Thursday, January 29, 2015

When I grit on grit

A recent post up at Education Week chronicles a presentation that Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent Pam Moran (I'm a big fan) and Albemarle Assistant Director for Educational Technology and Innovation Ira Socol gave at the recent EduCon 2.7 conference in Philadelphia. It's is getting a lot of attention and some pushback.
"Grit" has in recent years captivated the imagination of educators and policymakers, leading many to embrace the idea that schools should seek to cultivate in their students a set of personality traits demonstrated by researchers to be closely tied to academic and personal success. 
Increasingly, though, critics are offering a different take, arguing that grit is a racist construct and has harmed low-income students by crowding out a focus on providing children with the supports they deserve and the more-flexible educational approach enjoyed by many of their more affluent counterparts. 

I don't believe that the concept "grit" is inherently racist or that Duckworth's work is racist per se. I won't get into too much of a discussion of this as cognitive psychologist Cedar Riener has a much better informed opinion than I do on this:

Research psychologists such as Duckworth would do well to understand the context (and yes, the narratives) that can drive public acceptance and promotion of their science. But equally, policymakers and interpreters of psychological science should seek to situate the scientific evidence within both its scientific context as well as its social and institutional context. The existence and power of traits does not deny the power of situational and motivational context.
But I do think the way the concept is often applied is racist, meaning that the assumptions that educators seem to make when deciding they must teach "grit" to certain kids (usually children of color who live in poverty) are racist. They imply that there is something lacking in the character of those students and that it is that lack which has determined those students' lack of power in our society. I would argue instead that social, economic, and institutional forces have largely determined these students' lack of power and that we should all work on fixing those.

I also have to admit that some of my disconnect with the concept of "grit" comes from the way the word was used when I was growing up in DC. The word "grit" meant to give someone a dirty look, as in, "Why are you gritting on me?" meaning, "Why are you giving me a dirty look?" So I always think of that.

In any case, these were the bits from the post that resonated with me and that are worth thinking about: 
Moran also argued that children from difficult circumstances often demonstrate considerable grit in their day-to-day lives, but those students' strengths are often not recognized by educators. 
And many at EduCon also contended that inside schools, grit is frequently, and wrongfully, conflated with compliance (e.g., completing homework assignments, paying attention in class, or taking standardized tests seriously.)  
"If you just push the idea of grit, you avoid a conversation about, 'To what end?'" said Larissa Pahomov, an English teacher at Science Leadership Academy, the magnet high school in Philadelphia that hosts the annual conference.In order to avoid the "terribly racist" consequences of "the grit narrative," said Socol, the Albemarle County administrator, schools and districts should focus on creating an environment of "abundance," especially for students of color and children from circumstances of poverty. 
"There's [grit], and then there's the ability to get back up with the help of people around you, which is what the wealthy always do," said Socol in an interview prior to the conference. "The trick is in how you build a community around [students] and help them find the tools that will help them solve their problems."

UPDATE 1/29/2015, 2:45: I want to give Benjamin Herold credit for covering the session and for writing such a great post in the first place. Great work!

1 comment:

  1. I worked in a private school where the term 'grit' was used mostly with students who received learning support services. As in, "So-and-so isn't reading on grade level, but she sure has a lot of grit!" during parent conferences. I always thought it was a way to break it gently to parents that their children wouldn't be able to compete in an academic sense, but basically would die trying. Many of the students who received learning support services from this affluent private school were typically minority students on scholarship. Coincidence?