In the past few weeks I have been reading a lot about Grit and having an Growth Mindset. In my online class on Blended and Online Learning last week was devoted to thinking about having a growth mindset, I am currently reading Mindsets in the Classroom by Mary Cay Ricci, and in the last two weeks I have read thought provoking pieces in the New York Times by David Brooks and Alfie Kohn on the topic.
In addition to doing this reading I have gone back to running this summer with the goal of running at least 1 mile per day until school starts again on August 13. So far I have made it 23 days straight, and have had a lot of time to ponder my views on this topic. Over the the coming week I am hoping to explore these thoughts more deeply on this page. The first topic of my post will be a response to Mr. Kohn's article, which began this cycle of thought for me nearly two weeks ago.
In the May 3rd edition of the New York Times, Mr. Kohn wrote an article entitled Do Our Kids Get Off Too Easy? In this article, Mr. Kohn attacks the culture of Grit that he has seen developing within both conservative and liberal groups in America. Early in the piece, Kohn states:
But seriously, has any child who received a trinket after losing a contest walked away believing that he (or his team) won — or that achievement doesn’t matter? Giving trophies to all the kids is a well-meaning and mostly innocuous attempt to appreciate everyone’s effort.
Even so, I’m not really making a case for doing so, since it distracts us from rethinking competition itself and the belief that people can succeed only if others fail.
Rather, my intent is to probe the underlying cluster of mostly undefended beliefs about what life is like (awful), what teaches resilience (experiences with failure), what motivates people to excel (rewards) and what produces excellence (competition).
Mr. Kohn then backs up his belief that creating competitive environments does not help improve outcomes for students by stating that,
In any case, no one ever explains the mechanism by which the silence of a long drive home without a trophy is supposed to teach resilience. Nor are we told whether there’s any support for this theory of inoculation by immersion. Have social scientists shown that those who are spared, say, the rigors of dodge ball (which turns children into human targets) or class rank (which pits students against one another) will wind up unprepared for adulthood?He then makes a compelling case that what we should seek for our students and children is what he refers to as "unconditionality", or the idea that children know that they are loved not because of what they achieve, but rather for who they are. It is here that I have become confused about Mr. Kohn's views on this topic. It appears that he is embracing the idea of building within students a growth mindset, but without the student having to put forth any effort in attempting to achieve their goals.
Not that I can find. In fact, studies of those who attended the sort of nontraditional schools that afford an unusual amount of autonomy and nurturing suggest that the great majority seemed capable of navigating the transition to traditional colleges and workplaces.
I believe part of this view comes from Mr. Kohn's interpretation of the intentions of those advocating for students to develop Grit. Mr. Kohn, as outlined in his article, believes that those advocating for students to develop Grit have a very Hobbesian view of the world. He states:
Rather, my intent is to probe the underlying cluster of mostly undefended beliefs about what life is like (awful), what teaches resilience (experiences with failure), what motivates people to excel (rewards) and what produces excellence (competition).Most of all, it’s assumed that the best way to get children ready for the miserable “real world” that awaits them is to make sure they have plenty of miserable experiences while they’re young. Conversely, if they’re spared any unhappiness, they’ll be ill-prepared.I do not believe that those who advocate for the development of Grit believe that the world is a very dark place, but I do believe that they realize that students need to experience work hard to develop their skills and improve. This hard work, often comes with struggle and failure, and how we respond to these setbacks ultimately determine if we succeed or not. I can have an immeasurable amount of self confidence born from knowing that my parents love and support me, that I have the skills to succeed, but what happens the first time that I face hardship, or fall short. Without having a strong belief in my abilities, born from succeeding when the milestone was not easy, will I be able to push through the self doubt that comes with failure, or will I crumble and fail to meet that challenge before me.
Much like Michael Jordan, I do not believe that we are born with natural abilities that will carry us to our goals because we have them, but rather we need to refine these abilities through hard work and perseverance.
While I struggle with participation trophies, and realize that even though the players got an award they still know they lost (much like when we have young athletes play the game but do not keep score so that the idea of competition is eliminated), I also understand Mr. Kohn's desire to lessen the influence of competition within our schools. When we pick winners and losers by having students compete within the classroom we move into the realm of a fixed rather than growth mindset. This does not mean that students should not face struggle and have to work hard to achieve the learning put before them.
When I am in the midst of my goal of running at least 1 mile daily, and it is late at night and I don't want to run because it has been a long day, will my confidence in my ability to run a mile get me off the couch and out into the heat and the darkness of a nighttime run? Or will the Grit that I have developed that makes me want to succeed push me out the door, into the heat and darkness, not only to get in the minimum mile, but to go further than I thought I could when I started the run? If we eliminate anything, it should not be the struggle, but rather that we evaluate each student based not on an arbitrary set of outcomes set for all, but rather by looking at where they began their studies, and where they finish. Much like I runners who run in old age not against the pack, but against their own times and for their own goals.