Perseverance and Grit

In every country in the world, we elevate those who endure, especially against overwhelming odds. We exalt politician William Wilberforce, who led a challenging campaign to end all slavery in the British empire. We lift up Malala Yousafzai, the Pakastani girl who fought for education rights for women. After being shot by the Taliban last year, she is now back in action and continues her fight for education.

We find nobility in those who battle cancer, survive horrific war conditions, prevail over poverty, and stand up to bullies. We laud the sled dog, Balto, who led his team across the frozen tundra to Nome in 1925 to deliver the diphtheria antitoxin so desperately needed there.

Because they persevered despite their challenges, these people (and Balto) are examples for the next generation.

In May 2013, Angela Lee Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania delivered a TED Talk on the power of grit in the classroom. Grit is the factor, Duckworth says, that leads to student success, independent of talent and finances. The question, of course, is how to cultivate grit in today’s students.

For the empirical evidence of answers to that question, many turn to Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck’s work with fixed intelligence vs. growth mindset. Dweck’s research indicates that some people operate as if intelligence and talent were fixed traits, and no amount of tenacity and effort can change them. These people counsel themselves and others to accept the inevitable and not get their hopes up for improving in content or skills.

From Dweck’s research, we learn that students who have many teachers with fixed-intelligence mindsets have a more difficult time learning and coping with challenges later in life. Because they lack self-efficacy, they don’t stick with efforts to overcome those challenges.

On the other side, however, is growth mindset in which we perceive our proficiency as a result of extended effort and dedication, using our minds and current skill levels as launching pads, not destinies. When students have several teachers with such a philosophy, they develop resilience and self-efficacy; they thrive. They are able to cope better with life’s challenges as they get older.

To clarify the difference, imagine two different teachers designing the same test. The fixed-intelligence teacher thinks: “This student doesn’t write well, so he will fail the essay portion of the test. I’ll add some multiple-choice questions so he gets at least a few correct.” The growth-mindset teacher, however, thinks: “This student doesn’t write as well as he could. I’ll teach him how to write essays for tests so he can do as well on those sections as he does on the multiple-choice sections.”

Promoting Tenacity

Today’s students demonstrate amazing tenacity: If the story is good, they read 700-page books. They play online games, working their way through 12 levels of difficulty for six hours or more. They stay well into the evening hours to practice for theater productions and sports tournaments, and they work diligently for weeks on video projects to support favored causes.

However, they are not tenacious in everything. Our impatient students click to the next website if the current one doesn’t download within two seconds. They think they understand the world by skimming headlines and listening to sound bites. They grow restless if a text message is beyond a sentence or two, or if they don’t get a response to a text within minutes. Reading extended logical rhetoric through each argument to its ultimate conclusion—as is expected with Common Core State Standards—is almost unheard of.

So the thing we value, perseverance, and all this proof that they can stick with something if it motivates them, runs counter to what we see in the classroom. We want to build resilience and stick-to-it-iveness in our students, but how? I offer some strategies.

Interpersonal Strategies

  • Cultivate trust. Students will take risks and push themselves harder if they can trust the adult in charge won’t humiliate them. This means that we end the sarcasm directed at students or other teachers. We phrase feedback in non-“gotcha” language: “Can you help me find your supportive details in this paragraph?” is better than, “You had three mistakes in this paragraph, and there’s no topic sentence. -4 points.” We respond to incorrect answers in class discussion in a way that allows the student to save face: “The first part of your response provides the insight we needed. Tell me more about that second part.”
  • Make connections. If the student has a positive relationship with the teacher, he will stick longer with the projects and tasks assigned by that teacher. The teacher who tells students that their job is to learn and his job is to teach and neither of them has to like it will have a low-tenacity class. These teachers forget that it’s the connection to those who guide us that matters the most. When deciding whether or not to go to the movie with a friend or finish the project due tomorrow, for example, they choose the project so as not to disappoint the teacher they respect so much.
  • Be happy. Students respond better when the adults working with them are happy to be in the room, enjoying their company and truly enjoying the subjects they teach.  Students know that sometimes the world just “sucks,” to put it in their terms. They are drawn to the bright oasis of the teacher who keeps cynicism and indifference at bay.

Assessment/Grading Strategies

  • Provide descriptive feedback. Grades don’t motivate nearly as well as descriptive feedback and the capacity to act upon that feedback. And here’s the important part: Focus on the decisions students made while doing their work, not the quality of the work. Judgments and labels shut down the reflective, growth-mindset process. Use templates like: “I noticed you decided to             . As a result you were able to              ,” and, “Tell me about the three biggest decisions you had to make with this project and why you made the decisions you did.”
  • Show growth. Make pre-assessments as often as you can, not just to find out what students know, but to create a growth-over-time motivation. When students see that they were once struggling and then worked hard and eventually achieved success, they are more likely to endure the next challenge; they have personal proof that they can go from nothing to full success if they put in the time and energy necessary.
  • Provide constructive responses to relearning and reassessing. Recovering from a failure (missed deadlines, poor performances) teaches more than being labeled for that failure. Recording an unchangeable “F” on a student’s paper and admonishing him for not using his time more wisely does not teach him time management and self-discipline, it simply breeds resentment and divestment. Actually going through the steps of the project properly a second time builds the perseverance we seek. At no point do we abdicate our role as caring adults in our students’ lives and let their learning and growth be held hostage to their immature selves.

Lesson Strategies

  • Provide meaningful work. If students perceive how learning the concept or skill will help them do the things in life that make them happy, they’ll follow through on the task. Meaning-making is the root of perseverance.
  • Clearly articulate the goals. At any given moment, every student in our classes should be able to tell us both the learning goal/objective and where he is in relation to it. If the goal is vague, we’re more likely to put it off and we give it less energy in its completion. When we know what’s expected explicitly, however, we get started quickly and are dedicated to the task.
  • Provide multiple tools/models. Daniel Pink points out in his book Drive, that people will take on challenging tasks if they perceive that they have the tools to achieve them. Absent those tools, perseverance nosedives. When they are in survival mode, students avoid rather than participate. If we have three or four ways to tackle a math problem, science question, or written assignment, we’re more likely to stick with it and achieve it. If our only approach is found wanting in its first use, there is nothing to do but give up.
  • Make sure students experience success. Nothing motivates students to stick with something like success. When a student finishes a difficult problem or puzzle, for example, he’s likely to request the chance to do another one. When a student answers a question in class correctly, he’s more likely to participate fully in a complex class discussion five minutes later. If he gets something wrong, however, he shuts down. We all enjoy complex, demanding challenges if we have the tools to achieve them and proof of success.

Rising to the Challenge

Sometimes soaring rhetoric breaks us out of daily indifference. Hearing it, we find the reserves to stick with an arduous task, be it physical or intellectual. We rise to match the nobility and fervor of the given words, to become more than our current selves. Put on some John Williams music, and read this excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous 1910 speech:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

To this, our students aspire; with this, our world was built. In our classrooms right now, there are eager William Wilberforces and Malala Yousafzais looking for inspiration. Let’s be among the many who help them uncover the tools and fortitude to persevere.

Rick Wormeli is a teacher, consultant, and writer living in Herndon, Virginia. His newly released book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching is available from AMLE at

This article was published in AMLE Magazine, January 2014.