Grit, SEL, and Learning Diversity

“Grit equals passion and perseverance over time” – Angela Duckworth

This TEDtalk conversation about Grit will not be new to many educators, but please watch the above clip if you haven’t seen it yet. It is a great message, one that we can use to improve our own lives and share with our students to create more success in theirs. There is an interesting discussion in education surrounding the concept of Grit, with professionals forming opinions that both support and critique the idea that Grit is a valuable and vital objective to emphasize in education. Those that critique the idea ask if Grit is too narrow a concept, and argue that Grit, when promoted without considering emotional intelligence, can even be detrimental to students. Perhaps the most recognized voice criticizing how schools have adopted Grit comes from Alfie Kohn, in a recent Washington Post contribution. He asks, “Do kids love what they’re doing? Or are they driven by a desperate (and anxiety-provoking) need to prove their competence?” This is a question that gets at the root of the teaching experience- is it more valuable for teachers to foster an emotional connection with learning, or is the “just do it” mentality a better way? And can’t there be room for both?

To add the Learning Diversity viewpoint to the conversation, kids’ learning needs must be considered when we discuss Grit. “Passion and perseverance over time” must be taught together with compassion and critical thinking. For example, a dyslexic student should never be asked to access Grit alone in order to read – this is not scientifically effective. Instead, educators do well to pursue an alternative route for the student to access the book ( together with kindle immersion setting, and are both excellent resources) and then teach perseverance – and yes, Grit – to think critically about the ideas in the book (especially when the subject isn’t that interesting to the student). In such a case, students will need to be “Gritty” to produce new ideas and questions- especially questions!- in class discussion and in project form.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) posits that student learning is enhanced when self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making skills are valued and taught alongside (or integrated into) curriculum content. The IB programme actively includes SEL in its approach to teaching and learning for the greater goal of student success in creating a “better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect”.  (you can read the IB Mission Statement here.) Just as in the example of a dyslexic student and reading, above, there are students whose diagnoses inhibit their social awareness and ability to communicate emotions. Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, for example, may find it difficult to understand and learn SEL skills, and may need to rely on Grit to meaningfully participate. However, teachers will again do well to explicitly and patiently teach SEL skills, especially to students on the autism spectrum. Expectations of “Grittyness” without the accompanying support of explicit instruction, patience, and compassion, will be a disservice to students who have difficulty interpreting social cues or who perseverate on particular interests and have difficulty engaging with topics outside of somewhat narrow interest areas.Teachers must also access Grit -that same passion and perseverance over time – in order to teach all students, including those they find most difficult to reach.

This discussion is very rich and ongoing- though it seems that in the big picture, Grit and Social and Emotional Learning go hand in hand. As learners adapt to new cognitive growth, as our understanding of the world and our role in it expands, and as we develop our identities as individuals within our communities, it seems logical that having Grit and Social/Emotional Learning skills will sustain us and produce lifelong learning.

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