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Babies, Bathwater, and Grit

By Dave Stuart Jr.

I was sitting in an evening meeting some months ago, one of those situations where a sampling of K-12 teachers are brought in to share their two cents about where they'd like the district to go. We were in table groups, and the facilitator had just asked us to brainstorm a list of adjectives to describe the ideal graduate of our school district. When it came time to share out, words like “curious” and “intelligent” and “resourceful” were called out. And then a colleague across the room said, “Grit.”

Close behind me, I heard a fellow teacher grumble, “I can't stand grit.”

“I can't stand long-term flourishing.”

I understand that the snake oil salesmen of education took grit and peddled it as a silver bullet for solving systemic poverty. I realize that in some schools grit became nothing more than “Sit down, shut up, and do your work.” I know that, harmfully, grit has been used to bolster arguments like “Poor people are poor because they don't work hard enough.”

But decrying grit for those reasons is like decrying Christianity because of the Crusades or the Inquisition or the Westboro Baptist Church or the Ku Klux Klan. It's like saying all Muslims should be banned from entering the USA because some alleged Muslims recently committed an atrocity. It would be like saying that I'm a bad teacher if, God forbid, one of my students goes out some day and does something horrible.

The more I think about what it will take to improve long-term flourishing outcomes in US schools, the more I see that clear thinking is non-negotiable. We need as many clear thinking educators as possible, and in an age as such nobody thinks clearly by accident. If we're not careful, we'll follow our favorite commenter's take on the latest thing (many, perhaps, were turned off from grit when Alfie Kohn started writing against it), rather than doing the work to think and research it ourselves.

Helpfully, Angela Duckworth has just released her first book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. This is not another 10-minute TED Talk bloated up into a 50,000-word book. It is what books should be: significant additions to and clarifications of a body of work.

In the addition sense, Duckworth brings a lot of new thinking in the book, including:

  • A theory that effort counts twice toward success because talent x effort = skill and skill x effort = achievement (Chapter 3);
  • Whether grit is a result of nature or nurture (Chapter 5; she argues that grit, and nearly every human trait, is a result of both);
  • Her thoughts on Warren Buffett's 25-5 list strategy, which I wrote about last fall (Chapter 4);
  • How grit can be developed through both “inside-out” (Chapters 6-9) and “outside-in” (Chapters 10-12) approaches;
  • How “gritty” people tend to be relentlessly focused on top-level goals but very willing to sacrifice or quit low- and middle-level goals (Chapter 4); and
  • Whether it's possible to be too gritty (Chapter 13).

In the clarification sense, critics of grit can no longer say that Duckworth only pays lip service to passion; it's an integral part of the book and its central concept. Without an understanding of what Duckworth means by passion, you can't understand what she means by grit.

Save the babies

The reason I can't stand buzzwordification is because buzzwords kill clear thinking, and according to another book I've been reading recently, “how teachers think really matters” [1]. So I'm not on a buzzword bandwagon here; I haven't drank the grit Kool-Aid.

All that matters in our work is long-term flourishing. That is the chief intended outcome of public schooling. I am determined to figure out how to increase the odds that my students will flourish long-term. That's all I do. That is literally my job as a teacher, working to answer that question. I really admire companies like SpaceX and Tesla (I've been listening to the Elon Musk biography lately) because they just have these simple, abiding, competing-philosophies-are-trumped-by-this goals: colonize Mars; make the best electric cars. At those companies, there's just not even a question about what your highest order goal is. When your highest order goals are clear (and compelling), it becomes vastly easier to sustain passion for a long time and to persist toward it when things get hard.

When we throw babies out with the bathwater the cause of the problem is mindlessness. We know the bathwater is bad, but we forget about what's good. The misuses of grit have been bad, no doubt; we need to be wary about using them as an excuse not to think.


  1. Visible Learning for Literacy, Grades K-12, by Hattie, Fisher, and Frey. Page 166.


2 Responses to Babies, Bathwater, and Grit

  1. Wendy May 10, 2016 at 3:46 pm #

    Dave –
    I find it so common, at least in my experience, that we (educators) quickly adopt the latest in buzz words and sprinkle them across our conversations as if that alone will produce change in education. Instead, after a short time, those words become almost toxic and the ideas behind the buzz words become that much harder to implement. Is this unique to education?

    • davestuartjr May 10, 2016 at 3:49 pm #

      I think it’s probably common in some other fields, too. For example, I see it frequently in entrepreneurship circles. Probably any field where there are a bunch of optimists all trying to do the same or similar very hard, very important things, buzzwordification cycles will be present.

      Toxic is a good word.

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