Sunday, March 13, 2016

Growth Mindset... Grit... Grrrr!

Grit and Growth Mindset: It's Personal... 

Over the last several years, many of my family and friends have commented on the fact that Paul (my amazing son) seems to possess an incredible amount of grit, positivity and perseverance. Some have even commented on the fact that a growth mindset seems to come so naturally to Paul because he rarely focuses on his problems or issues. You see Paul was born with a few medical issues and one of them is congenital scoliosis, which means he has surgery every six months to have the rods in his back expanded as he grows. Truth is, Paul rarely gets upset about the situation (except right before and after surgery) and he bounces back quickly and never allows his "issues" to impact his daily functioning. His doctor calls him the wonder child because of his ability to bounce back and his willingness to try almost anything regardless of his physical limitations. People are always in awe of Paul and his GRIT and often comment how they wish their children possessed some of that stuff!

Well, here is the thing, grit, and other current buzz words in education related to students' personal development, such as growth mindset and perseverance, are incredibly complex and I don't know that most educators realize and understand those complexities. You see, I do believe that Paul shows a tremendous amount of grit and perseverance but I don't necessarily think he was just born with it (he was born with some of it though); I think part of Paul's grit and strength are a result of the love, support, access and privilege he has experienced since birth. 

Yes, that's right - although some kids may be born with these qualities, I don't think life and environmental factors always give them an opportunity to grow and thrive within each child. Fortunately, many times children do develop the growth mindset and grit to overcome many of the obstacles they encounter... but that doesn't happen for every child. I believe these qualities are ones that are nurtured in children and although some children may be predisposed to accessing them more easily, I think we need to recognize that the conversation is a complex one.

Grit and Growth Mindset In Education...

Psychologist Carol Dweck, who developed the notion of growth mindset, defines it as...

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” 

This idea of growth mindset is juxtaposed against a fixed mindset, which is basically the opposite because people who embrace a fixed mindset see things like their intelligence and talents as "fixed" things that cannot be developed further... either you have it, or you don't. Of course, based on these definitions, we want all children (and educators) to access a growth mindset over a fixed mindset - that is an awesome goal and one worth working towards.

Often times, the notion of growth mindset gets commingled with this idea of grit because that is another quality we want our children to possess. Psychologist Angela Duckworth defines grit as...

"Grit is a distinct combination of passion, resilience, determination, and focus that allows a person to maintain the discipline and optimism to persevere in their goals even in the face of discomfort, rejection, and a lack of visible progress for years, or even decades."

Yes - based on that definition, that is certainly something we want our children and students (and educators) to possess... a lot of growth mindset with some grit because then we can accomplish anything and achieve all of our goals. In fact, it seems that some educators might even argue that growth mindset and grit are the keys to education reform and the proverbial silver bullet that will fix all the problems that plague schools and society in general.  

For example, some would argue that kids who are impacted by poverty can overcome that challenge by showing some grit and embracing a growth mindset. Others would argue that children who come across entitled will be better served if they develop some grit or employ a growth mindset. "These" kids would do so much better with some grit; "those" kids would be better served if they developed a growth mindset; or any number of statements along these lines that suggest we have found the silver bullet.

But, in my opinion, it is not that simple. Just because we have decided, as the adults in education, that we want our students to possess these qualities and traits it doesn't mean it's going to happen and it doesn't mean we are going to reform education in one fell swoop. Don't get me wrong, I definitely thing we want to nurture these qualities in our students and ourselves but we need to understand the complexities that accompany them.  

Things To Remember...

If we are going to continue pushing kids to develop their grit and growth mindset, we need to remember certain things...

1) We can't expect kids to access those "skills" or qualities if we don't embrace them as the adults in the learning community! Educators and schools must begin embracing a growth mindset and accessing some grit. I believe the first step in making that happen is shifting the focus from teaching to learning - remembering that we are learners first and as learners we can continue to grow and enhance our skill set, even when it makes us uncomfortable.  

2) We should move away from grading kids on these qualities because they are more like a spectrum than just something that we can check off as met or not met. When we grade it, we are trying to qualify it in some way and that is a subjective and slippery slope to try and navigate. What makes one kids grit better than an others? Who is showing a stronger growth mindset? Not only that, but once it is graded and a child scores a "high" grade in these areas, the journey is over and they can check them off their list. You get the idea - these are not easy questions to answer but in the end, grading things like grit and perseverance don't seem to be in the best interest of children and in fact may be an example of embracing a fixed mindset ("this is just for a grade") over a growth mindset ("I can always get better at this")! 

