Inside the Classroom Outside the Classroom

Connecting Grit and Student Success in the Classroom and Beyond

Coming through turn one in lap 114, three race cars are vying for one space. Broken-down cars from earlier crashes have turned this into a harrowing obstacle race. The drivers quickly assess the situation, adjust their speeds and angles, and intuitively “thread the needle,” single-file. Once past the crashed cars, the sound of accelerating engines greet the audience, watching from above, as the drivers have cleared the hurdle. The remaining drivers’ cars are far from glistening though. One is bashed in on the passenger side, one has a flapping side panel that’s ready to fall off any time, and the third has a flat rear tire.

Why in the world are these drivers continuing to race with so much damage to their cars’ exteriors? The winner’s purse amounts to $250, so it’s not for the money. Instead, they’re racing for the thrill, the challenge, and the fun of matching skill and wit against the 20 other drivers on the track. They’re not afraid to fail and smash the car; that’s happened many times before and will happen again. You see, these drivers are playing. They know that failure is part of the fun, even though it costs money to fix up the cars. They bounce back from adversity with a glint in their eye. Failure on the race track leads to new conversations, ideas, and creative solutions that can eventually become quite useful. You don’t win races by doing the same thing everyone else is doing! Doing so takes grit, determination, and tenacity.

Grit and Student Success

The idea of “grit” and its connection to learning has gained popularity in recent years, thanks in no small part to Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk about this very topic. In it, she states that grit is one of the most important components of student success, so how can we help children and young adults understand that it’s okay to fail, and it’s okay to get it wrong the first time? How can we connect grit and student success? It’s like learning how to ride a bicycle. First you fall, many times actually, and then you have to get back on the seat and try again, maybe even pasting a bandage to a scraped arm or leg. The goal is to continue to try and not give up. As it turns out, growth comes when you overcome fear and limitations.

Researchers have found that the first step to building grit is for adults to model struggling and/or failing. A parent teaching a child how to ride a bicycle for the first time could wobble a little bit, self-correct, and then de-brief. The parent could say, “Did you see when I passed the mailbox that I wobbled a little bit? Here’s what I did to get back on track.” Or when showing a child how to solve a math problem, make a small mistake and say, “Whoops, did you see how I wrote down a 4 when I should have written down a 5? I read through the question one more time and noticed my mistake.”

Another way to build grit and determination is to set reasonable goals that are attainable and age-appropriate. Expecting a seven-year-old to clear the entire front lawn of all the fallen leaves is not going to happen, but clearing a 20’ × 20’ space is more plausible, and worthy of praise.

In the science classroom, encouraging students to have grit and take risks can be more of a challenge. Due to time constraints and a large number of topics students are expected to master, little time is often left for experimentation, so do what you can to bring experimentation and failure into your classroom.

For example, try setting up a lab with one known error, and then see how long it takes your students to find it. At the end of the lab activity, do an error analysis. Ask honestly and genuinely what improvements students have for the lab, and then write their suggestions down and let that paper linger on your desk for a few days in full view. This reaffirms that you value their advice and feedback. Bring it back up in conversation the next day or say, “First hour ran the lab and had these suggestions. What do you think? Do you have anything to add? How would you change the lab for next time?” Do everything you can to normalize experimentation, errors, and constructive criticism.

Building Grit Outside the Classroom

On the playground, encourage children to help others, especially if they’ve made a mistake or fallen down. Have them take turns, and encourage them to share toys, games, and resources, as well as what works for them. For example, a child could say, “Oh, I fell on that swing last week. Here’s what I did to make it work. Want me to show you how?” Then make sure the child gives the other a chance to be successful on the swing. When students engage in this behavior, they can also experience the social “rewards” of grit, which are the good feelings you get when helping someone.

Motivational quotations can also work wonders, especially when they come from characters and people children trust and like, so consider adding some to your refrigerator, message board, school lunches, classroom walls, or social media. Here are some of my favorites:

  • “Just keep swimming.” — Dory, Finding Nemo
  • “Emerge wiser and stronger from setbacks.” — J.K. Rowling
  • “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill
  • “The most certain way to succeed is to always try just one more time.” — Thomas Edison
  • “The greatest teacher, failure is.” — Yoda, The Last Jedi
  • “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that do not work.” — Thomas Edison
  • “There’s no such thing as failure, only earlier attempts at success.” — Nacho, Nacho Libre

Or come up with some of your own together, perhaps from one of their favorite books or movies! Helping students understand that failure is not always a bad thing is an important way to encourage them to think outside the box and take risks. Once they understand the connection between grit and student success, they might be that much more likely to try just one more time, which can be all they need for deeper learning and understanding.

About the Author

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Teresa Tucker

A California native, who now calls Michigan home, Teresa graduated from MSU with a B.S. in Natural Resources and Environmental Education and Secondary Teaching minors in Earth Science and Physical Science, as well as an M.S. focusing on the use of real-time data to motivate students. With 20 years of experience in the classroom and 6 years of online teaching experience, she continues to enjoy working with students, helping them think critically about scientific information.