When we think of the word “grit”, we often equate it with the quality of tenacity.  But in her new book on the subject, Angela Duckworth says that another quality, passion, is necessary for a person to have grit.  Without passion, she says, there is no sustained motivation to continue working through problems.  So what does this mean for the classroom?


When you spend time in a high school, you will see the exuberance and passion of students in any number of extracurricular activities.  They will spend enormous energy and time practicing on a sports team, building a set for a theater production, or preparing for a debate club.  It’s in the academic classroom where that passion is often hard to find.  

There are a number of reasons for this “passion gap” in the lives of teenagers.  In many extracurricular activities, students experience both a sense of belonging and a common purpose that is often missing in academic classrooms.  This is why the cultivation of the classroom culture that fosters those qualities is so critical.  (For more on this topic, see “Creating the Classroom Culture”.)

Duckworth offers another explanation for this passion gap.  To discover a passion in life, she says, most people go through several distinct stages.  The first is to play with new ideas, new skills, without expectations of success, and especially without external motivators, like grades.  We seem to need to flounder around before we see what we really care about.  Now, ask yourself “How often do students in academic courses have the ability to play?  How often are they involved in unprescribed activities, or doing work that won’t directly affect their grade?”

The sad truth is that it is all too rare an event.  To foster student passion for learning, we need to find ways to let them explore and play with new ideas.  That may take the form of discovery-based activities — say labs in science classes that are open-ended explorations of a new idea.  But it may also mean giving students the opportunity to do independent work of their choosing, work that may even be outside the immediate scope of the material being studied.  Letting students occasionally roam, (“following the child” in Montessori language), may take some time away from the prescribed curriculum, but it can be a worthwhile investment in their finding out what they truly care about in life.


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