Why I'm Nervous About Grit Grades

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Originally posted February 13, 2015 on Scholastic EduBlog

Some schools have started assessing and sending home grades for “grit,” that characteristic associated with resilience and persistence. Teachers can observe grit and measure it on a Grit Scale. Does the child Always exhibit grit, Often, Sometimes, or Rarely?

While I’m a big supporter of incorporating academic and growth mindset messages and materials into the curriculum (I’ve helped HMH do a lot of that in their literacy and math programs), I worry about grading the gritty behavior those beliefs promote. First, giving a student a grit grade risks labeling them in a way that leads to a self-fulfilling outcome. “That student has grit. I can always count on her to stick with a problem. Her friend, though, usually gives up.” That kind of thinking often leads to subtle, unconscious teacher behaviors that reinforce those identities. The gritty student gets called on when challenges arise, with the teacher exuding confidence in her ability to succeed. On the other hand, every time the non-gritty student falters, the negative identity is reinforced. Of course he surrendered, he’s Rarely gritty. 

Sometimes, though, the grit grade does prompt students to try harder, which can be good, but only if the student knows what trying harder means. That’s my second problem with grit grades: they put all the responsibility on the student. Being gritty means more than just furrowing your brow and trying more. Many students do try hard but still fail because they just don’t know what to do. We all need strategies for what to try next when we’re stuck. Trying the same thing that just failed is likely to lead to the same dismal result. Students need help-seeking strategies and content knowledge. If they’re far behind their classmates, the students may have even come to believe that success isn’t possible. In that case, what’s the point of trying at all, let alone trying again. Developing grit is a shared responsibility. The teacher needs to build student confidence, create a classroom culture that fosters and rewards effortful learning, and teach students strategies for getting unstuck. Grit grades shouldn’t just be for students; they also say something about the classroom.

And that leads to my third issue with grit grades: grittiness is often situational. When I was visiting a MATH 180 classroom recently, a high school student proudly raised his arms and proclaimed, “I can multiply like no other!” He had just mastered multi-digit whole number computation, and he felt great. Sadly, he then lowered his arms and his head, muttering, “But I can’t do fractions.” He knew what was coming next and felt defeated even before he had started. Same student, same classroom, same subject…different topic. In a moment he went from someone who was excitedly diving into computations, working and reworking problems to get to the finish line to someone with slumped shoulders and a sense of surrender. Fortunately, one of his classmates chided him, “That isn’t much of a growth mindset.” He nodded and acknowledged, “You’re right.” None of us is all grit or no grit. Context matters. We can be gritty in one setting and on the edge of surrender in another. Again, creating a culture that fosters the beliefs that drive perseverance along with teaching the strategies for overcoming academic blocks can make all the difference.

So if we’re going to give grit grades, let’s make sure we also grade the environment that’s meant to foster that gritty behavior.

©Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Reprinted with permission.

Last updated on 05/31/2016