Growth Mindset and Bootstraps

The first time I heard someone talk about “grit” and growth mindset in education, it was at the STEM Think Tank and Conference, a 3-day conference about the unique challenges and opportunities in teaching girls about science and technology. The speaker was an administrator and researcher at a prestigious, private, K-12 girls’ school in suburban Ohio. For years, the teachers and administrators at this prep school had noticed that girls were typically praised for fixed traits (“wow, you’re so good at math!” or “you’re a great writer”). While this sounds fine on its face, what happened was that as soon as these girls faced a major challenge, they questioned their ability: “I can’t be that good at math – I don’t understand these logarithms at all!”

power-of-yet6Their solution was to encourage a growth mindset. Based on the work of renowned psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D., growth mindset is the idea that our intelligence is not fixed, and that sustained effort and positive thinking significantly contribute to our academic success. So at this particular school, they provided opportunities for kids to just tinker with things with no expectation that they come up with any answers, encouraged students and staff to follow up “I don’t get it” with “…yet,” and taught upper school students about stereotype threat and the kinds of self-talk that combat it. It was a very successful campaign, and not only did their students report feeling more confident in their academic skills, but they were also more encouraging and patient with their peers. In other words, they became resilient. Setbacks no longer devastated students – they challenged and empowered them! Pretty cool stuff, right?

Fast-forward four years (and a very famous TED talk by Angela Duckworth) later, and now Growth Mindset and Resilience have been transformed into a single buzzword: GRIT. And it’s quite possibly the biggest fad in education today. A cursory Google search for “grit and education” came up with more than 8.3 million hits; “grit” on its own comes up with over 53 million — 20 million more than “problem based learning” and 30 million more than “1:1 technology initiatives.” And with that explosion in popularity, a major shift has happened.

In 2013, “grit” mattered because teachers realized they weren’t doing enough to help their students overcome the challenges they face. Today, we’re told “grit” matters because kids today are too soft, too lazy, and too ungrateful. We have middle school teachers administering “grit scales” that deduct points if a kids’ interests change every few months (which is exactly what they should do during adolescence). Some school districts are testing students’ grit and happiness levels as part of their school accountability measures — even the NAEP has started “grading” students’ social-emotional skills! In fact, it’s gotten so bad that Duckworth, the woman who made Grit famous, quit the organization that created the tests, saying, “all measures suck, and they all suck in their own way.

In just a few years, “grit” has been transformed from a teaching tool to an excuse. Half of your students failed the test? That’s not your fault – it’s because your students didn’t have grit.  Just like conservatives tell people living in poverty that if they’d just “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” they’d become wealthy, school administrators (and a whole world of education profiteers!) are now telling children that if they just had more “grit,” they’d rise to the top of their class.

Just like the old “bootstraps” philosophy, this new Grit ideology is false.

Far and away, the #1 predictor of a student’s academic performance is their socioeconomic status. That website I just linked summarizes fifteen different studies that all show how poverty creates barriers to a quality education — and none of those point to a lack of grit. Kids living at the intersection of multiple oppressions, including poverty, are the ones with the most grit.

I mean, just think about it for a second: to develop grit/resilience/growth mindset, you need to persevere when faced with a challenge. Why do you think so many of the wealthy, high-achieving students at that prep school lacked grit? Because everything came so easily to them! In fact, you can trace the history of the grit movement back to the 1800s, when private schools realized their affluent students were, well…. spoiled brats.

This is why Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss calls this obsession with grit “white grit theory.” (God, I LOVE that term!) She points out that when teachers and principals wax poetic about the power of grit, we run the risk of romanticizing hardship. What’s more, we can really harm our kiddos when we promise that if they just keep trying and push themselves through the stress and hardship, it’ll all pay off — because chances are, it won’t. Class mobility (the ability to reach a higher income bracket than the one you were in as a child) is reaching new lows in America.  Do we really want our students to wake up the day after their college graduation with $90,000 of debt, a low-paying job with no benefits, and an internalized belief that it happened because they didn’t try hard enough? That’s what lies ahead for college grads who grew up poor. Or, as Strauss puts it,

“Sisyphus had plenty of grit, but it didn’t get him very far.”

grit and poverty quote ron berger
From Education Week

Now, I’m not saying we should stop encouraging poor students to go to college. What I am saying is that teachers should not be listening to people who think that “grit” is an upside that justifies the existence of poverty. Instead of “teaching” grit to my students (whiiiiich…. how would I even do that? I grew up middle class and white, wtf do I know?), I’m going to teach them the academic skills they need, educate myself and my colleagues about structural inequalities, incorporate projects that encourage students to take action against poverty, racism, homophobia, and ableism.

But most of all, I’m gonna keep fighting like hell to create a world where children don’t need grit. I hope you will too.

Have the educators in your community been talking about grit? How do you feel about it as a new fad in education? What do YOU do to develop perseverance and growth mindset in your kids and students? I wanna know!



2 thoughts on “The New Bootstraps: Are we blaming kids for their own hardship?

  1. My takeaway: “This is why Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss calls this obsession with grit “white grit theory.” (God, I LOVE that term!) She points out that when teachers and principals wax poetic about the power of grit, we run the risk of romanticizing hardship.” However, I do think that my attending a public school where many students came from higher socio-economic levels than myself helped me to see my goals as higher than if I attended a school with people more like myself .


    1. Desegregating schools is very important to me, so we have no disagreements there. Kids need to get to know folks from a variety of backgrounds. But that’s different from white “education experts” (who I can’t help but notice are usually NOT teachers in high-poverty/majority-minority schools) telling poor kids they don’t try hard enough.


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