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


Related categories:
  • Michael Mitchell

    Grit and will power

    Hi Bill,

    You should check out Gayle Allen's podcast on Rethinking Exercise and Motivation.

    While it is not about school per say, the discussion on how will power is not the answer towards improving your exercise routine and motivation is the same aha you are haivng regarding grit.  


  • SandyMerz

    The Virtue of Giving Up

    I hope to write a complete post about other points you and John make, but a facet of grit that I don’t think I’ve ever seen weighed openly is knowing when to give up. Over at Stories from Arizona, I just posted Grit Vs The Virtue of Giving Up – hope you give it a read.

    • Elisa Waingort

      Giving Up

      Hi Sandy,

      You make a good point in your blog post. I agree that it's important to know when it's time to move on. I prefer the phrase "moving on" to "quitting or "giving up" because both of these have a negative connotation. Moving on could mean you've done as much as you can with something at the moment and you are ready to find something else to challenge or inspire you. Sometimes I think that our students move on too quickly, hence they quit before they've really tackled something and given it a chance. That is what I struggle with in the classroom, especially in math. In order to persevere, you need time and a willigness or a mindset that says, "I'm going to spend some more time on this to see where it takes me." How much time is enough is always hard to determine for kids and adults. Lots of food for thought here. Thanks for posting the Thought Questions site. Love it!

  • Susansantone

    Can grit undermine critical thinking?

    Thank you for this post and for highlighting the need for students to wrok on real world problems. Without a focus on solving challenges that matter, I think there’s a danger for grit to actually undermine critical thinking. 

    I put some thoughts together in a blog and would welcome your input. 

    Thank you!

    Susan Santone