Encouraging Grit: Warm, Demanding, Authoritative — But Not Authoritarian

How can educators encourage grit?

Encouraging grit begins with being warm, getting to know students, and displaying your willingness to help them so that students feel the classroom is a safe environment in which to expend effort and take risks.

Picture a teacher in the classroom trying to promote student learning in order to enable students to produce evidence of their learning. That teacher can begin by being warm, getting to know students, being thoughtful, and being helpful.

How can educators encourage grit?

Teachers must also be demanding, holding students accountable to expectations and identifying how they can improve.

But of course, simply being kind is not enough to get students to expend effort in the face of failure or setback. Teachers must also be demanding. They can point out to students where more work is needed and what the expectations specify in terms of student performance. Just because you are warm does not mean that you as a teacher shouldn't be clear about what you expect from students. Naturally this can be done kindly by asking students questions that cause them to think more deeply, and helping them self-regulate while striving toward their goal.

Let's be clear that being demanding entails expecting that all students can meet the same expectations, regardless of "talent." Talent is, after all, a dime-a-dozen quality, and doesn't matter as much as grit does. Therefore, as teachers, we should make sure that all students, regardless of innate skill or other advantages, can reach the goals set out by the curriculum. Because the challenges set by the curriculum will only be slightly beyond the students' current level of skill, all should be able to meet them. 

How can educators encourage grit?

The third step in encouraging grit is to be respectfully authoritative without being authoritarian, trusting students to have opinions and making space for effort and freedom.

Angela Duckworth describes this approach as "parenting for grit," which is equally applicable to a classroom teacher, who is in a sense a parent to every child in the class. And just like a parent, the teacher must be respectfully authoritative but not authoritarian. The key difference between somebody who is authoritative versus authoritarian is whether or not they respect the student's contributions and intellect, rather than placing their own thoughts and expectations above theirs.

To put it another way, authoritarian individuals are black and white. Authoritative individuals will ask hard questions and be willing to debate, and aren't likely to let things slide, but they nevertheless trust their students. You allow them to have their own opinions and take risks, which is a very difficult thing to do for teachers in a traditional model. This makes sense, because if you take away trust, freedom, and respect, then it's much easier to control students. You simply tell them what to do; if they do it, great, and if they don't, they're punished. But this is a shortsighted approach.

If you trust students, students respond to that trust. If you allow them to have an opinion, they respond to that by stepping into the space and forming an opinion. If you allow them to take risks, they will step into that space and take risks. All of these things take effort, but they will take on that effort if given the chance, and learn how to do so appropriately. This takes effort on the student's part, and therefore builds grit. You can accomplish this by being authoritative, respectful, warm, and demanding—but not authoritarian.

How can educators encourage grit?

Lastly, we must help students question themselves.

The last aspect of encouraging grit is to help students question themselves. They must understand that it's okay to question yourself and it's okay to struggle with challenges. That's part of taking risks: Sometimes we make mistakes and sometimes we think things that turn out not to be true. Sometimes we discover things that we didn't expect, and it's all okay.

But these realizations can only happen in a space that allows for effort, freedom, and student-centered learning. In fact, one of the reasons people struggle with performance-based assessment in any subject area is that they have trained students simply to listen for and remember an answer, then give that answer back in a fill-in-the-blank fashion. This model doesn't give students the freedom to think independently, to regulate themselves, to form their own opinions, or to question themselves and others.

These are the skills required of students under Next Generation Science Standards. Students must have the ability to ask questions, define problems, develop models, and plan investigations. These are demanding skills, and in order to produce students who possess them, we have to have high expectations. A student is not going to learn to argue from evidence, for instance, unless we give helpful feedback, hold them to high expectations, demand their willingness to improve, and so on.

But encouraging involves more than the right attitude on the teacher's part. It also involves purposeful instruction that will create space that challenges students and encourages grit and rigor. We'll discuss purposeful direction in our next article.

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