Q: There are some who say these things are important, but they are inherent traits that can’t be taught. How do you respond to this?
A: I think that is not only inaccurate, but it’s also a potentially damaging perspective. There is overwhelming evidence that how persistent an individual is will depend to a great extent on the circumstances. We found research to suggest that important factors in the environment can have a huge influence on whether or not a student will persist in the face of challenges and setbacks—whether the goals are important to them, how much support they have from others around them, and whether they have the appropriate tools and skills to deal with challenges. For example, it happens all the time that the same student will persistent in one class but not another because of the way teachers make a topic interesting or connected to real life.
There are also many skills and psychological resources that contribute to grit, tenacity, and perseverance that can be learned and cultivated. For example, how students learn to deal with failures and what skills they have for monitoring progress and changing course when necessary, these can strongly influence how they’ll fair when the going gets tough. One of the most important research areas is around the “growth mindset,” the belief that intelligence grows with effort. There is wonderful research by Carol Dweck at Stanford University, and others, to show that not only does having a growth mindset make students more likely to persist when work gets difficult, but it’s also a mindset that can be learned.
It’s potentially damaging to look at grit, tenacity, and perseverance as inherent traits that can’t be taught. If teachers or parents believe that children are not persisting because they are just inherently lacking grit, there’s little motivation to try to understand what’s going on with the student and what changes, big or small, to the learning environment or particularly new skills might promote a different way for the student to interact with the environment. Even worse, if the child herself starts believing she just doesn’t have grit in general, it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Who wants to try to persevere in the face of challenge when they think they just aren’t capable of doing so? That’s not a good position to put a human being in.
Q: Do you think informal learning settings like afterschool and summer programs are well-suited to promote these traits? If so, why?
A: Absolutely. In Chapter 2, we lay out a model for the kinds of factors in a learning environment that can promote grit, tenacity, and perseverance. Two factors that our research suggested were important were that students have opportunities to take on worthwhile long-term goals and that they have a rigorous and supportive place to pursue them. Many informal learning settings do exactly this—whether the goal is to do something like a complex programming project, make a film, get into college, or a wide variety of others. These settings can also provide the means to help students actually accomplish these goals—through materials supports such as technologies or workspaces, human supports such as peer-based communities or adult mentors, and time to work through difficult tasks. When students have the opportunities to take on and accomplish big goals, not only do they get the satisfaction of the achievement, they also take with them the knowledge that they can do it.
A major theme that came up in our research was that informal setting can support these factors in ways that might be limited in formal settings that have more constraints (e.g., accountability and limited resources to give students individualized attention).
Q: Can you give us an example of practices that encourage the development of grit, tenacity, and/or perseverance that is relevant to afterschool workers?
A: We made some specific recommendations for practitioners based on the research. And just to be clear, we consider these promising but not proven; evidence of impact at scale is still limited. These recommendations are:
a. Educators should provide students with opportunities to take on worthwhile long-term or higher-order goals that are optimally challenging (i.e., not too easy, not too difficult) and/or aligned with the students’ own interests or values.
b. Educators should provide students with a rigorous and supportive context for pursuing these goals. They should have high expectations for students and provide encouragement and resources. They should promote collaboration and social support among students.
c. To the extent possible, educators should provide the tangible resources—materials, human support, and time—necessary to overcome challenges and accomplish their goals.
Educators can also support students in developing the psychological resources that can promote grit, tenacity, and perseverance. We found three broad categories:
a. Academic mindsets. These are how students frame themselves as learners, their learning environment, and their relationships to the learning environment. They include beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, values, and ways of perceiving oneself. There are important examples of short-term interventions that are being developed to “teach” and cultivate the most productive mindsets. Educators should first make sure that they themselves have productive mindsets, and they can learn to apply good strategies to foster them in their students.
b. Effortful control. Students are constantly faced with tasks that are important for long-term goals but that in the short term do not feel desirable or intrinsically motivating. Successful students marshal willpower and regulate their attention during such tasks and in the face of distractions. Although this can seem austere or no fun, research shows that students stronger in these skills are happier and better able to handle stress. Educators can look to examples of research and practice for how to foster these. Mindfulness practices are one example (see the question below).
c. Strategies and tactics. Students are also more likely to persevere when they can draw on specific strategies and tactics to deal with challenges and setbacks. They need actionable skills for taking responsibility and initiative and for being productive under conditions of uncertainty—for example, defining tasks, planning, monitoring, changing course of action, and dealing with specific obstacles. Educators can intentionally teach these skills as part of the work they do with students.
By the way, we also recommend that practitioners be mindful of potential risks or costs for students of pushing them in ways inappropriate for their needs. For example, persevering in the face of challenges or setbacks to accomplish goals that are extrinsically motivated, unimportant to the student, or in some way inappropriate for the student can potentially have detrimental impacts on students’ long-term retention in school, conceptual learning, and psychological well-being.
Q: Your study mentions mindfulness practice as useful. Can you say more?
A: Interesting that you should ask, because it only got one sentence in the brief but it’s actually an area of particular interest to me. In fact, I worked on a project a few years ago in which we taught mindfulness to students in an afterschool academic program.
Here’s my take. Mindfulness is a practice of learning to pay attention in the present moment nonjudgmentally. Why would you want to do that? Well, there is a huge body of research showing that people who cultivate mindfulness through practices such as meditation and yoga are better able to pay attention in the face of distraction (i.e., effortful control), are happier, are less prone to depression and anxiety, have a stronger immune system, get along with people better, and cope with serious life stresses more easily. Mindfulness helps people take difficulties in stride, to step back and problem-solve without getting as stressed out, to pause and think before engaging in conflict, and to approach challenges with curiosity instead of defeat. You can imagine the potential of these types of benefits for promoting grit, tenacity, and perseverance in the face of all kinds of challenges and setbacks!
What’s also important is that these skills are completely learnable by almost everyone, as far as I can see in the research. There are research-based programs coming out of many prestigious universities, like Stanford and Harvard, that teach these life-changing skills in a very short period of time. There are also several organizations around the country going into schools and teaching them to children at all ages and settings. Many are taking very seriously the potential of mindfulness to help develop resiliency for underserved students.
Nikki Shechtman, Ph.D. is Senior Educational Researcher at SRI International, Center for Technology in Learning. Nikki explores research-based, theory-driven approaches to understanding and improving engagement, teaching, and learning in mathematics—particularly for the most disadvantaged students. Her work has focused on productive dispositions for teaching and learning, mathematical argumentation, use of dynamic representational technology, and introducing productive playfulness into serious classrooms. Among several other projects, Nikki led a team to lead a Department of Education study entitled “Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance—Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century”. Her work has been published in journals in educational research, learning sciences, mathematics education, educational technology design, psychology, human-computer interaction, and play studies.