Grit and CRISS: I had to talk about it eventually

I’ve mentioned before that I love pop-psych/business/education books. But one book I’ve never read is Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. I don’t really have a good reason for not reading it. I suppose my first thought was “Well, that sounds obvious.” But plenty of the books I like are similar. My husband and I both read Mindset and I loved it… he didn’t. He found it repetitive where I found the variety of examples useful to realize where I demonstrated fixed vs. growth mindsets and incredibly useful for talking to others about it. I might have also been projecting: I’ve always felt a little bit like a dilettante in just about everything. Perhaps reading about grit would make me question too many of the decisions I’ve made in my life. And finally, what can you do about it? Sometimes I get frustrated reading things that have a clear connection to education but that require some foundational shifting in order for those changes to take place. As Associate Director at CRISS, a teacher-mentor, a school board trustee… I see from many different directions how road blocks are thrown up all the time. If I won’t be able to make a change, then why don’t I just read the Cliff Notes?

Not fair, of course. But metacogntive me is still struggling to find the motivation to sit down and read the book and it’s been out for a year. So instead, I decided to listen to a podcast about it. Phenomenal. I still don’t want to read it but now it’s more because my to-read pile is ENORMOUS and I may as well stick with those and come back to it later.

There are plenty of great things in it but what got me was this exchange:

DUCKWORTH: …So one thing that I found about paragons of grit, you know, real outliers in passion and perseverance, is that they have extremely well-developed interests. They cultivate something which grabs their attention initially, but that they become familiar with enough, knowledgeable enough that they wake up the next day and the next day and the next year, and they’re still interested in this thing. And I think that is something that we can actually intentionally decide: “I want to be the kind of person who stays interested in something.” And so that passion really does have to come first.

DUBNER: What about, however, if I, or my kid, or someone that I really care about — if I’m a teacher, my students — what if they can’t find a passion?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, I don’t know if there are many commencement speeches given these days that don’t actually exhort people to follow their passion. And I think that just strikes the fear of God into people because they then think, “Oh, my God I don’t have one. Now I’m really screwed.” And I think the idea of “following a passion” is just the wrong way to phrase it. “Following a passion” sounds like it’s there in the world fully formed, you just have to dig it up under the right bush. Really, you have to foster a passion. You have to actively put some work in and try things, and try them for a little while, and get into them, and then you have to switch, right? Part of grit is actually doing enough exploration early on, quitting enough things early on, that you can find something that you’re willing to stick with. So I don’t know that there’s an easy prescription then for telling people how exactly to do that. But I think one misunderstanding, which is very dangerous, is to suggest to people that passion just falls into your lap, and it’s love at first sight. It’s not like that. It’s not like that for the people that I’ve been studying.

DUBNER: And what happens if I’m interested in something to the degree of passionate, but then my passion shifts over time? Do I feel like I’m therefore a loser? That I’m an anti-grittist? You know, “I used to think I was passionate, but now I think I’m a dilettante.” So how do you handle that?

DUCKWORTH: One of the psychologists that I interviewed said shame is usually not helpful as an emotion, and I would second that. So no, I don’t believe people should berate themselves for deciding that they don’t want to go to medical school after all. But I will say this: it is human nature to get bored of things and to seek the novel. And I think that one of the skills that one must develop in life, if one cares not to be a dilettante, if it’s a goal of yours to become expert in something, one of the skills is to learn to substitute nuance for novelty.

In my post-college career, I bounced between corporate consulting and teaching a couple of times. Each bounce was deeply personal – think “I had to care for a parent with cancer” level of personal. When I was last in the classroom full-time I had the opportunity to come to CRISS and kind of merge my two worlds into what I do now and I LOVE it. I do a great mix of education and I have opportunities to do the nerdy computer stuff I liked as a consultant. But, again, after each move and even to this day, I often feel like a dilettante.

The exchange above has helped me realize I’m probably not. I’ve had enough experiences that allowed me to develop skills... Explore interests... Change and see the nuance for the novel. Each job has slowly led me here where a dull week involves visiting one or two classrooms, at least one meeting/workshop/discussion with local school administrators, interactions with teachers all over the world, deep strategic thinking with the amazing Director of CRISS, and some quiet time to write, read, or get my database-nerd fix. I may not walk into a room with the most degrees but my experiences have been authentic and purposeful and my wide array of experiences help me connect to others and provide validation, assistance, and maybe even some inspiration or the occasional reliable answer. I’m interested in education each day, even if each day I deal with it in a slightly different manner each day.

