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A Problem With the 'Problem With Grit' Blog Post

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This post is by Rafael Heller, principal policy analyst for Jobs for the Future.

 

In the very first entry to this blog, posted fifteen months ago, Jal Mehta (trading paragraphs with Bob Rothman) notes that while it's easy to spot learning that isn't deep (and, sadly, shallowness is the norm in most schools), it remains difficult to say precisely what deeper learning is.

One of the goals of this blog, he adds, is for its many contributors to help flesh out the concept of deeper learning and tackle some of its big, unresolved definitional questions. For example, is deeper learning something new under the sun or just a re-branding of old educational dogmas? Can it occur in traditional age-graded schools, or does it require a complete overhaul of schooling as we know it? Is deeper learning a single, overarching concept, spanning the whole curriculum, or does it take one form in algebra and another in history?  That is, could the various academic subject areas each have their own ways of defining what it means to learn deeply?

To my knowledge, Mehta hasn't yet had any takers on this last question.  But after reading his most recent post--The Problem with Grit--I find myself wondering whether my own field, the teaching and study of writing, might offer a distinct perspective on the issue. (Full disclosure: I'm the editor of a paper that Mehta and Sarah Fine will soon publish in the Deeper Learning Research Series, part of JFF's Students at the Center initiative.)

The gist of Mehta's argument is that while Angela Duckworth's research on grit has generated a ton of buzz in the education world, teachers should look elsewhere for useful ways of thinking about student motivation. Grit may be a valuable character trait, but not even Duckworth can say whether it's teachable.

Far more helpful, says Mehta, is the body of research that comprises self-determination theory, developed by the psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, which suggests that what young people need most are opportunities to define and express their own identities, build competence in various domains, and enter into satisfying, collaborative relationships. Unlike grittiness, these things clearly lend themselves to instruction.

That makes a lot of sense to an old writing teacher like me. After all, what is a good writing assignment but an opportunity for students to craft, express, and elaborate upon an identity? What is the writing process if not an opportunity to deepen one's knowledge of a topic and one's competence as a writer? Who has done more than teachers of writing to theorize the social nature of literacy and teach the arts of peer criticism? (And, since we're on the subject of grit, what could require more of it than the struggle to sit still and crank out an essay when there's a new cat video on Facebook?)

Granted, none of this proves that writing instruction offers special insights into what might motivate students to learn deeply. No doubt, my neighbor who teaches math and my cousin the history teacher will argue that their subject areas provide equally powerful opportunities for students to craft identities, build competence, and join communities of practice.

But even so, when it comes to the topic of motivation, the teaching of writing does appear to be a special case. Like our colleagues in other subject areas, writing instructors are in the business of motivating students to learn deeply; but unlike those colleagues, we're also in the business of teaching students to represent motivations on the page, crafting a persona and endowing it with motives of its own: the desire to prove a point, win an argument, describe a scene, tell a story, and so on.  

Which is to say, as teachers of rhetoric have been saying for two and a half thousand years, that writing is always, in one sense, an act of contrivance. No matter how authentic or inauthentic the voice may seem--whether the text is a heartfelt personal essay or an adventure story about time-traveling space vampires--the "I" on the page has been manufactured, refined, and polished for strategic effect.  

That's not to make a value judgment or to suggest (as Plato did) that writing is an inherently dishonest or deceitful medium. Rather, it is to explain that within the field of writing instruction, there's a very long tradition of openness to all motives--the desire to express oneself or to impress one's readers; to show or to show off; to make a point or to win a prize; to tell the truth or to fake it. It's all good.  

Surely, there are times when it makes good sense for teachers to encourage students to "find their voice," write from the heart, and use their writing as a means of empowerment, self-definition, discovery, and connection. Often, students respond powerfully to such assignments, eagerly taking us up on the invitation to pursue these motives. And when we teach writing in this way, we answer Mehta's call to "organize schooling in ways that...promote the kind of purpose and meaning that will sustain students' commitment when the going gets tough."

But--and here's where Mehta's version of self-determination theory strikes me as incomplete--if that's the only source of motivation we have to offer, then the going will get a lot tougher than we bargained for. What's missing is the chance to flip the motivational script on its head from time to time, encouraging students to embrace the pleasures of insincerity, contrivance, gamesmanship, and playful pointlessness.

As I see it, the (fixable) problem with Mehta's argument is that it's just too darn earnest, with no relief in sight for the students who attend his ideal school. But nobody, no matter how gritty, can survive for long on a diet of constant, unrelenting purposefulness and meaning. Sooner or later, our students will come to us and confess that even though they chose their topics and care deeply about them, they just can't get themselves fired up to write.

Okay, we might reply, so fake it. Pretend that your essay on birth control is actually a love letter in disguise. Or write it from the point of view of your grandmother. Or, just for the hell of it, see if you can write the first page without using the letter m.  

As Duckworth has noted, the possibility that students might be faking it is one of the problems with grit, and it's one of the reasons why assessments of grittiness should not be used for purposes of accountability. (For that matter, it's also one of the problems with the typical college application essay, a genre that all but begs young people to make up heartfelt tales of challenge, grit, and triumph.)  

But is that really such a problem? In this privacy-crushing age, don't we all need the chance to fake it, from time to time, escaping from the constant scrutiny of Google-bots, school accountability systems, and survey-wielding psychologists? Don't we all deserve the opportunity to conceal our motives when we feel like it, to keep our purposes to ourselves, and to choose which face we want to show the world?

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