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When the Going Gets Tough…

By Judith Ross-Bernstein

The Tough Get Going. That, for me, is a mommalie, (things your mother told you).  Who among us doesn’t struggle with putting one foot in front of the other methodology? But it’s there, deep within me, from childhood, a tacit construct often touched by certain challenges as they present themselves. And yes, now is an unusually fraught world climate, combined with mired national challenges, as well as locally on the Ithaca College Campus. How do we navigate; I feel it’s going to take some grit. I understand that the topic of grit runs in larger ongoing conversations, as recently referenced in the New York Times:

‘‘Grit,’’ a close cousin of ‘‘resilience,’’ has emerged as education’s magic mantra — a corrective to decades of helicopter parenting. Best-­selling books like ‘‘How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,’’ by Paul Tough, and ‘‘The Triple Package,’’ by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, argue that children need to encounter difficulties, to learn how to push past their own frustration. (Sehgal, 2015)

I am curious and did indeed encounter grit as an infiltrating topic within a recent professional educators conference, as a need, a desire from educators for their students, for themselves. And across disciplines, I observe my Ithaca College colleagues ask related questions: how to move students to stick with the uncomfortable; how to get students to be open to change their minds or consider multiple perspectives; how to support students to take risks, make inevitable mistakes and grow? Theirs may be a kind of heart/mind grit to explore further.

To address the perspectives of my teaching colleagues, here are a few questions I’ll surface around grit. How is grit defined? How does the idea of “mindset” intersect with grit? Can we teach in a way that intentionally addresses student grit and/or mindset?

What is grit? Eleanor Duckworth at Penn State offers:

“Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals (Duckworth et al., 2007). Self-control is the voluntary regulation of behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Duckworth & Steinberg, 2015). On average, individuals who are gritty are more self-controlled, but the correlation between these two traits is not perfect: Some individuals are paragons of grit but not self-control, and some exceptionally well-regulated individuals are not especially gritty (Duckworth & Gross, 2014).”

I appreciate her nuanced definition, considering reciprocity between self-control and sustained effort. Further, I am curious about a student’s self-perception of their abilities.  Growth and fixed mindset were frequent conference chasers to the grit discussion. Student mindset plays a key role in motivation and achievement and I wonder how large it plays in the grit puzzle.  Dweck (2015) recently blogged about her work on mindset to suggest that

“… students’ mindsets—how they perceive their abilities—played a key role in their motivation and achievement, and we found that if we changed students’ mindsets, we could boost their achievement. More precisely, students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset). And when students learned through a structured program that they could “grow their brains” and increase their intellectual abilities, they did better. Finally, we found that having children focus on the process that leads to learning (like hard work or trying new strategies) could foster a growth mindset and its benefits.”

What would it look like to intentionally address mindset and grit in the classroom? We know that developing a growth mindset isn’t just about effort. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. And Dweck indicates that input is particular, “growth feedback,” for faculty to consider (e.g. “Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.”). Statements along these lines have the potential to convey metacognitive strategies, and help students make their thinking visible.

I often see it in myself and others, having a strong opinion about a matter makes it more challenging to take in new information and render shifts in thinking. Could regularly teaching students to doubt, as a disposition, engage both grit and a growth mindset in students? Starbird (2015) practices infusing doubt while working alongside students. Through modeling personal doubt while simultaneously requesting the same of students, (e.g. “How much do I believe this to be true now?”), Starbird embarks upon a questioning methodology.

 Teaching doubt, “promotes civility and anchors us in the reality of our own limited understanding (Starbird, 2015).

Would exercising the practice of doubt, and being comfortable with routinely questioning knowledge and beliefs allow us to get gritty with students and model a growth mindset?

The answer for me is yes, for now, I believe this 67%.


Duckworth, A. L., Gendler, T. S, & Gross, J. J. Self-control in school-age children. (2014). Educational Psychologist, 49(3), 199-217.

Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.

Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16(12), 939-944.

Duckworth, A. L., & Steinberg, L. (in press). Understanding and cultivating self-control in children and adolescents. Child Development Perspectives

Dweck, C. (2015). Carol Dweck Revisits “‘Growth Mindset.” Education Week Blog.

Seghal, P. (2015). The Profound Emptiness of Resilience. Downloaded 12/5/2015 @

Starbird, M. (2015) Teach Doubt. The Little Orange Book. Short Lessons in Excellent Teaching. The University of Texas System. Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

Filed under: Course Design, Engaging Students, Pedagogy




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