So yay: I’m feeling so much better about myself. I see myself as gritty in some important areas. Now how did I get here and how can others get here? How, espeically, can we help our students who are constantly being told to find their passion and somehow make it clear on their college applications?

I think movements like this are a great start (link good as of May 2017). Going to portfolios or transcripts or compentency-based standards where the competencies don’t focus on one particular topic and instead look at thinking skills like "problem solving" might allow for students to explore and keep exploring so they can start identifying some of their passion points. Actually changing transcripts and getting colleges to understand them is huge because so often students, parents, etc. don’t understand how a high school can change their focus on these skills and still provide transcripts that competitive colleges will actually look at.

Another great move is taking great leaps towards emphasizing project-based learning or deep learning or whatever you want to call it. But the key – especially at the HS level – is to really allow for student-led differentiation including giving plenty of TIME. You need to let students start on their own and make adjustments on their own. I recall trying to do a full inquiry unit at my last school (science classroom). I wanted students to come up with the question they wanted to answer and the procedure as well as analyze the data (using authentic tools like Excel) and present. To simply come up with the question, though, THAT took the longest.

I made sure we shared a common reading and had a discussion that touched on the topic and then let them brainstorm questions. People with similar questions were put into groups. From there they discussed further and spent a day or to “messing around” with the equipment (Vernier force plates) just seeing if their questions were actually testable. By the end of the second day, they needed to have their question and the vaguest outline of a procedure. They had several more days to get the procedure down and then several more to collect and then analyze data. I was so stressed that this entire thing would take a month or more but by allowing them to explore some interests early on, they bought into the project so much more fully and then the actual doing took so much less time. Heck, I had students working on their lunch or after school so they could get more test subjects from their baseball team or gym class. A group of boys who were often right on the margins of passing got SUPER into the project and rocked it. Time was key.

Was it perfect? No. But on the micro level I really saw grit in my students.

So let’s say you can't instantly change transcripts or school culture overnight. What might be the simplest thing you can do to help develop grit in your kiddos? Reflection and developing those metacogntive minds. What can your students say they were interested in? What strategies did they like even if they weren’t effective? What didn’t they like? When did they lose interest? What parts of the Framework for Learning did they gravitate towards? If they don’t particularly like the subject area or the current topic, can they think of how they could apply this elsewhere? Can they suggest things from classes they have enjoyed for use here? Student reflections may not instantly make them gritty but it may be simplest way to help them make a start. And if you’re like me and think the push for HS students to have a clearly defined passion by the time they get to college might be a bit much, the chance to reflect could help the students identify the non-content areas of passion: Maybe they like discussing.. or writing… or delineating a problem or purpose. Maybe they like the process of learning and seeing their growth. (If you need help creating appropriate prompts or a rubric to evalute reflective responses in order to monitor growth in mindsets, grit, etc., contact us at We can help you develop a student-reflection-based plan that lasts a year or a K-12 career).

Shallow dips into different subjects (or my case, careers) aren’t necessarily bad so long as you use those as tools for moving forward. I love what Duckworth said about looking for nuances over novelty. There are countless opportunities for that to happen when students get to reflect.

Oh look at that, Project CRISS and it's core focus on metacogntion connecting to yet another BIG THING in education? I'm not surprised...

Note: I saw this article pop up today: If you are interested in PBL, competency standards, etc. then maybe check it and the related book out.

Note 2: This note is less focused on teachers but more for other trustees or parents like me. If your district is moving in the right direction - emphasizing deeper learning and projects - keep a close eye on what they are measuring or using as indicators of success. If it's still ACT scores or % of students at reading level then you will have educators who feel immense pressure to not make the adjustments in instructional behaviors. So be an advocate for reasonable indicators, even if they are just one part of what the school might measure. If you've included "growth mindset" or "grit" in your district's vision or mission, how are you really measuring it? Chances are it will be subjective an it will surely need to be based on evidence in student reflections. Then, give teachers the time to make sure they are seeing students hit those reasonable indicators and (hopefully) that will eventually mean the test scores will go up. Do not expect to see a change to PBL and an instant increase in whatever test-based metric. A school going to PBL is basically a project-based professional development experiment for the teachers. Give them reasonable goals, a reasonable timeline, and the chance to productively respond to failures or weaknesses instead of feeling the need to hide their areas for growth. If you need help creating appropriate prompts or a rubric to evalute reflective responses in order to monitor growth in mindsets, grit, etc., contact us at We can help you develop a student-reflection-based plan that lasts a year or a K-12 career and/or be objective, outside evaluators and coaches.

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