3) These trends to embed notions of grit and growth mindset in our daily work with children are admirable and important but they are not the silver bullet that will fix all that ails education or society. We cannot help foster grit or growth mindset or perseverance if we don't first focus on building healthy and positive relationships with our kids and with each other as educators. 

4) Access and privilege do impact the development of qualities like growth mindset. I believe that children who have access, as a result of their family or community or SES, will not only have a better chance of developing these skills but will then be able to leverage them to advance themselves because of their access and privilege. Growth mindset, grit and perseverance are not going to fix all that ails society because they don't often get developed in a silo (of course, there are exceptions). 

5) If we think growth mindset, grit, etc. are critical to the success of our children and schools then we must stick with them and make them the new norms in our educational communities. We cannot abandon them when the next "sexy" trend, initiative or term hits our schools - we must show some grit and stick with it!

What do you think about growth mindset, grit and perseverance? How do you see them impacting our schools and students? Do you agree with my take? Disagree? Why? Please let me learn and grow!   


  1. Tony, you crushed it once again. Yes, we are the coach, the toolbox, the mentor, the facilitator, the REALIST, the cheerleader, and the constant in the lives of kiddos. We MUST make a concerted effort to guide them into the only mindset that will make them LIFE Champions!

  2. Tony, the more I read about Carol Dweck's research on growth mindset, along with Stanford Professor Jo Boaler's work on how mistakes grow our brains (, the more I am convinced that "nurture" wins over "nature." We must promote opportunities for learners to "Fail Forward" (Andrew Miller -- and help them to develop grit. Mindset research and the benefits of failure definitely need to be part of the education conversation. Here's a good follow-up article from Carol Dweck:

  3. Wow, what an incredible post. I do believe in the grit/growth mindset mentality. Loved Paul Tough's book, How Children Succeed, which covers this topic. However, I think you hit the nail on the head for sure... it is different for every child. is different for every human being. We are all very mysterious in our making. Everyone has obstacles- physical, spiritual, emotional, etc. Everyone has a different tool bag filled with tools of varying qualities. To me, I believe it is our job to teach the children how to work with the tools they have been given to overcome these obstacles. I also believe we must be real. Some people have so many issues they face daily. I believe loving, nurturing, and relating to people is the best we can. It is our job. Then, and only then, can we be the encouragement and support they need to help them grow. We have to build confidence in them first. Grit, perseverance and having a growth mindset will come after that. We must also will ebb and flow...depending on circumstances.
    Great article, Tony!

  4. Tony,

    Your comment that we need to practice what we preach is dead on. We need to make sure that as educators that the expectations that we set for students are things that we are doing or are working on. As a leader, I try to make sure that I am constantly saying to my staff that I am trying this too.


  5. When you mentioned "access and privilege do impact" I was thinking a lot about developmental assets...which was a catch phrase a few years back and we did not seem to have the grit to keep with it. What do our children have (come with) and where are they lagging? Knowing this or being in tune with it will help guide some of the work we are doing in our schools so that the child develops the skills which better enable a growth mindset. Enjoyed your post and got me thinking early Monday morning of Spring break! :)

  6. Isn't it amazing how our children can make us look at education differently. I have a 4 year old and a 2 year old and I know I'm a better teacher because I see education for them now. I'm so much more vested in the entire process and I want their experience in school to be a positive one. Your son sounds like an amazing young man!

    I love how you address teachers having grit and a growth mindset. So many teachers want to just keep doing things the "way they've always been done."

    I also agree that every kid is different. The experts say that it just takes one positive person who believes in a student who feels like a failure for the student to succeed. I've been that believer and it hasn't worked. However, I know that for most people there's hope....hope that he/she WILL meet someone who can change their outlook.

    Also...quick note because I'm hoping this blog is read by a million have a tiny typo: "Don't get me wrong, I definitely thing". I hope this doesn't offend...

  7. Amazing insight from a principal who is always in a growth mindset. Grit is something that we often struggle to instill in our children but is a "must have" quality to really acquire fulfillment, not just success. Thanks for this!

  8. I hope you don't mind if I share this with my faculty. You hit this topic "right on the button" Thanks!

  9. G.R.I.T. - Guts. Resilience. Initiative. Tenacity.