retrieved from http://speedchange.blogspot.com
Socol, I. (2013). Paul Tough v. Peter Høeg - or - The advantages and limits of 'research.' Retrieved from http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2013/12/
Thomas, P. L. (2018, May 26). More on rejecting growth mindset, grit. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@plthomasedd/
Thomas, P.L. (2017, September 17). Rejecting growth mindset and grit at three levels. Retrieved from https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2017/09/21/
Thomas, P. L. (2016, May 11). Rejecting "grit" while embracing effort, engagement. Retrieved from https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2016/05/11/
Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book,
The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. His new book is
Fair Isn't Always Equal: Second Edition (Stenhouse Publishers).
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2018.