Schools can take concrete steps to foster "performance virtues" like grit and perseverance. With both academic and moral benefits, such steps take little extra time and cost nothing.
There may be no busier field of research in education today (including character education) than that of how we “teach” kids to hang in there, to have the internal motivation and discipline to persevere to the end. Since 2011 at least six important research reviews or reports have been published on the subject of grit and or the role that mindsets play in the development of “tenacity” in students. From what these reports and reviews say, schools interested in fostering grit have four key steps to focus on:
- Help students set their goals.
- Create a school climate that fosters intrinsic motivation.
- Teach kids about the "growth mindset"
- Teach practical competence
1. Help students set their goals.
Grit guru Angela Duckworth and her colleagues (2007) define grit as “perseverance and passion for long term goals.” Note: long term goals. The grit researchers are not talking about studying for final exams or working up grit for next week’s big game. Grit is having a goal and working toward accomplishing it. The goal has to be the student’s goal, thus an autonomously chosen goal. Schools that care about grit will help students discern their goals. The most compelling long term goal is, of course, what one feels is his or her “calling,” his or her purpose in life.
2. Create a school climate that fosters Intrinsic motivation
We do not want student to persevere because of carrots held over their heads. The perseverance of maintaining a life of integrity, the perseverance of lifelong learners, the perseverance of gritty human beings comes only from intrinsic motivation. That’s what the purple box in the graph alludes to: self-discipline, self-control, self-determined action. Having a long-term goal, having a purpose, helps foster intrinsic motivation. Schools can help the process by fostering autonomy, relationships of support, and competence as outlined in Breaking into the Heart of Character. Two areas of the third of these terms—competence—are what stand out most in endeavors to help students develop grit. Let’s look at those now.
3. Teach kids about the “growth mindset”
Mindset is a kind of cognitive competence. It is the mental confidence that “I can do this.” Schools can nurture cognitive competence in students by helping them understand that successful academic work, successful athletic performances, successful artistic accomplishments, and successful acts of courage are much more dependent on hard work, on sustained effort, than they are on native ability. Help kids grow to believe that “my abilities grow when I push through challenging situations,” and “I get stronger, I get smarter, with effort.” This is what is called a “growth mindset,” as opposed to the “fixed mindset” view that “I was born with certain abilities that will never change.”
4. Practical competence: executive function skills
The second part of confidence in “I can do this” comes not from a mindset that encourages a student to keep working, it comes because the student has developed skills: he or she knows how to plan, how to strategize, how to work around obstacles that could deter less gritty individuals. Thus, after our students have discerned their goals (img. 2, top box), the more we help accept a growth mindset (box 3)—and the more we can help them think through the hows, the what ifs, and the what nexts (box 4), the greater the benefit we will be to them.
All of the above happen more easily when box 2 is central, because without supportive relationships, without a certain amount of autonomy, and without confidence in one’s abilities, there is little hope for sustained performance.
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For those interested in following up on the most recent research, probably the most significant recent reports is a publication draft earlier this year by the US Department of Education, titled Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century, with its focus on mindsets, strategy, and self-determined efforts as key factors in fostering perseverance. Other key reports are mentioned in the publication's text.