Purposeful Instruction to Encourage Grit and Rigor

How do students grow grit?

Growing grit in students is a four-part process. Educators must make sure each element is in place.

The four elements in the image above are the cornerstones of growing grit in our students. It begins with developing interest, which is all about engaging curiosity, fascination and enjoyment. But there is a difference between curiosity, fascination and enjoyment and entertainment. If we can conceive of a plan and carry that plan out, and what we are investigating is a question that has relevance to our lives, that makes it interesting. Because we've planned it, we have some curiosity and fascination with whether our plan will actually work or not. We can enjoy seeing the results. That's genuine interest. Enjoyment or "fun," however, is not… and can even lead to boredom, where growth stops.

Engaging in the practice of science and engineering is the rigorous challenge we have been referring to throughout recent blog articles. Practice is about being engaged in an environment and in tasks that require skill students don't have yet.

Then we have purpose. This is a matter of whether or not the subject material is personally relevant to students. It becomes much easier to engage in material when students can relate it to their own lives and to the well-being of others.

And lastly, hope. The feedback and demeanor we have as educators can foster or kill hope. Students will rise to the occasion based on the kind of environment we create, so it must be one in which they have hope of succeeding. If we don't create space for students to take risks, are students ever going to take a risk? No. Are they every going to rise to the occasion of risk taking? No. Are they ever going to have the hope that they can succeed in an area that somebody hasn't told them how it should be done? No. They are not going to have faith in their own efforts, and so they're not going to rise to the occasion or invest themselves in unfamiliar tasks.

Everything feeds on hope. Hope is that place where Carol Dweck's growth mindset kicks in. It's exactly what we call the power of yet, the optimistic mindset in which students believe that they haven't accomplished something yet rather than believing they'll never accomplish it. It helps students persevere through adversity. This is important, because risks mean the possibility of mistakes, of failure, of non-successes. The thing is, in science and engineering, you have a greater probability of being unsuccessful than successful when you take a risk. If you don't have hope—if you aren't able to rise to the occasion—then it's game over.

So interest, practice, purpose, and hope are tools that we use in a next generation inquiry environment as the coach to usher or guide students through what is a difficult process. Or at least it should be difficult, if we are challenging students appropriately; if it's a rigorous environment, it's going to be difficult. And that means designing lessons with a purpose.

Design lessons with a purpose

To design lessons with a purpose, we must move each lesson through a progression from nonfiction reading and Socratic dialogue to create background knowledge, planning investigations in student teams, carrying out science and engineering, and forming conclusions.

Designing lessons with a purpose starts with leaving enough room for the lesson to unfold naturally, providing a student experience through which learning can flow. The image above describes a week-long process, with plenty of time for students to engage in science and engineering without feeling rushed. It starts with nonfiction reading that helps students connect concept to concept, concept to self, and concept to world. It gives a purpose to concepts and vocabulary so that the class can have group Socratic dialogue. That group Socratic dialogue is where teachers ask higher order questions of students and make sure those connections are actually happening.

Classroom management

Student teams break off and form their own investigations, then follow through on their plans. Along the way they check in with their teacher in teams.

From there, the lesson moves into a question or problem through which students can actually engage as scientists and engineers. Students break into teams and plan investigations using the skills and content knowledge that they have learned so far. After that, it's time to carry out the lesson in a hands-on fashion, gather data, form evidence-based conclusions, share those conclusions with the class, compare and contrast results with peers, and debrief other ways to approach the same questions or problems.

Each lesson is scaffolded so that it has relevance to the next lesson and to the unit as a whole. That continues from one unit to the next and from one year to the next. That's how we translate the idea of grit and the pedagogical environment that we create in the next generation inquiry environment to organizational threads and the actual tasks that we carry out in the classroom.

Angela Duckworth says, "Ask yourself to what extent your goals serve a common purpose." Here, we see purpose in every step. The reading serves a purpose for the Socratic dialogue, which serves a purpose for the problem or question the student will try to solve or answer. The plan serves a purpose for the hands-on investigation and inquiry that will follow. That investigation yields an evidence-based or claim-evidence-reasoning conclusion, which can then be shared back with the rest of the class.

This is all purposeful. In explaining how the process must be purposeful to encourage grit, Duckworth refers to Warren Buffett's three-step process for identifying goals. He suggests writing down all your top-level goals, then whittling them down to just five and viewing the ones you have eliminated as threats to the goals that are most important. To translate this to STEM education, any aspect of a lesson or unit that doesn't serve a purpose toward the standards or skills mastery is a threat to student learning. If they are vying for time, effort, resources, or student attention and they aren't useful, they should be tossed. If they don't intentionally nurture, you don't need them.

“Growing up, I wanted to be an inventor, solving problems that would help people have better lives. Every day at KnowAtom is an opportunity to invent solutions that give thousands of students and teachers a better experience doing science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM). Providing educators with professional satisfaction and students with the opportunity to understand the world we live in is my way of helping people have better lives.”