The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

What is “True Grit”?

on June 20, 2016


On June 18th Diane Ravitch summarized an article about “Grit” that had appeared earlier in SLATE: “Is Grit Really the Key to Success?” written by Daniel Engber.  Since the idea of developing grit in students seems to be popular these days, I went to the original article and will summarize it briefly here.  Then, I will re-post a piece I wrote about grit  a while ago and have edited over time. I think you will understand why I chose to repeat it.

Engber’s article is a review of Angela Duckworth’s new book, “The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” In it he also devotes a lot of attention to examining the history of the research on grit done by others and offering his own opinions.

Duckworth’s book is based on her theory of grit, captured in the book’s title, and the research she has done to identify it in specific groups of people.  She began her research by interviewing successful celebrities who worked their way up through lengthy and demanding circumstances. Later she developed a survey to identify the presence of grit in groups of people who were applying for college acceptance, demanding jobs, or admission to elite organizations.

One reason that Duckworth and her research have gained so much attention is that a movement to teach grit in today’s schools has gained a significant amount of interest and support. Duckworth also believes that grit can be taught through a variety of classroom practices, and that the resultant behaviors will make many more students successful in school.

Although it’s clear that Duckworth was “gritty” in her research, Engber finds it unconvincing.  He cites both contrary research studies and common life experiences that show other personal qualities just as powerful or more so than grit. He is also very skeptical of the predictability of Duckworth’s surveys.

Even though I haven’t read the book, I share Engber’s skepticism.  I’ve read similar views of grit and arguments for teaching it in schools and remain unconvinced.  Here are my views on grit in the essay below.

Topping the national news several months ago was a story about two dangerous criminals escaping from a high security prison. For several months they had devoted themselves to preparations: persuading a woman prison employee to get them the tools they needed and agree to drive them away when they got outside the prison walls, digging a route to the outside of the prison from their cell, and working late at night to avoid attracting notice. When their preparations were finally complete, they also went through several rehearsals before carrying out their plan. Unfortunately for them, they were captured only a few days after their escape. Their promised driver had broken her promise and left them without a plan or an opportunity to practice any new tactics to reach safety.

What interested me about this story was that men who had wasted so many years of their lives in crime rather than seeking education or legal jobs were able to plan so well, work hard, and show so much patience in carrying our their escape. They certainly showed “grit” when the goal was important to them and the stakes were high.

Another story of grit is told in one of my favorite movies, “Cool Hand Luke”, which is about a man arrested and imprisoned for a minor crime. Because he is smarter and more independent and resourceful than his fellow inmates, he is continually singled out for punishment and public humiliation.  Yet, he endures everything and continues to defy prison rules and trying to escape. Finally, he steals a prison truck and drives a long distance before hiding out in a deserted building.  Unfortunately, the prison officials manage to track him down and set fire to the building. In the end Luke chooses to take his own life rather than surrender. Yet, by losing his life he also wins: he will never go back to prison and no one can punish him ever again.

Although Luke is gone at the end of the movie, his lessons of “grit” inspire other prisoners to follow his example and stand up for themselves against prison cruelty. Although the movie shows so much harshness and sadness, its ultimate message is one of hope.

In both the real prison escape and the movie’s story, I found lessons about “grit” not understood by the experts now calling for teaching that skill to students in the classroom. Not tyrants, prison guards, nor teachers can teach grit. Human beings—and most animals– develop grit only when they are so dedicated to reaching a particular goal that they will push on through obstacles, rejections and repeated failures.

As a teacher and principal I often saw ordinary students develop grit on their own because the conditions in the classroom were right. Their teachers taught lessons that were interesting to young people and offered opportunities for self-chosen projects, collaboration with classmates, and innovation. And because the kids had already tasted success and satisfaction in previous classroom activities, they believed they could stretch themselves even further this time. Yes, the work was harder than before, but it was doable, and in their eyes the goal was worth the extra effort. They had already developed grit and could use it. And they believed in themselves.

Education should be a dynamic experience for all students. It’s not preparation for college or the workplace; but a laboratory for exploring who you are and what you want to do; for trying out your interests and talents in a safe place and for sifting out  the gold  buried in the sand of school subjects. It’s also a place to develop grit because you believe you can.




4 responses to “What is “True Grit”?

  1. Joan Wink says:

    Hi Joanne,
    Will you please send me an email at – thanks. I have a permission request for you. Thanks,


  2. Ann Berlak says:

    I appreciated your essay and your critique immensely. Just a small issue at the very end. You wrote: kids should sift out the gold buried in the sand of school subjects. I dont think I want to reify school subjects nor begin with them. Perhaps kids should pursue their vital interests without having to wade through all that sand.


  3. Don Bellairs says:

    The “fluff” that you are calling sand is often where kids discover the jewels in education that are not facts…or even part of the lesson plan. “Grit” (tenacity), like honesty, compassion and fairness, are characteristics that all humans are hardwired with–but these characteristics are not developed without role models. Beyond parents, are kids working with teachers and administrators who are modeling qualities like these, or are they seeing, as many of my students did in the largest HS in Oregon, inequity and favoritism, laziness and failure to accept personal responsibility.
    Real teaching is mostly role modeling… prep and planning, relationships with others, consensus and fairness, tenacity and perseverance, problem-solving.
    Abstract nouns. Some teachers may not know what these are.
    Facts are on our phones these days. We need to re-train educators to be good role models. Too many work in schools where they don’t have to be.


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