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How Important Is Grit for Success?

The latest buzzword to explain human behavior is "grit" ("Is Grit Overrated?" The Atlantic, May 2016).  It essentially means perseverance in the successful pursuit of a goal.  Those who possess grit are able to process their feelings of frustration, disappointment or boredom and keep going.  I'd like to take a closer look at grit as it applies strictly to education. 

There's no doubt that the concept helps explain why some students achieve in the face of daunting odds ("Don't Grade Schools on Grit," The New York Times, Mar. 26).  But I think it is a gross oversimplification.  The most dogged efforts alone cannot account for the reason a few students remain standing at the end of a grueling succession of setbacks.  Remember that I'm talking exclusively about education.  I'm not referring to other fields of endeavor. 

If success means simply achieving a minimal standard (e.g. a grade of C) in a tough course, then I agree that grit deserves huge credit.  But if success means shining in a rigorous course (e.g. a grade of A), then I disagree.  The reality is that intellectual ability plays a far greater role.  No matter how much grit students possess, they are highly unlikely to succeed at that top level.  In Real Education (Crown Forum, 2008), Charles Murray says the belief that everyone can succeed if they only try hard enough is "educational romanticism." I agree with him.

I had countless students who managed to overcome their intellectual limitations and earn a C in my English classes in the 28 years I taught in the same high school.  I also had some who made the cut to earn a B through enormous effort. Do those students qualify as successes?  Absolutely. But if success means achievement at the higest level only, then grit alone is not enough. Let's be realistic: Most students are average.  That's not to detract from what many of them overcome.  But grit got them only so far.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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