Wednesday, July 30, 2014

How to get an education: grit or slack?

The most difficult thing about teaching is finding a way to serve the children who give up before they've even started. They shrug. They put their heads on the desk. They shut down and shut you out.

Perhaps that’s why I was so interested in the research about grit. Researcher Angela Duckworth defines grit as “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals” and her findings suggest that grit is the key component of success. It isn't surprising. Certainly grit is required to get an education, which is always a long-term goal. The hard part is to see past this difficult section of math or that essay to understand each as an adventure on the journey that is education. A journey is not only marked by the photos that we post on Facebook, the beautiful sunsets, the view of the city from a tower, the charming lanes, the majestic mountains, but is also the frustrating delays, the tedious flight, the cramped hotel room with musty sheets. But how do we ensure the children do not turn back at the first difficulty? How do we entice them to embark at all? Because one thing is certain: we cannot learn without sustained effort. And we cannot sustain effort without some vision of a life worth working for.

The irony is that the children with the least grit in school seem to be, as Ira Socol puts it, “the grittiest kids on earth.” They support parents whose suffering make them dependent on their children; at a very young age, they raise younger brothers and sisters, scavenge food for them, organize them for school, make them safe; they move from home to home to the streets and into the houses of strangers. They survive in the midst of chaos and even violence. They have nothing left for school.

But if grit is, as Angela Duckworth phrases it, “sticking with your future,” then I’d have to disagree with Ira Socol. These children are so overwhelmed with the present that the future is the next meal. They are strong, courageous, extraordinary problem-solvers (often we mistake their solutions for the problems – like their refusal to put energy into something they don’t believe will make a difference to them), but they seldom have the luxury for grit.   How do we teach grit to children whose everyday lives already demand constant effort?

Paul Thomas argues, though, that it isn't grit they need: “Children from affluent homes and attending affluent schools aren't succeeding because of grit, but because of the slack created by their relative privilege. And children from impoverished homes, attending high-poverty schools, are not struggling because they lack grit, but because they embody the consequences of scarcity.” Both Socol and Thomas agree that the debate about grit is another way to pass off the problems of poverty onto the individual (they should just get grit) rather than seek solutions; Thomas writes, "we must shift our accusing gaze away from the people trapped in scarcity and toward social and educational inequity—the conditions of living and learning that drive the outcomes.”

But how do we teach children in poverty while we wait for the world to change? Surely, educating children is changing the world. For me, the importance of grit is that it rests on two key beliefs: the belief that you can do what you dream of doing (otherwise why try?) and the belief, even more important, that once you've done it, it matters in some way, that things will get better because of your sustained effort, that these efforts, in fact, will lead to your goals for the future. Without grit, children from poverty will continue to drop out (and dropping out takes many forms; many children stay in school, but they solve the problem of hopelessness by refusing to learn). Without asking for sustained effort, deliberate practice, engagement in difficult tasks and hard thinking, even from children whose lives are difficult, we may encourage them to stay in school, but we will not educate them. We collude in the cycle of poverty. For me, education ought to be the slack that allows for grit. Slack is provided through safe places with calm expectations and reasonable, consistent boundaries in which children can lean in to learning, where they can begin to believe in their own capacities and in a world that can be reshaped by their efforts.

Sometimes I worry that, because we can see how difficult the journey of education will be for some of our children, because we cannot imagine how to prepare them for it, we simply show them pictures of the highlights, get them to walk about the room and pretend to catch flights. We have no faith in their capacity to take flight on their own, to find unique ways to travel that we can’t even imagine, to forge new paths to destinations we dare not even dream of. But if we don’t believe in the children and their capacity – enhanced through a powerful and empowering education – to alter the landscape of the future, what is the purpose of our schools?

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