The Poisonous Mythology of Grittiness

Yesterday, I had the chance to do some brainstorming about Design Thinking with John Spencer — a thinker and a friend that I greatly admire.  During the course of the conversation, I asked John why he thought that Design Thinking should play a role in modern classrooms.  His answer was a huge a-ha moment for me:

“Design thinking builds grit by giving a lot of slack.  We have this idea that perseverance comes form a buckle down and get it done mentality.  Design Thinking says you develop perseverance through tons of iterations and freedom to make mistakes and time to make revisions and improvements.”

Stew in that for a minute, would you?  John’s right:  We DO define grit as the ability to “buckle down and get it done,” don’t we?  

I’m not sure if that definition is a result of our compulsive obsession with bootstraps, our one-time belief that hard work is the Golden Ticket to Heaven, or the fact that we’ve been told time and again that instruction in our schools isn’t all that ‘rigorous’, but defining grit as a willingness to struggle through miserable experiences is a poisonous myth that harms students because it suggests that learning has to be painful in order to be meaningful.

Worse yet, defining grittiness as a willingness to struggle through miserable experiences provides built in excuses for educators who are unwilling to rethink their learning spaces and for policymakers who are unwilling to rethink the relevance of our required  curriculum.   Instead of working to improve our own practices, we peddle the notion that surviving bad lessons is a rite of intellectual passage.   “Sure, school is going to be boring,” we argue, “but it will be GOOD for you. It will teach you to work hard even when you AREN’T having fun — and I hate to break it to you, but life isn’t always about having fun!”


What if we believed that ALL learning should be fundamentally joyful?

Could students still learn to persist even if they were studying concepts that moved them in deep and meaningful ways?  Is it possible to demonstrate grittiness while constantly iterating on an idea that has the potential to change the world for the better? Aren’t people driven by passion MORE persistent than people who are driven by intimidation?

THAT’s Design Thinking in a nutshell, y’all.  It is built on the notion that people — regardless of who they are or what they know — can identify problems that are worth solving, propose and prototype solutions that are worth trying, and systematically improve on their thinking from one revision to the next.  Design Thinking sends the message that no final product is perfect and that dedicated learners are always ready to improve  everything that they create.

That sounds a heck of a lot like grittiness to me.


Related Radical Reads:

How Gritty Are Today’s Learners?

Will You Be Relentless?

This is What a Growth Mindset Looks Like in Action



8 thoughts on “The Poisonous Mythology of Grittiness

  1. Blue Cereal

    I think you’ve wonderfully highlighted a central miscommunication – maybe THE central miscommunication – in the grand, ongoing argument over ‘grit’. I’ve always read Dweck and ilk to mean what you promote here – try, succeed, fail, learn, adjust, etc. The power of “yet” (as in,’not fully there YET’).

    I’m a big fan of the idea that different students in different situations need different things. Maybe there are kids who desperately need structure or who thrive in a ‘boot camp’ type environment – that’s not my world, so that’s an unknown to me. But whether the buckle-down / suck-it-up approach has merit or not, it’s most certainly NOT what I think of as ‘grit’ or resolve – and not how I’ve learned the most important lessons in my life.

    Thanks for writing this. Great piece and perspective!

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Thanks, BCE.

      I think it is a central miscommunication in the conversation around grit. When we believe — as we are wont to do in a country where “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is a national mantra — that grit means just work a little harder, iteration as a form of persistence is pushed aside. And in education, we end up questioning the value of the learner instead of the value of the task.

      That bugs me!

      Thanks for the kind words,

  2. Bryant McEntire

    That was a message I needed this morning here in Hong Kong Bill when pondering my practice and ethos. Thank you for it. I must say though, having returned from a meeting of like minded professionals yesterday, in my mind I applied it to teachers and their instructional context rather than students. If teachers find themselves in a school culture that defines ‘grittiness’ in this traditional sense (not there but I’ve seen this in colleagues!) and leverage it to whip the staff into achieving great things with their students despite all the obstacles in their way, then it is really tough to keep your chin up and model this fail, revise, improve, succeed process long term. Innovation is most likely when administration provides the correct mindset, environment, materials, and often money to empower ‘tons of iterations’ as you say. If the mindset isn’t there and there are no tools with which to do 21st century teaching and learning coupled with the improper ‘grittiness’ definition you expose then one must move on or boil down teaching and learning to its most basic components: didactic and worksheets dominant. Thanks for keeping it real from my home away from home! 🙂

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Bryant,

      First, good to see you in this space and hope you are well and happy!

      And you ain’t kidding: Without the cultural support — both in attitudes and resources — constant iteration is hard to pull off because we aren’t especially tolerant of failure in schools. That’s got to change if we are ever going to get to the point where our kids are prepared for “the work world they are going to inherit” though. I’ve read a ton about the kind of work that happens in progressive businesses, and it doesn’t resemble the kind of work that we do in schools at all. And given our penchant for waving the “college and career readiness” flag all over creation, that’s flawed.

      My commitment, though, is to find something I CAN do to encourage an attitude of iteration in my classroom. It won’t be every lesson. It won’t be every day. But it WILL happen.

      Rock right on,

  3. Janet B

    Hi! I have never thought of perseverance/grittiness as always having to go through something brutal. This summer, I watched my 18 month old grandson persist at walking up a steep hill from the cottage to the road (freedom?) over and over again, for days. He slipped; he fell (forwards, and backwards!) but he continued to do it …getting to the top and chasing chipmunks, picking up sticks, checking things out. He could have taken the easier route of the more gently sloped driveway, but he insisted on doing it the “other way”. It was a simple task, and not world-changing, but to me, it was inspiring. My thought was …. where do kids lose this perseverance? Is it innate? And if it is, can we teach it? Can it be learned? I think it has to be connected with passion and motivation. And can we teach passion? Just my reflections …

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      I think the answer, Janet, is that innate persistence comes from choice. Your grandson WANTED to learn to walk. So much of what we ask kids to persist at in schools is completely irrelevant to them. We want them to persist at OUR tasks. That takes a lot of the commitment that drives persistence away. The trick for us is finding things that move our kids and integrating our content into those topics. It’s like hiding the aspirin in the applesauce, to use another parenting metaphor!

      Any of this make sense?

  4. Meg Ormiston

    I must be doing some HUGE design thinking based on this “Design Thinking says you develop perseverance through tons of iterations and freedom to make mistakes and time to make revisions and improvements.” I am a revision machine these days as I am articulating the work of my group. It is challenging, but at each delete the message is getting clearer! Every time I am about to hit send, I pull back and make the message better. If I had rushed through the process, my work would be would reflect that. I’m with you Bill on gritness!

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Thanks Meg…

      I’m really pushing the notion that we should be “developing an attitude of iteration” in our students. If there’s any one thing that schools should accomplish to make kids “college and career ready,” that’s it.

      Think about the number of iterations that your husband’s — or your son’s, for that matter — businesses have developed. Iteration is a fact of life in start up cultures, and start up cultures are where innovation comes from. But in schools, we push correct answers and polished final copies on our kids.

      That has to change.

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