Grit and grades – what are schools actually for?

One of my treasured childhood memories is staying with my grandfather at his house in Colchester, in England. I can still recall the pipe he used to smoke and the books he used to read; most special of all, though, was the fact that I was there by myself, and I could do things that I wasn’t normally allowed to do at home – the prerogative of grandparents, of course. This is why the night-time chocolate biscuit tasted especially delicious, and why the films that I watched with him have stayed with me.

I say ‘stayed with me’ – but, as memories have a tendency to do, these films (for the most part Westerns) have all coalesced into one single film, which I seem to recall quite vividly – ‘True Grit’, starring the great John Wayne. The film won an Oscar for John Wayne – his only Oscar, in fact – and I guess on reflection that the screen shots of him as US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, posing brooding on a horse, as he set off to confound our expectations of his character, had something to do with this. Not, of course, that I had any clue at the age of 7 or 8 what an Oscar was – but there was obviously something powerful in the film to make it stick in my memory, and some of that undoubtedly came down to the ‘true grit’ which all the main characters exhibited in one way or another, facing up to adversity and pursuing justice in spite of all the dangers and difficulties that stood in their way.

‘Grit’ is a concept used increasingly frequently in education, as we challenge ourselves to redefine what schools are actually for. Grit has (perhaps not surprisingly) been identified as a significant factor in achieving long term goals and life outcomes, and attention is turning to how schools can best encourage the development of grit in young people. As a new study of 4,500 16 year-olds in the UK shows, however, we should beware trying to make academic success – ie better exam grades – one of the desired outcomes to which grit contributes.

Writing in the American Psychological Association Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the authors of this study – entitled ‘True Grit and Genetics: Predicting Academic Achievement From Personality’ – conclude that grit adds little to school grades. In an article in The Conversation reflecting on their study, they write: “It’s clear from our study that more research must be done before concluding that a certain type of teaching or classroom intervention are beneficial for academic achievement or other life outcomes.”

This seems eminently sensible – wise educators in any case rarely rush to conclusions about ‘what works’ in the classroom: children, after all, are complex beings with differing backgrounds and previous experiences, which means that they respond to different approaches and different relationships with their teachers. If this study shows – as the authors conclude – that “grit is not a good way of predicting whether a child will get good grades”, then this is interesting for educators to know, but it does not mean that grit is not a good thing, especially as the authors of the study refer specifically to the “long-term benefits for children” which increasing grit or perseverance could have.

What is disheartening in an otherwise well-balanced and informative piece is the statement in their article in The Conversation that “These results should warrant concern given education policy directives in the US and in the UK, which emphasise the importance of grit and character education.” This statement is underpinned by an enormous and – so many, many educators would argue – erroneous assumption that schooling is all about the grades. Without rehearsing the argument at length, quite simply – it can’t be the case. If success at school is predicated on achieving an A grade in every examination, then thousands of children are destined to fail, and as educators we cannot accept this. School is such a large part of a child’s life, and so formative in it, that it is inconceivable to educators that its sole purpose is to develop a sense of inadequacy. On the contrary – we believe that school has the power to help young people become amazing adults, and phenomenal contributors in the world.

School is about preparing young people for success in life – all sorts of different types of success. We know that academic success is not the only type of success in life. This is the kind of knowing that comes from years of working with children, preparing them for the future, helping them discover who they are and enabling them to learn who they might be. Research contributes hugely to this understanding and knowledge, and is to be welcomed. It must in turn be analysed carefully, and not allowed to turn into knee-jerk reactions. The current focus on greater character education in schools is a move in the right direction and should not be put off course.

Now we just need to work on the perception that academic grades are all that matter.



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