Can grit be taught?


Briana Morin

Mike McRaith

What makes some students successful, and what makes other students simply give up and stop trying?

Over a dozen JSC faculty and staff filed into the Ellsworth room to learn the answer on Thursday, Jan. 22, when Enosburg Falls Middle School Principal and former JSC student Mike McRaith, talked about “grit.”

He began the discussion by asking the audience to reflect on themselves and decide what skills they possess that have been a key factor in their success. After the group deliberated for a few minutes, most of the participants came to the realization that many of the skills they listed were not skills at all; they were qualities that they believe, if used properly, transfer into skills.

McRaith used this platform as a means of explaining that there are character traits, as well as skills, that contribute to the determination and success of students. The key character trait in question is grit – another term for perseverance.

According to McRaith, his interest in this subject came to him when he worked as a guidance counselor.
“I was working with a student one day who just gave up. It was just his habit to give up. I come up against this so often… On the same day, I worked with a student who came from very little, and came to me to have me help her apply to Harvard.”

McRaith explained that he began to wonder why some students tried so hard, and others seemed to give up so easily.
“If I could figure this thing out, then I’d really be getting somewhere with kids to help close this achievement gap that we have,” he said.

McRaith started his journey to learn more about “grit” by applying for a Rowland Foundation Fellowship, for which he received $100,000 to fund his project.

He presented a six-tiered chart called the “hierarchy of achievement.” The bottom tier, the foundation, is having your safety and basic needs met. Once that is accomplished, you can then move on to “purpose and motivation.”

McRaith showed a two-by-two chart, each one representing different attitudes towards activity and purpose. There was “high purpose, high activity,” meaning that you have a strong sense of purpose and put a lot of work towards that purpose. Then there’s “high purpose, low activity” and “low purpose, high activity.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s “low activity, low purpose,” meaning there is a lack of both purpose and activity.

“I’m sure that you can all think of a student or a person that you’ve worked with that doesn’t really do much and doesn’t really care,” McRaith said. “These people are the hardest to motivate, because they’re not sure why they should do anything at all.”
He then presented a video of Bill Damon, who created this two-by-two model, talking about his meeting with the Dalai Lama, during which he asked what he should do with these people who have low purpose and low activity. In the video, he explains the Dalai Lama’s answer.

“He said, ‘you’ve got to paint them a very compelling picture of what a life would be like without purpose,’” he said. “You have to give them very inspiring examples of people who have joyful lives, and show how that joyfulness comes from having a purpose.”
Those who have achieved a sense of purpose and motivation, can then move on to the concept of “growth mindset.”
McRaith showed a video of a TED Talk featuring Angela Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who conducted research to try to figure out what makes students successful. The answer she got was “grit.” But another question came as a result of this information: can we teach students grit?

Duckworth says that teaching students grit begins with “growth mindset.” McRaith explained this idea.

“It’s rethinking about life and school and showing our kids that mistakes aren’t a bad thing, that frustration is not a problem,” he said.

Then there’s the idea of “fixed mindset,” which is the opposite way of thinking. According to McRaith, if you have a fixed mindset, you would instead be inclined to give up and assume you’re just not good at whatever task you’re doing.

“Oftentimes, our kids sort of grow up thinking that ‘if I’m frustrated, this is something I should avoid’ rather than ‘frustration is an opportunity to learn,’” he said. “If we can get in there and sort of flip that switch, it changes the way that they learn.”

McRaith explained that the key to teaching students to be “gritty” is to teach them early on to have a growth mindset.

“In order to build grit in students, you need to build growth mindset,” he said. “It’s not a new idea; it’s becoming increasingly popular and increasingly pointed out that if you can get this going for kids, it’s really helpful.”

McRaith posed a question: when exactly do people develop either a fixed or growth mindset? According to him, it starts very early in childhood.

“We start giving each other fixed mindsets really early,” he said. “It’s about third or fourth grade where kids think, ‘well, I guess I’m not good at school.’”

He gave a possible solution to building growth mindset in students and children. He presented three options for giving feedback, one of them being “You’re smart,” which according to him is actually detrimental to kids.

“‘You’re so smart’ is like saying, ‘oh my gosh, you’re so tall!’” he said. “There’s nothing you can do to control that… it’s either you’re smart or you’re not… I got that right, I performed well, so now I’m smart… If I get something wrong, that means I’m dumb. And they become adverse to risk.”

The “neutral” option for feedback is telling kids, “good job.”

The feedback that encourages growth mindset is something that, according to McRaith, provides “specific detail and tells them what they’ve done well.” An example he gave was specific to writing, saying, “Your choice in sources supported your central claim well. How did you choose them?” McRaith explained that this type of feedback will encourage kids to keep working hard by letting them know what they did well.

Unfortunately, McRaith ran out of time and didn’t get to explain the final three tiers of the hierarchy. But the audience showed great enthusiasm about him coming back another time to finish his presentation.