Compliance is not perseverance (the grit narrative)

Working hard on something you don’t care about or have a say in is not perseverance or “grit,” it’s compliance.

Thanks to Krissy Venosdale for the cool art! Check out her website for more maker goodies.

I said this last year at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2015. The idea that kids learn to persevere through frustration when they work on things they care about is a central tenet of the classroom maker movement. We talk about “mouth up vs. mouth down” frustration in our book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. The former is what Seymour Papert called “hard fun,” while the later is… well… just frustrating. There is no educational purpose to letting a student try to deal with insurmountable problems.

Maria Montessori said, “”Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” She didn’t say that failure is the goal. It’s a big difference that I’ve discussed in other posts.

The conversation has been complicated by the word “grit” becoming the word of the day with the “if we just do x, all will be right with education” crowd. Ira Socol has written brilliantly about how this fascination with grit is grounded in shaky research and barely hidden racism. (Grit and History and Summarizing Grit: The Abundance Narratives)

So it may be just semantics, but words matter, especially if they have been co-opted and become code words for blaming children for not pulling themselves up by their own… opps, they don’t have boots.

Words that work just as well: perseverance, resilience, stubbornness, focus, attention to detail, mindfulness, or craftsmanship. I’m sure there are more.

You can’t teach any of these in isolation. I cringe at the thought of cheerleading kids with “you can do anything” rallies and then marching them back to their worksheets and tests.

The key difference is agency. When the work is yours, it matters more. When you care about what you are making, your perspective changes. Who has ownership? Whose voice is the loudest? By the way, it’s not necessarily true that these attributes are always pleasant or easy to deal with. Stubbornness or a willingness to stand your ground in the face of authority are also indications of resilience. Agency isn’t always polite.

When you see young people as agents of change, rather than objects to be changed, it shifts perspective in a subtle way. Unfortunately, subtle messages tend to get lost in translation.

I’m continually amazed by how hard most students work on things they don’t really have a stake or a say in. Imagine if that work was being done on projects that they cared about and believed in. Every kid wants to be a super-hero, and we have the capacity to empower students to change the world, using their brains, passion, and real world challenges. The promise of the maker movement is not just about the cool tools, but that these tools can supercharge that empowerment.

The “grit” narrative will pass when some other book becomes a best-seller. But the narrative that young people should be active agents in their own learning (in partnership with caring adults) will hopefully outlast them all.

Update (1/29/16): Martin Levins from the The Armidale School in Australia posted a terrific comment on Facebook reminding us that sometimes stopping a project is the best path. Not all projects have a perfect storybook ending, and that’s real life too. Perseverance shouldn’t mean grinding out a project that should have been rethought and reworked.

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