This Is Not a Critique Of Grit and Growth Mindset

This blog post is not a critique of Grit, Growth Mindset, and how it is being misapplied in education.  If you’re looking for a critique of Grit, Growth Mindset, and how it is being misapplied in education, check out the links below.

Ethan Ris on the classist undertones of Grit+Growth Mindset 

“And what better arena for developing grit than facing the hardships of poverty and surviving? Poor children, therefore, are not the ones who need to be taught grit.”

Andre Perry on the racist undertones of Grit+Growth Mindset

“The real reason youth in Flint or Detroit develop differently than someone growing up in affluent Grosse Pointe is because of discriminatory public policy.”

Rachel Levy on why systemic discrimination is a bigger factor than Grit+Growth Mindset

“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.”

Cedar Riener on Grit+Growth Mindset, the history of the eugenics movement, and how far we should be taking Grit+Growth Mindset in schools

“…we should be careful and skeptical about applying these findings to school policy settings. Because if we take “hard work works” too far, it becomes a just-world fallacy, and blames those who haven’t succeeded for not working hard enough.”

Tyrone C. Howard with an excellent slide-deck on the Grit+Growth Mindset conversation avoiding some key questions such as a recommendation to avoid emphasis on student congruence with these statements: “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones”, “Setbacks don’t discourage me”, “I finish whatever I begin”, “I have achieved a goal that took years of work”.

And to instead think about student congruence with these statements: “I always have bus fare to get to school”, “I hear my parents talking about not having enough money for the rent”, “Whenever I get sick, I am able to go to a doctor”, “We always have enough food in our home”, “I know where I am going to sleep tonight”.

Alfie Kohn on the larger political ramifications of the Grit+Growth Mindset movement

“Social psychologists sometimes use the term “fundamental attribution error” to describe a tendency to pay so much attention to character, personality, and individual responsibility that we overlook how profoundly the social environment affects what we do and who we are.  This error has political implications:  The more we focus on people’s persistence (or self-discipline more generally), the less likely we’ll be to question larger policies and institutions. Consider Paul Tough’s declaration that “there is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable than the character strengths…[such as] conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance, and optimism.”  Whose interests are served by the astonishing position that  “no antipoverty tool” — presumably including Medicaid and public housing — is more valuable than an effort to train poor kids to persist at whatever they’ve been told to do?”

And finally…

Carol Dweck herself on the problematic ways in which Grit+Growth Mindset is being used, including “praising effort alone…telling students “you can do anything”…blaming the students mindset” and educators themselves embodying a false growth mindset.

But let me digress from this list, because this post is not a critique of Grit, Growth Mindset, and how it is being misapplied in education.

Critique aside, is there any teacher who doesn’t want their students to work hard? The problem with Grit and Growth Mindset is not surface level, as it would be difficult to uniformly argue against the principles of working hard, starting what you finish, setting high expectations for yourself and attempting to creatively overcome challenges that come your way, be them academic, social or personal.

The problem with Grit and Growth Mindset becomes apparent when encouragement to work hard and persevere comes at the expense of considering other vitally important factors affecting student achievement.  A rallying call for students to indiscriminately develop and employ a general stick-to-itiveness void of any additional context is (at-best) a misguided approach.

So what should exist prior to an emphasis on Grit and Growth Mindset?

  1. Educators need to be invested in creating and fostering positive, meaningful, genuine and caring relationships with their students.
  2. Educators need to be aware of systemic discrimination, how it is manifested in schools and society, and be actively working to confront privilege, inequality and oppression in the classroom and beyond.
  3. Educators need to be frequently discussing point #2 with each other and reflecting on their own personal practice, classroom culture, school culture and district culture.
  4. Educators need to prioritize student emotional and mental well-being above most anything else (This does not mean that students run wild or aren’t held to high expectations or get to choose everything that they do, but rather than schools act as “havens” as Stuart Shanker describes here.
  5. Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development must frequently inform a program that is responsive to student progress.  Growth Mindset without considering Vygotsky is severely problematic.
  6. Differentiated Instruction must be visible and pervasive.
  7. Technology must be used to reduce barriers to achievement, emphasizing the assistive features of whatever devices are available. Teachers need to know these features and promote their use with students.
  8. Educators need to ensure their classroom practices are trauma-informed.
  9. Students read texts that interest them, write texts that mean something to them, and are frequently given opportunities to work on projects that matter in the real world.

Once these conditions are met, then maybe it’s time to consider Grit and Growth Mindset – just not before.



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