Grit, tenacity, resilience, stick-to-it-iveness –
These words harken to a value long engrained in American culture: perseverance. We admire it in pilgrims and pioneers, rulers and reformers. We admire it in our peers and role models. And through the slogans displayed on cheerful classroom posters, it is a message deeply embedded in schools across the country.
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
“It’s better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all.”
While the modern social and emotional learning (SEL) movement encompasses a diverse range of non-cognitive skills and competencies, many proponents have continued to champion grit, hailing it as a tool to help traditionally underserved students persevere through adversity in order to achieve in school and life. Research conducted by Angela Duckworth has demonstrated grit is a better predictor of achievement than intelligence, and – perhaps more importantly – that grit is a teachable skill.
However, public health research has called into question the ubiquitous benefits of grit. The John Henryism Hypothesis put forth by Sherman James argues that having “a strong behavioral predisposition to cope actively with psychosocial environmental stressors” interacts with disadvantaged circumstances (like low socioeconomic status, discrimination, and structural inequality) to negatively impact health. Research demonstrates that persistence in the face of repeated failures significantly elevates “stress-related” health problems like hypertension.
These findings indicate that – at least from the perspective of cardiac health – there is merit to simply not trying when the odds are stacked against you.
Clearly, this is a stark departure from the value educators place on grit. But what are the implications of this conflicting evidence for education policy, the SEL movement, and the messages we send (and should be sending) to American students?
In considering the path forward, we must remain steadfast in working towards the goals we all share – preparing today’s young people for success in school, work, and life, so that they may contribute to their communities while maximizing their individual potential. The champions of the SEL movement share this vision. And there is extensive evidence that teaching social-emotional competencies (like grit) in schools improves behavioral and academic outcomes for students, as well as student wellness. If SEL helps youth to thrive, then it is absolutely a tool we should employ in education.
“But we must also remember to ask ourselves, is the goal to teach perseverance to the young people navigating the complex systems we’ve created? Or is it to create systems that foster success, making perseverance less necessary?”
But we must also remember to ask ourselves, is the goal to teach perseverance to the young people navigating the complex systems we’ve created? Or is it to create systems that foster success, making perseverance less necessary?
Social and emotional learning is important. But so, too, is ensuring that resources are equitably distributed among students, that the US education system provides equality of opportunity for all learners, and that structured and supported pathways are put into place to help students make the transition from secondary schools to higher education and careers. Successful education reform requires a two-pronged approach: empowering students, while crafting systems that make youth power meaningful.
To empower students means to equip them with the skills, competencies, and mindsets needed not only to achieve academically, but also to set goals, engage meaningfully with others, and pursue life with a sense of purpose. This is where the SEL movement comes into play, as well as personalized and deeper learning. Effective programs require well-trained educators, supportive administrators, and a school culture focused on the limitless potential youth possess. From a policy standpoint, the adoption of SEL standards, funding for teacher professional development, and the incorporation of school climate into measures of accountability are all potential levers (among many) to support empowerment efforts.
To craft systems that make youth power meaningful, on the other hand, is to build a world receptive to the efforts and unique talents of young people, so that their efforts translate into success. Equity is essential in this space. Policies that work to create supported pathways through education and workforce systems, build comprehensive student supports, and foster collaboration among youth-serving systems all bring us closer to achieving this goal.
When young people encounter challenges, we want them to persevere until they reach success. This means equipping them with the requisite social-emotional competencies, like grit, that empower them to persist in adversity, while also ensuring that feasible pathways to success are accessible. One line of work without the other is incomplete and ineffective. Together, they enable students to thrive.